Dance culture has in recent years spawned a number of superstar disc jockeys. For gigs at Europe's major dance clubs, it's not unusual for one of these well-pampered DJs to be helicoptered in and paid thousands for a single night's work. The rationale being that they, more than anyone, set the tone that fuels the groove.

Increasingly, the contribution of lighting to club ambiance is getting similar recognition. Although the appearance fees haven't yet reached commanding heights, the advent of the annual Light Jockey competition in the 1990s, instigated by Italy's Clay Paky and England's Pulsar, is doing much to further this formerly marginalized profession.

Says Clay Paky sales manager Renato Ferrari, "Clay Paky and Pulsar aren't just holding the Light Jockey to see who's the best, but to emphasize the importance of light ops in clubs today--up till now they were often just button-pushers, or DJs who took time out to trigger a program now and then. We wanted to show that we're convinced that LJs are just as important as DJs. We organize technical and artistic courses, including seminars by lighting designers, to teach operators how to make the most of the equipment at their disposal."

Last year's Italian contest finals were held at a club near Rimini during SIB; the European finals were then held in London. Clay Paky/Pulsar has announced that the event is expanding and that the United States will be participating in future editions; for further information, call US distributor Group One Ltd. at 516/249-3662.

Richard "Richie" Warboys won the UK Light Jockey competition in 1995 and again in 1997, Greg McLenahan in 1996. "I always wanted to be a light jock, right from when I first started at the Halifax Coliseum 10 years ago," McLenahan recalls. He was just 15 years old at the time, but already apprenticed as a trainee industrial electrician.

Warboys started at the same tender age, running a mobile disco, and he too trained in electronics, though not until he moved to college at age 18. "But I originally went into clubs because I wanted to be a DJ, not because I had any interest in lights. I started at the Event 2 in Brighton, working for free doing the early evening opening sessions for the house DJ. Then one day the resident lighting guy was ill and they asked me to fill in. It was simple stuff: PARs, neons, strobes, a touch-panel controller. I thought I'd give it a go." The club owner, the Rank Leisure corporation, liked what he did and Warboys was soon offered a full-time position lighting the smaller club Orianas, situated beneath Event 2.

McLenahan's early recollections are quite similar. He began by "helping out at the Coliseum, supplementing the rubbish money I got as a trainee electrician by waiting tables and helping with the lights. By the time I was 17, I was experienced enough to take on the lighting position, but it was only part-time work, just weekends. My big break came with Tokyo Joe'sin Preston, a full-time job and my first encounter with automated lighting."No thing too taxing, a few early Clay Paky Mark 2 Golden Scans and an Oscar touch-screen controller, but enough to whet his appetite. "I'm entirely self-taught when it comes to programming," said McLenahan, "and that way I've learned every way there is to get something out of a system. Where I work now, the Majestyk in Leeds, I've got 16 Clay Paky Golden Scan 3s projecting beams over 70' (21m) from the central dome, and half a dozen Coemar NATs on tusks around the dance area. To be honest, I much prefer the Golden Scan 3s; they're easier to program. But there's nothing I can't get out of either of them." In fact, McLenahan freelances as a programmer, most notably a recent theatrical presentation at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Britain's leading seaside resort.

These days McLenahan uses ShowCAD and runs his system off the PC via a simple Evolution keyboard. Warboys also uses ShowCAD for control at the Ikon club in Crawley where he now works. Both men choose the sophistication and convenience of programming ahead of time. "I used to really like the Masterpiece, for its flexibility," says Warboys. "But lighting for UK clubs these days is not about producing great patterns, like they do at those big, heavily equipped clubs in Italy. Today you've got to do it like playing a musical instrument, and use fewer lights but be more interpretive. You have to build routines ahead of time; you can't do it on the night. The important thing is to be sensitive to the music and to follow what it's doing in subtle ways."

For both men, winning the Light Jockey contest has had unexpected ramifications. "I've not had any tempting offers when I've won," says Warboys. "Actually, I had more offers the year I didn't win. I think club owners believe they can't afford you when you're a winner." But it's the kudos of competing that both men cited as the best element of the contest, as McLenahan described. "When I ended up at the Hippodrome in London, surrounded by leading figures in the club, disco, and lighting industry, I was over the moon."

Warboys remembers similar excitement, and more significantly, relishes the contest for the social interaction. "We work in the same club week in, week out; we never get to see what anybody else is doing. Meeting other light jocks, seeing what they do, sharing and comparing ideas and tricks is really helpful."

Although both men are modest about their achievements and underplay their skills, each holds a position in clubs considered among the best in the UK, both run by Rank Leisure, Britain's biggest club owner. They also have a keen interest in seeing the competition continue. Warboys will be on the judging panel for the 1998 finals.

It may not yet be the path to superstar riches, but both men have turned what started as an indulgent hobby, working for nothing, into a full-fledged career. With Clay Paky/Pulsar now expanding the competition into a more global event, things can only get better for this little-illuminated profession.

Contributing editor Steve Moles, a retired roadie based in Yorkshire, UK, can be reached at 106023.600@compuserve.com. Mike Clark contributed to this story.