Once upon a time, not so very long ago, gay nightlife was synonymous with dance. Warehouse-like spaces outfitted with monster sound systems and elaborate lighting-swelled to capacity with sweaty, grinding bodies-furnished, for a space in time, a snapshot of a typical night out for a great majority of the gay community.

But the ascent of lounge culture has reshaped the landscape of gay social life, turning, for most gay nightlife denizens, an evening spent on the dance floor into an increasingly rare occurrence. While, to be sure, folks are still dancing more and more are opting to cocktail and converse in chic little salons all over America.

In tandem with this trend, many of the great dance outposts that once defined a generation have, one by one, dimmed their lights for the very last time. This past March, the Roxy, one of New York’s premier gay clubs, which played host to elbow-to-elbow crowds and spontaneous live performances by megastar divas such as Madonna, Cher and Beyoncé, permanently closed its doors to make way for developers-perhaps one of the most present reminders of just how much gay nightlife has changed in recent years.

Although “big-room” clubland is no longer grinding along with the same enthusiasm it once did, there are still a few legendary performers in the market that keep the spirit and luster of the scene alive. One such performer is the stalwart Splash Bar New York (SBNY) in Chelsea, the last of Manhattan’s old guard gay nightspots, whose survival has been in large part the result of its chameleon-like ability to evolve with the times.

Originally a smallish surf-themed bar, SBNY is today, more than a decade and a half later, a 10,000-square-foot, two-level, high-wattage megaclub known for its always handsome and plentiful crowd, ducky bartenders, superstar DJ lineup, jam-packed dance floor and downtown hipster d�cor. And although SBNY may be the longest running and most valuable player in the game, it continues to be heralded by everyone from the New York Times to New York Magazine as the Big Apple’s “best gay bar,” a particularly laudable accomplishment given the fickle nature of the NYC club scene.

In New York, hotspots come and go as frequently as fashion trends. Throughout the years, gay icons and high-priestesses of pop, including Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Cyndi Lauper and Patti Labelle, have continued to pop by this NYC institution-to dance, to entertain and to mingle with their faithful flocks. Embracing lounge lizard culture while remaining true to its origins, the ground floor of SBNY is a well-turned-out intimate space ideally suited for a casually chic happy hour libation or a low-key chat with an existing or soon-to-be friend.

The club’s upper level finds a 2,000-square-foot dance floor and fully-equipped stage decked out with an operational shower, the perfect backdrop for high-energy, rump-shaking weekly events such as Lady Bunny’s Sunday night Disco Tea, college friendly Campus Thursdays and Aaron Tanner’s wickedly sexy Saturday Men’s Night, complete with a weekly Stud Search competition. No matter the night, SBNY grooves along in the face of stiff competition, continually reinventing itself and offering its loyal patrons a reason to return to wag their sexy backs another day and the yet-to-be-initiated a reason to give the dance floor an inaugural twirl.

“Splash caters to every type of gay male,” says Splash rep Len Evans. “Every night’s a different type of theme, and they keep changing. A lot of other places went under because going there was like stepping into a time capsule. They never changed, so people got bored with the same thing.”

SBNY is under new management. Homegrown owners Greg Jones and Ray Stewart cut their teeth as bartenders at the legendary gay watering hole and worked their way up the ladder to become the nightlife impresarios who will lead the club into its next decade on the Chelsea scene. Popular as ever, SBNY shows no signs of fading quietly into the night or of allowing the flame of New York’s celebrated dance legacy to burn out.

“We aim to please our loyal patrons. Our plan is to redesign our space later this year to give that new and exciting feel,” says SBNY co-owner Jones.

SBNY’s multimillion-dollar expansion later this year will again transform and redefine the iconic nightspot for a new generation with contemporary flourishes. Those flourishes are set to include the installation of a VIP lounge smack dab in the middle of the dance floor, the addition of more showers to accommodate even more dripping-wet go-go boys and maybe even the addition a third level. All should help to ensure that the only “last dance” experienced this millennium at SBNY will be the one sung about by Donna Summer.

Other hotspots around the country are also keeping the mega-dance club tradition alive. Take for instance Houston’s celebrated South Beach club, whose vibe, according to one Houston nightlife fixture, is still so hot they have to cool down the dance floor with liquid ice! Now that’s hot!

And then there’s JR’s in Dallas, whose dance floor remains as essential to Texas gays as barbecue sauce is to brisket. These and other venerable venues from coast to coast provide a flickering reminder of the smoldering dance hall days of a twirling gay past and, perhaps, even more importantly, stoke the embers of our hip-shaking future.

After all, you know what they say: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Bob Dylan famously sang: For the loser now will be the later to win, For the times they are a changin’.

Although the times they may be “a changin’,” legendary temples of dance such as Splash and South Beach groove their way into a new era, revitalized and refreshed, nightly throwing open the doors of their places of worship for the faithful-and for that we should all do a sacred dance and shout “hallelujah!”

On the web:

JR’s :: www.caven.com
South Beach :: www.southbeachthenightclub.com
Splash (SBNY) :: www.splashbar.com