A multigeneration crowd got down together at a weekend dance party to celebrate Zootz.
Jill Koufman (right) dances while a DJ spins tunes and an unidentified couple smooch on the dance floor at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night. Zootz, a landmark Portland dance and live music venue, closed more than 20 years ago but patrons still get together regularly, recreating the atmosphere of the old club. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — It was just like the old days.

An eager line snaked down the sidewalk outside, people waiting to get in.

Inside, a small sea of dancers rippled in unison to the DJs’ deafening thump while lasers slashed through the hazy air, rich with human sweat.

“It was like stepping back in time,” said Erin Fennelly, one of the dancers on the floor Saturday night at the fifth Zootz reunion event at Space Gallery on Congress Street.

Zootz was a beloved Portland nightclub that opened in 1987 and closed in 2000. It was known as a place where everyone was welcome — gay, straight and in between. It also hosted weekly underage dance nights, forgoing lucrative alcohol sales in favor of fun and inclusion.

Though it’s been gone more than 20 years, Zootz still draws hundreds of dancers to occasional reunions organized by founder Chris Clark.

Chris Clark opened Zootz in 1987. The club was popular throughout the late 1980s and '90s before closing more than 20 years ago.
Organizer Kris Clark thanks the crowd at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night. Clark opened Zootz on Forest Avenue in 1987. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Saturday’s installment saw a rare, multigenerational dance party with Gen Xers, millennials, Gen Zers and the occasional boomer getting unironically down together to nostalgic, sick beats.

“My aunt used to talk about Zootz. I love anything old school Portland and romanticize the ‘90s,” said dancer Zoe Kubachka, who never set foot in the old club. “I wish I had been old enough to go to the original.”

The event’s 400 or so advanced tickets were sold out before the doors opened. On Saturday afternoon, Space Gallery was instructing ticketless dancers to come by the event around 10:30 p.m. when the crowd might thin out enough to allow for more people inside.

A man struts across the dance floor for the Zootz reunion party.
A man struts across the dance floor at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night, Zootz, a landmark Portland dance and live music venue, closed more than 20 years ago. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

All night, two DJs, in separate rooms, spun continuous tracks with zero dead air. The dancing never stopped.

In the main room, a series of platter spinners revolved classic dance remixes from the old days, including music from The Cult, the B52s, INXS and Run-DMC. At one point, Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It” came through the loudspeakers. A stab of high voltage energy then swept through the crowd, the song eliciting wild whoops of approval.

The one exception to the continuous music was when Clark took the stage, microphone in hand. The 70-something looked dapper in a burgundy, silk jacquard jacket with velvet collar.

“I just want to thank you all for being here,” Clark said, standing in a blinding beam of light, his gray bangs nearly covering one eye.

“We love you,” came a lone shout from the suddenly stilled dancers on the floor. Wild applause rose in agreement.

Dancers move on the dance floor at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night. The sold-out event drew more than 400 hoofers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Clark dropped the mic from his lips, a sheepish smile on his face, obviously moved.

Then the music started again and didn’t stop until the end.

Dancer Jill Koufman was standing behind Clark on stage, a projected Zootz logo washing over her.

“That moment, at the back of the stage when Kris was thanking everyone—so perfect,” Koufman said. “It’s etched in my memory, forever.”

Clark stated he doesn’t know when the next Zootz reunion might take place, noting his own age.

A couple dance together during the Zootz reunion party.
A couple dance together at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night, Nov. 26, 2022. Zootz closed in 2000. Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But judging by Saturday’s enthusiasm and Sunday’s chatter in the long-shuttered venue’s 2,000-member Facebook group, interest remains strong.

“It was so wonderful to be with everyone last night,” Annemarie Heisler wrote online on Sunday.  “I am still smiling and grateful it happened.”

Heisler administers the Facebook group and was a regular at the old club.

Dancers take turns to bust moves during the Zootz reunion party.
A group of dancers take turns busting moves at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night. Zootz closed in 2000. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Kubachka, the younger dancer who never saw the original Zootz, agrees.

“Portland needs Zootz to come back permanently,” she said.

But perhaps Zootz is more a concept than a physical space.

“I’m grateful I get to experience the reunions, which should happen more often, but Zootz seems more like a beloved community than a venue,” Koufman said.

A woman dances during the Zootz reunion party.
A woman dances at the fifth Zootz reunion party in Portland on Saturday night. The sold-out event drew more than 400 hoofers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.