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Retro active In Western New York, the sounds and styles of disco are a draw year-round

If you're one of the 7,000 lucky revelers who got to kick up your platform heels at last week's World's Largest Disco, the far-out feeling probably hasn't faded yet.

But even if you didn't do the hustle at the convention center, there's no need to pack up your hot pants for 12 months. Over the years, Buffalo has grown a nice little disco scene, ranging from bands specializing in the danceable music to a DJ who spun records in New York City clubs during the golden age of disco.

"Even if you go right outside of Buffalo, to Rochester or Syracuse, they don't have anything like this," said Kara Hyman of East Aurora, who loves disco -- although, at 26, she is too young to remember its golden age.

John Ceglia, 47, of East Amherst, not only remembers those times, he was a club DJ in Buffalo -- spinning records at the first World's Largest Disco in 1979 -- and then in New York City when people were doing the Hustle to disco's drum-heavy beats.

And today he's seeing people like Hyman moving to the old rhythms that got their parents out on the dance floor in the mid- to late-1970s.

Ceglia has already spun records at several events -- a benefit for the Variety Club last February, a Labor Day Mulligan's Nightclub reunion and a Studio 54 Halloween party at Stillwater. At the Variety Club event, "So many people came out of the woodwork," he said. "And they said it would be so nice if we could get together and go out dancing once in a while and hear our music -- we feel displaced, like there's nowhere for us to go."

But it wasn't just the old-timers looking for a shot of nostalgia, Ceglia said. People in their late 20s and early 30s "came and had a ball."

"The younger crowd really enjoys hearing some of that old music," he said. "It's amazing to see how familiar they are with it. If you look at dance music today, it's amazing how much is borrowed from disco, and I like to include soul and funk, because they influenced it.

"Dance music never died, it just kept on going. If you go to a wedding, 99 percent of the time, when the DJ does his disco set, that's when the crowd is on the floor the most."

>Why Buffalo?

Granted, the music is eminently danceable. But when "disco" is a dirty word in many parts of the country, why has it hung on in Buffalo?

"Buffalo is a town that likes to do things that are different from any other town," said Dave Pietrowski, founder and chairman of the World's Largest Disco, which benefits Camp Good Days and Special Times. "We celebrate Dyngus Day. We idolize the chicken wing with the Chicken Wing festival, the MASH Bash. These are just cool things that happen in Buffalo, and it's different from every other auction and walk -- every city has 5,000 of those, we have one of these.

"And we like to do things on a big scale in Buffalo."

His opinion is echoed by Amy Jacobs, 32, of Buffalo, who not only attends the World's Largest Disco with her friends, but has a pre-disco party with her boyfriend "so we get the night going early."

"I think if you plan a large party in Buffalo, people will come," said Jacobs.

There's no question that the World's Largest Disco is wildly popular. The event started in 1979 as the second event ever at the brand-new Buffalo Convention Center with headliners Gloria Gaynor and the Trammps ("Disco Inferno"). With the blessings of the original organizers, Pietrowski revived the disco in 1994, the 15th anniversary of the first one, and it's been going strong ever since.

Some people break out their boogie shoes only on that night. Amy Jacobs herself doesn't go to disco shows at other times of the year -- "I tend to get my fix of disco on this weekend," she said.

But others seek out and enjoy the disco tunes that can be heard almost every weekend in this area.

>Detecting an interest

Disco Duck, one of several disco-themed bands here, does 70 or so gigs a year, ranging from the M&T Plaza series to small corner bars and backyard parties to corporate events and weddings, says Dave Imiola of West Seneca, drummer and male lead vocalist of the band.

At 39, Imiola is old enough to remember disco tunes, not in the nightclubs, but as accompaniment to roller-skating sessions in the Regal Roller Rink. About 10 years ago, he saw a Cleveland group called Disco Inferno.

"I thought, 'Wow, these guys are great!' " he said. "Then I found out how much money they were making, and all the people who were dancing, the place was packed, and I thought, 'I'm doing something wrong here,' because I was in a rock band at the time."

