Taking Back the Night(club): Consent Culture Takes Off at Ithaca’s POP’d at The Cherry by Danny Palmer

I’ve never really been one for nightclubs or lounges. Dark rooms that smell of sweat and are impossible to navigate without being pressed body to body with strangers had always put me off. So I was admittedly a little skeptical when my friends started talking up an event out in Ithaca called POP’d at The Cherry. The buzz was everywhere though, insistent that the event was a can’t miss opportunity. I bought a ticket and figured at worst, I’d hang in the corner and chat with friends on and off. It was worth a try.

My skepticism shifted quickly to cautious optimism and curiosity though when the event page posted a flyer in the lead up to the night of. In chunky letters, bold and red, an oath of sorts was spelled out. “In this space we tolerate nothing less than enthusiastic consent.” in all caps, followed by “If we see something, we say something. We show up. We speak out. We take care of each other. In this space, we create a safe and welcome space for all.” This was something entirely different than any nightlife space I’d ever been in. It was a sharp contrast to a once regular haunt of mine where when I expressed safety concerns to staff and friends, I was told that if I didn’t like it there I could go somewhere else and it became apparent that the issues at hand were an open secret. I wasn’t sure how exactly this event was going to accomplish all that it promised when a casual disregard of harassment and safety has become such a given at bars, a shrug and moving away the most you’re likely to see, but I was intrigued to find out.

Organizer and emcee/ringleader Mickie Quinn set out to create something different in Ithaca with the event. After visiting New York City’s House of Yes, she was inspired to bring the experience home with her and to offer something to the community there that had been missing. The pop up party had already been pitched to the The Cherry Art Space, an out of the way and tucked into a corner building that regularly hosts theater and performance events.

In planning for the event, Quinn sought to bring the concept of a truly safer space home. “I went to the House of YES and experienced everything that we wanted to build in Ithaca- a totally inclusive, sex-positive, consent-oriented, safe dance party that was an absolute blast. It was there that I was inspired to create our mission statement by a sign they have hanging up in their patio area that says, ‘All Colors, All Ages, All Sexes, All Beliefs, All Religions, All Types, All People, SAFE HERE’. I saw what was possible in cultivating a culture around this statement. I was on the receiving end of the magic that type of environment creates. Really, truly, magical. Everyone was genuine, free, and open to connect because it was safe.”

Indeed, upon walking in the door to POP’d, posters and signs were prominent on the walls, including a large poster near the bar and smaller signs peppered throughout, including one on the wall of the restroom that read “Stay Safe. Find Help. Our Staff and Performers are here to help you if anyone is making you feel unsafe.” The cheery, bold red lettering set the tone throughout the space, a firm and unyielding statement that sexy and fun was the aim, and that aggressive or unwelcome would not be permitted here. On creating the signs, Quinn explains, “For POP’d, I created the signs about consent and the signs about staying safe and who to go to for help because I wanted every person at our party to know that they are not alone and that they are part of a community of people who care. We’re all totally sexy, fun, and fabulous, AND we care.”

The Cherry Art Space, although typically home to a theater set, was made over as a nightclub for the evening. More than happy to play host, Artistic Director of the Cherry Arts, Sam Buggeln, felt the connection of the space and event was a natural fit. “On a personal level, I’ve always loved dancing and nightlife the same as I’ve loved art and performance-making. Why shouldn’t they share the same spaces? So I was absolutely psyched when Mickie and Jonny came up with the idea of Pop’d at the Cherry. It seems like people who want to dress up and express themselves through dancing should be able to do that in a space that’s devoted to art and expression, instead of a space that’s based on selling drinks. POP’d is one of the most awesome things we do at the Cherry, and I can’t wait to do more.” The shift away from loudly advertised drink specials and a push for overindulgence often blatant in bars was certainly a contributing factor to the atmosphere as well through the event. The modest bar was busy all night, but there was no trouble or any safety concern related to overintoxication.

While the decor was relatively modest and constructed more for function and on the fly given the nature of the event, the atmosphere buzzed with excitement and energy all night. At one point, Quinn counted 75 people waiting outside in the icy parking lot waiting for entry because the venue was at capacity and had shifted to a 1 out 1 in admission. Performers for the night included an eclectic and diverse mix. Hip Hop dancer Deja Ciaschi and Hoop artist Octavia Solá got the party started with high energy performances early in the night, followed later by Ithaca’s Two Tequilas and a Gin, a drag collective headed by queens Athena Merlot, Dizzy DeScretion, and Coraline Chardonnay and frequently featuring fellow queen Veruka Dagger for performances, who had her own performance at the event as well. Merlot performed in a full beard for the event, and Chardonnay performed, as she often does, bald. The choice in performers made it clear that this space was meant to include and elevate everyone, and especially those who were outside of typical norms in different ways, be they people of color or folks outside of gender or appearance norms.

In between the performances, the room buzzed with laughter, excited hollers as patrons took to the dance platforms and pole that had been constructed for the space, and the music provided by local DJs The Dutchess of Ithaca group Spirit Posse and DJ Cappell. Statuesque Erin the Axe of Ithaca burlesque troupe Whiskey Tango Sideshow took the stage to headline the evening, stripping down to glittering eye shaped pasties as a mix of Eye of the Tiger played and the crowd cheered and danced. As the evening wound down, a handful of patrons took the stage, dancing and showing off moves to whoops and yells from a crowd not quite yet ready to leave.

“The positive feedback we’ve received about Pop’d has been overwhelmingly heart-warming. To see an event not only come to life, but to embody every goal that we had strived for (and more!) is incredible.” Akers said, pleased with the implementation of the goals that had been set out for the night. “We aimed to set the stage with the expectation of enthusiastic consent, and based on feedback, the message came through loud and clear and was so well received by our guests. To be able to provide a space where folks feel safe and comfortable no matter what they are wearing, what they are consuming, or how they’re dancing is something we take much pride in.”

For once, survivors like myself weren’t an afterthought or inconvenience. Safety concerns weren’t dismissed as overdramatic or bothersome or uptight as is often the case in alcohol soaked, sex charged bars and clubs. While the night had its share of casual nudity and clubwear, absent was the pressure or expectation or looming wariness of whether there would be trouble for it. The crowd was clad in anything from shirts and jeans to collars and fishnet, and everyone milled and wove about at ease. Those who were looking for a little grinding or playful interaction had no trouble finding it, but not once did I see someone carefully trying to extract themselves from unwanted attentions. The event was 18+ but the strange dynamic of older patrons targeting much younger ones was absent as well. For a night that on the surface could have had many of the issues any other club does, the execution was all in the details and the commitment of Quinn and others to practice what they preach, and to set an example.

Follow The Cherry Art Space and POP’d at the Cherry on Facebook for news and details on upcoming events.

Photo Cred: Ed Dittenhoefe

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