The glamour chase: Haute to Death free-for-all pop art party turns three

As Saturday night becomes Sunday morning inside the Temple Bar in Detroit's Cass Corridor, the party all around us is raging.

A human wave pushes past a petite older woman at the door; she gives up on her task of buzzing people in. Steam and sweat fill the air and bodies crush together as people try to squeeze onto the dance floor. Some give up and dance wherever they can find room -- back by the pool table or next to the bar.

We're at Haute to Death, Detroit's preferred dance party for those in the know, and tonight is its three year anniversary. 

Up in the DJ booth, semi-obscured by a glittery beaded curtain like a couple of 21st century Wizards of Oz, DJs Ash Nowak and Jon Dones work their magic, the dancers responding instinctively to the beat. New Order's "Blue Monday" segues into "No More Words" by Berlin as the crowd rolls its way from one ecstatic moment to the next.  

Nowak and Dones created H2D in 2007 with the desire to start up a fun dance night to fill the void created when Dorkwave, a hugely popular monthly party at Corktown Tavern, ended its run that same year. After scoping out several bars -- Donovan's in Southwest, the Elbow Lounge on Mack, and even the Hotel Yorba (given international recognition via its association with White Stripes lore), the two returned to the bar they had originally had in mind all along, the affectionately pan-sexual, anything goes Temple Bar.

Nowak and Dones were attracted to the venue because of its layout -- a DJ booth with a window overlooks the dance floor, and unlike many spots, the bar already had a sound system in place. Owner George Boukas' laissez-faire attitude didn't hurt, either; he lets the duo have free reign to do their thing, deferring to them on such issues as whether to charge at the door (the cover charge was dropped after the first few months and the event has been free ever since).

When Nowak and Dones launched H2D, each at the tender age of 22, being DJs was almost an afterthought. Their attitude is decidedly anti-DJ in many regards: they care little about celebrity, they don't use DJ names, they don't geek out over obscure tracks, and they're not purists about spinning vinyl over MP3s. 

Their aim is nothing more ambitious than to play music that they personally like; good dance songs that move the crowd. Dones describes a pivotal moment that influenced his DJ mentality: "I was at an Untitled party at the Shelter and Mike Servito (formerly of Dorkwave) was spinning house music. It was boring; there was no energy, no one was dancing. He put on a song by the Cars and everyone lost their shit. From there on out it was euphoria for the rest of the night." 

Nowak gets off on people dancing to songs that wouldn't typically be considered dance music. "It feels so good, like you wrote the song," she says, recalling one memorable night when she played "Search and Destroy" by the Stooges. The ensuing chaos prompted the bar to switch from glass to plastic cups for future H2D parties. Smart move.

Although Dones and Nowak are now both 25 years old, H2D is not just for the kids. There is a large age range among attendees, with the average hovering around 30. Although H2D is certainly not a "retro night," there is definitely a nostalgia factor for this age group when Madonna or the Cure or Depeche Mode come over the speakers and cause people to bum rush the dance floor. Although Nowak sneaks in the occasional Lady Gaga song, she says most of the playlist is roughly from 1977 to 1994. The pair steers clear of being pigeonholed by genres, stating that anything danceable is fair game, from frothy tunes by Whitney Houston or Yaz to darker tracks by Bauhaus or Black Flag. The name they chose for their party reflects this dichotomy and range. Dones says that haute refers to the fashion and fun side of life, while death is the "most inescapable thing. It's about frivolity vs. gravity."

Much like its predecessor Dorkwave, Haute to Death boasts a motley assortment of regulars -- club kids, cross-dressers, garage rockers, art students and young professionals pack the bar along with neighborhood denizens. At the three-year anniversary party, the partygoers run the gamut from Miss Michigan 2011 Channing Pierce and musician Meg White of White Stripes to 60-year-old Corridor resident and Army veteran Greg Cherry. As he sips his drink, he surveys the dance floor and says he doesn't mind sharing his neighborhood hangout with the younger set one bit. 

Dones says he couldn't be happier about the diversity of the crowd. Nowak adds they're not courting any one group in particular; rather, it's more about a certain attitude and outlook on life. "I'm especially interested in people who appreciate the value of their night out," she says. "Creative types who work hard and play hard."

And play hard they do. "The work week slowly drains the life out of me. Haute to Death gives life back," says retail merchandising manager and musician Nathaniel Burgundy IV. Ferndale-based Jewelry designer Regina Pruss, a regular at H2D, says "I come here to get free." This spirit seems to be the common thread running through the crowd, as many let loose in a way that they can't do anywhere else. "It doesn't matter who you are, what age you are, everybody just comes here to dance," says Amanda Porter of Rochester, catching her breath between songs.

So now that they have three years under their belts, what does the future hold for H2D?

Nowak and Dones say that they would like to expand the scene beyond the dance party. They envision a collective that would include stylists, designers and other creatives. Occasional themes such as "Boss and Secretary Edition," "Poolside Edition," and "H2D Prom" spur regulars to participate in the creativity as well by having fun with fashion. 

The event has always emphasized a strong visual element. Dones creates a unique flier every month that riffs on an album cover or single from his collection, and puts his photography skills to work documenting the feel and style of each event.  

Haute to Death happens the third Saturday of every month at the Temple Bar, 2906 Cass Avenue. If you can't wait that long to get your dance on, Ash and Jon are spinning at Happy Mondays at Atlas Bar (2363 Yemans, Hamtramck) as part of a rotating DJ lineup that also includes members of Macho City and Disco/Secret.

Freelancer Noëlle Lothamer specializes in stories about food, fun and knowing which way the disco ball turns.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

All photos taken during Haute To Death's three year anniversary at the Temple Bar in Detroit.
Signup for Email Alerts