He and bass player Eric Gustavel started Disco Duck despite not being able to get a guitar player.

"I have a lot of friends in the business, but I could not find a guitar player," Imiola said. "As soon as we said 'disco,' people shied away. As soon as they heard the band, people were giving us their phone numbers, saying, 'As soon as your guitar player leaves, give me a call.' "

Today the group goes onstage wearing "the Afro wigs, the polyester clothes -- it's a stage show," said Imiola. "We have a bubble machine, a huge disco ball, all the disco lights."

What appeals to him about disco music? "Being a drummer, I really get into that constant beat," said Imiola, adding, "Disco music wasn't a real serious thing, the musicians didn't take themselves too seriously, it's just about having a good time. Even people who aren't crazy about disco, as soon as disco comes on, they hit the dance floor."

Every autumn, Imiola says he begins to see some costumes in the crowds at their gigs. "Right around this time of year, people start coming to our shows with the Afro wigs on," he said. "You can tell they are getting their outfits ready."

A relatively new but thriving addition to the disco scene is the Studio 54 Dance Band, which formed about three years ago and plays about 75 times a year at casinos, bars and other events, according to Dave Mendola, the band's bass player.

Mendola estimates that 50 percent of the band's playlist is disco, with the rest R&B, funk and other tunes of that era.

"It's fun, and everybody knows it, and the girls love to dance to it," said Mendola, 45, of the Town of Tonawanda. With singers Denzell Ward and Ashley Alaimo, Joe DiPasquale on guitar and "Don A." on drums, the sound is augmented with "sequenced backing tracks," which make the sound fuller.

"You hearing what's more like a 10-piece band," Mendola said, "so we're able to cover the Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine Band, which had a big horn section."

The Studio 54 Dance Band occasionally wears vintage-style disco threads "when it's called for," said Mendola.

>Action all year

Jen Wierzbicki, 28, of Cheektowaga, was born in 1979, when disco was big "but unfortunately was too young to appreciate it," she said. She puts a lot of thought into her attire for the World's Largest Disco -- "It's a costume party, and nobody is pretentious," she said. But her interest in disco doesn't stop when the last of the turkey is gobbled up.

"I try to catch a couple of disco shows," Wierzbicki said. "Disco Duck, or if there's a retro night, I try to hit those."

What about Lance Diamond, who generally includes a helping of disco in his danceable music mix? "Lance, Lance, Romance!" said Wierzbicki. "I love him, he's such a crowd-pleaser."

Joe Goungo, 35, of Buffalo, said he's "too young to have ever been to a true disco, but I remember listening to the music growing up, so there's a little bit of nostalgia there for me.

"I'll go see Lance Diamond every now and then," said Goungo. "I don't know whether I'd consider Lance disco, probably more lounge than disco, but bands like Disco Duck or Disco Inferno, I'll stop in and see those guys. Everyone likes to think back on some good times from their youth, and disco is just a fun place."

Kara Hyman agrees. A dancer since age 3, she's learned the Hustle so she can hit the dance floor with flair.

"I love that the girl can do a lot of twirling -- it's very flashy for the girl, which I love," Hyman said. "Especially if you've got a dress and you can spin, it's fast, it's very energetic, it's just a lot of fun. It's very carefree, and I love that. It's all about having a good time."

It's that positive attitude toward the danceable genre that has Ceglia planning future disco events. He's dubbed the events Retro-at-Large and plans a holiday disco dance at Stillwater Dec. 29.

"I'm going to try to do disco events four to six times a year -- something different every couple of months," he said. "I'd love to do something outdoors, by the water in the summertime. We're looking at all kinds of ideas to keep the idea fresh and interesting."

For now, Buffalo is one of the few places where disco is alive. But Ceglia could easily see it making a comeback in other cities because, he said, "the same things that make people dance here make people dance anywhere."


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