limbo dancers

(There will eventually be plain accounts of sex between men, so the later parts of this posting will not be at all suitable for kids or the sexually modest.)

In the process of clearing out hundreds of prospective postings, material that, with great regret, I will never be able to get to, I came across an NYT obituary from 12/11/17, “Roy Reed, Times Reporter Who Covered the Civil Rights Era, Dies at 87” by John Schwartz, with this illustration:

(#1) Reed, looking impossibly young, on the cover of his memoir, published in 2012 by the University of Arkansas Press, recounting his 13 years with The New York Times

This posting will end up being about the limbo dancers of Reed’s title, but first some notes on Reed’s career, from the NYT obit:

On June 6, 1966, James Meredith tried to make history for the second time. Having integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, he announced a plan to walk from Memphis deep into his neighboring home state. Before getting very far, however, he was shot in the back by a white man.

More than 1,000 miles away in New York City, the national editor of The New York Times, Claude Sitton, was scanning the photos being transmitted by news agencies and the images on his television while looking for his reporter who was covering Mr. Meredith.

“Where’s Roy Reed? he demanded.

To Mr. Reed’s chagrin, he had been several hundred yards down the road in a grocery store with other reporters, having a cold Coca-Cola. He scrambled to the scene, however, and filed the day’s story, then further redeemed himself by scoring the first interview with Mr. Meredith in his hospital room.

Mr. Reed, a self-professed “hick-talking Arkansawyer” who worked for The Times from 1965 until 1978, spending much of that time crisscrossing the American South, died on Sunday night at a hospital in Fayetteville, Ark., said his son, John. He was 87. He had been unconscious since having a severe stroke at his home in Hogeye, near Fayetteville, on Saturday morning.

… In “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote that Mr. Reed “could write magically, choosing words that caught your eye.” Mr. Sitton hired him, they wrote, because he “knew Reed to be unfailingly accurate, deeply reflective, uncommonly polite, and, like the Times reporters who had preceded him in the South, he spoke Southern.”

[Reed’s account of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma AL is especialy notable. From Wikipedia about the bridge: “The Edmund Pettus Bridge carries U.S. Route 80 Business (US 80 Bus.) across the Alabama River in Selma, Alabama. Built in 1940, it is named after Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. … The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when armed police attacked Civil Rights Movement demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the state capital Montgomery. The marchers crossed the bridge again on March 21 and successfully walked to the Capitol building.” Reed vividly described the naked hatred on the faces of the men, women, and, yes, children who lined the route of the march.]

Mr. Reed, in a memoir, “Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with The New York Times,” wrote that “Speaking Southern was not just a matter of drawl or twang; it meant a different way of framing thoughts.” It meant that he understood the territory, even as he was appalled by the racism and violence that undergirded the suppression of voting rights.

… His memoir “Beware of Limbo Dancers” was published in 2012. The title, he wrote, came from a message neatly written on the inside of a door in a bathroom stall in the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street.

“This was a style of wit that I had never before encountered,” he wrote. “I suddenly knew that I was a stranger in town — not unwelcome, just a stranger.’’

The mensroom graffito BEWARE LIMBO DANCERS has been reported in collections of such graffiti — for instance, Peter Higginbotham’s collection. The metaphorical limbo dancer seems to occur only in such contexts, as a playful reference to the insertive partner in one of the practices of anonymous t-room mansex, what I’ve called subpartition sex and others have referred to understall play. What Reed stumbled on in that mensroom in the old NYT building was an allusion to a whole social world that he seems to have had no knowledge of: the subterranean world of sex between men in public places. Very much not specifically a New York City thing, but widespread in cities, college towns, truck stops, and highway rest stops.

The metaphor of a limbo dancer is an apt one for the role. From Wikipedia:

(#2)

Limbo is a traditional popular dance contest that is known to have originated on the island of Trinidad.

The dance originated as an event that took place at wakes in Trinidad and Tobago, and was popularized by dance pioneer Julia Edwards (known as the First Lady of Limbo) and her company which appeared in several films, in particular Fire Down Below(1957), and toured widely in the Caribbean, Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Africa in the 1960s and later. The film Julia and Joyce(2010) by Trinidadian/American dance researcher/choreographer Sonja Dumas features the evolution of the Limbo and the contribution of Julia Edwards to the explosion of its popularity.

A horizontal bar, known as the limbo bar, is placed atop two vertical bars. All contestants must attempt to go under the bar with their backs facing toward the floor. Whoever knocks the bar off or falls is eliminated from the contest. When passing under the bar, players must bend backwards. No part of their bodies is allowed to touch the bar and no part other than their feet and hands may touch the ground. After everyone has completed their turns, the bar is lowered slightly and the contest continues. The contest ends when only one person can successfully “limbo” under the bar without penalty.

Music for the event: Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” of 1962, which you can listen to here.

(#3)

The crucial move in limbo dancing is getting the lower body under the bar, thrusting it forward. That’s the connection to t-room mansex, where one man (the insertive partner) offers his genitals to another (the receptive partner) by getting them under the partition between two mensroom stalls and thrusting them forward. In the lingo of t-room mansex, this is called sticking it under.

The receptive partner gets down on his knees and sucks cock, possibly balls as well, and maybe plays with his partner’s asshole. But the encounter —  subpartition sex / understall play — is primarily a blow job. You can see a guy sticking it under my 2/5/11 AZBlogX posting “T-room action” (obviously I can’t show it on this  blog).

The encounter is negotiated beforehand by exchanges of gestures, possibly also with whispers or written notes (on toilet paper). These exchanges establish the sexual roles in the encounter: who sucks who. Mutual encounters — I’ll do you, and then you do me — do occur, but a common pattern is for one man to suck two or three cocks in succession, becoming more and more aroused, until he switches roles and shoots his load in another cocksucker’s mouth.

The ritual allows for entirely anonymous sex; the men can conceal their identities completely. Or if they wish, once roles have been established, they can move on to face-to-face interaction, in one of their stalls or in another location. If it suits them, they can exchange kisses and other gestures of affection (though a fair number of t-room queens will engage in almost any form of mansex but not affection, because they see themselves as straight guys who like sex play with other guys — and therefore don’t kiss, because that would be faggy. The construction of masculinities is a complex matter.).

Once engaged face to face with sexual roles establshed, the men can shift from sucking to fucking, at either man’s instigation.

The basic ritual allows not only for complete anonymity but also for complete emotional opacity: by remaining silent on everything except sexual roles, the men can engage in sex that satisfies them without knowing the motivations, beliefs, or attitudes of their partners — matters that might appall or repel them if they were made explicit.

In any case, though the limbo dancer metaphor is transparent, the terminology seems not to have been adopted as sexual slang. Limbo dancer / dancing / dance aren’t in any slang dictionary I’ve looked at, and searches on limbo dancer plus gay pull up only references to (literal) limbo dancers who are gay.

Meanwhile, I suspect that Roy Reed had no idea that subpartition sex was an actual thing, so that for him limbo dancer was just a colorful big-city joke.

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