As lights flash around him, Shawn Short steps onto the dance floor, strutting and posing for the admiring crowd. His black cape flows behind him like a billowing parachute.

Here under the mirror ball, the regulars at Tracks nightclub know him as "Shawn Allure." He's the guy with the outrageous costumes, glass-smooth moves and the captivating confidence. On the catwalk, there is little inkling that by day the 21-year-old is a struggling office worker.

It took nearly three years of learning how to dance at the club off South Capitol Street for the baby-faced Short to gain the self-assurance to tell his family he's gay. Last year, he stopped going to Tracks every week. He was already meeting gays elsewhere in the city and said he no longer needed to be at the nightclub to feel special.

But in the past month, he and others have started coming back to mark the final days of a place that for most of the past 15 years was a hub for many in the area's gay community.

On Saturday, Tracks will hold its final party, a bash expected to draw as many as 4,000. People from across the country have called and e-mailed the club to lament its passing.

Soon after, the cavernous warehouse at 80 M St. SE, proudly painted purple inside and out, will be demolished to make way for a seven-story office building for Navy contractors. Over the next several years, the run-down, industrial area lined with bars and clubs will be revitalized and turned into a business district as the Navy Yard expands.

Short and others will remember Tracks for how it helped them with their own transformations.

"Without Tracks, I would be a closet case," he said. "It gave me a sense of self."

The closing of Tracks marks the end of an era in D.C. night life. Never before had the city seen such a huge club, one on a par with those in New York or Miami. And never before had so many gays and straights, women and men, blacks and whites, met under one roof to dance.

The club's rise and demise reflect the expansion of social life for gay men and lesbians in the city.

"Back then, there were fewer options for people beyond bars," said Randy Shulman, editor of Metro Weekly, a D.C. gay magazine that focuses on arts and entertainment. "There's more visibility now in the community. We have more of a willingness to participate in society because society has more willingness to accept us."

The man who created Tracks, businessman Marty Chernoff, may seem like an unlikely person to run one of the city's most successful nightspots. Chernoff, 57, who looks a bit like Danny DeVito and talks with a Brooklyn accent, dislikes nightclubs. He rarely drinks, doesn't dance and can't tell good techno music from bad.

But while visiting Washington in 1984, Chernoff--a former real estate broker who owned a club called Tracks in Denver--saw a business opportunity. Only a handful of gay dance clubs existed in the District, and a few bars set a small space aside for dancing.

"The clubs were woefully inferior, but every club was packed," Chernoff said. "Remember Economics 101, supply and demand?"

Chernoff bought the largest building he could find--21,000 square feet of space that had been the distribution center for the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper.

He turned the warehouse into a mega-club with more than 500 lights hanging from the ceiling. The sound system was so massive and loud that it would attract deaf students from Galludet University, who moved to the rhythm of the vibrating floor.

Tracks became popular very quickly, with more than 2,000 people crowding inside on a weekend night. In its first year, when the nightclub offered a discount cover charge, the lines once stretched for several blocks. A rival club across the street, the Lost & Found, closed.

Most nightclubs tend to draw a certain type of crowd. But all types of people went to Tracks, although different groups tended to go on certain nights. Because of the type of music played, Thursday nights attracted college students, many of them heterosexual. Fridays and Saturdays were primarily white gay men. Sundays brought in black gays, and Tuesdays were reserved for lesbians. Still, some from each group came on various nights.

To make money, Chernoff said, Tracks had to be promoted as a place for everyone: "We had to fill the club."

In 1987, Ana Carrion-Sague was a freshman at Georgetown University. Tracks was the first place she saw women openly kiss and men dance together.

"It was a little bit shocking," said Carrion-Sague, who grew up Catholic in Puerto Rico, where she heard sermons about the sinfulness of homosexuality.

But nearly every Thursday night, she said, she would dress in her best black clothes and come to Tracks because it had the flashiest dance floor in the city. "I saw people having so much fun," said Carrion-Sague, who is now married and owns an Arlington public relations firm. "It was a normal, natural thing instead of a taboo."

Erin Mara also partied at Tracks on Thursday nights--college night--in the '80s, but as she became more comfortable with identifying herself as a lesbian, she wondered whether she should go there on "women's night."

One Tuesday night, a friend shoved her into a cab and ordered the driver to go to Tracks. About 1,000 other women were already there--"older, younger, black, white, couples and singles, scary women and pretty women," Mara said.

"That was really special," said Mara, 33, who now owns Pearl restaurant in Adams-Morgan. "It was a little scary, too. You realize that your life is just beginning and that the possibilities are endless."

Most nightclubs stay in business two or three years before shutting down or having to renovate. Throughout the late '80s and '90s, new clubs would open and temporarily draw business away. Several stabbings and a fatal shooting involving Tracks patrons in the '90s deterred some clubgoers. But through it all, Tracks remained a familiar place to hang out.

In 1996, Tracks started losing some of its star power. Ed Bailey, a clubgoer who became a disc jockey and promoter during Tracks' heyday in the early 1990s, had a dispute with the management. He left to start his own place.

Bailey and others hosted a Saturday night party at Ozone in Dupont Circle and later moved to the 9:30 club near Howard University. Tracks's business dropped by half those nights, to fewer than 1,000 patrons.

In March, Bailey started an event called Velvet at Nation, a club in a warehouse across the street from Tracks.

Tracks remained popular enough to attract dancers Thursday and Sunday nights and for special events. But Friday and Saturday attendance had dwindled so much that the club stopped hosting parties those nights, marketing director Dan Stessel said.

Chernoff said there was little incentive to promote Tracks and compete aggressively with the other clubs. He said he knew his club eventually would close because of the Navy Yard expansion.

But the newer clubs and the Navy Yard development weren't the only reasons for Tracks' decline. Nightclubs that weren't traditionally patronized by gays started advertising in local gay publications. Gays could be open in restaurants, coffeehouses and lounges in Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Adams-Morgan. And the Internet made it possible to chat with other gays round-the-clock and around the world.

"The world has changed so gay people can go and experience more," Bailey said. "We've come a long way as a community. We're capable of doing something outside of a closed-in building."

Shulman agreed: "Tracks was born in a specific time in our society that allowed for this great melting pot to happen. There was nothing else like it in the city. Now we actually have other things."

Chernoff plans to move the club's lighting and sound equipment and open a place nearby about half the size of Tracks. "This new place will not be a dominant club," he said. "This new place will be okay."

Bailey doesn't expect Velvet at Nation to replace Tracks, either. Velvet, he said, is perceived as a place for fashionable and serious clubbers who are primarily gay men, whereas Tracks is an "everyone" place.

Though Tracks considers Bailey a rival, he was invited back to produce the closing party. He calls it an honor.

Bailey, 33, came to Tracks on Christmas Day 1984, when he was 18. It was his first nightclub and the first place where he felt truly comfortable being gay.

At one point that night, the lights went out. He and the other patrons kept dancing.

"Tracks didn't have any purpose other than being a cool place for people to go and party," Bailey said, "but it was much more than that."

Staff writer Steven Gray contributed to this report.