People calling out, singing, dancing themselves into a froth of sweat and joy—but not to the same beat. The room silent—they are all wearing headphones. You dance next to someone who is listening to an entirely different genre, spun by a different DJ.
This is silent disco. Forgive me if it feels like a metaphor.
Silent disco is not new: The first headphone concert was by the Flaming Lips in Dallas in 1999, although they also used a normal speaker so the sound could be felt—a nicety soon dropped. In 2002, an artist hosted a silent dance party at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 2005, the Bonnaroo Music Festival handed out headphones for a silent disco, and by 2011, the Oxford Dictionary Online had added “silent disco” to its website.
In 2015, Martha Stewart bestowed her approval of silent-disco wedding receptions.
I am not going to admit how recently I discovered the trend. My clubbing and concert days are—okay, they never started. So you will forgive me for blinking when a friend said her kid’s high school dance would be silent. “Then what is the point?” I asked, showing in one swoop my age, lack of cool, and technophobia.
Dancing is one of the most communal things we humans do. Some long-legged birds do goofy courtship dances, and bees dance, too, but we dance for pure joy, and usually not alone. Music blasts from speakers and we breathe it like air, letting the beat fill our bodies and shove our brains aside.
Ah, but with headphones, we can dance to our own choice of music and ignore the movement all around us that does not sync with our own. No longer communal in the same way, this is an individual choice that just happens to take place in a crowd. “You’re in control of the music!” promises QuietEvents, one of the companies providing headphones for parties, proms, bachelorette parties, you name it. Control is what we have been taught to want—even on Dionysian occasions that used to be about losing it.
In the beginning, there was only one channel (which sounds rather scriptural), and people were hearing the same thing. Eco-activists partied this way so their music would not keep the wildlife awake. Polite Brits held a silent disco in Glastonbury to obey the noise curfew. The practical advantages were obvious: a concert on a beach; a yoga class led at several levels at once; music in the library rotunda while college students are cramming for exams. In 2016, Laurie Anderson staged a silent concert in Times Square for dogs (meaning their owners got the headphones and the dogs got to preserve their nervous systems).
But soon there were two channels, then three.
Dancers swear that the headphones make the experience so immersive, they feel less shy and self-conscious. “You’re in your own little world,” a woman told The New York Times, pinpointing exactly what alarms me. For her, though, this means relief: “You stop thinking about what you look like, and so you’re not as shy about striking up conversations.” A silent-disco DJ in London says people “sing along. As loudly as they can. Because they can’t hear themselves, they forget themselves. And slipping off your own headphones to hear a couple of thousand people, so wrapped up in the music that they don’t realise they are all simultaneously shouting: I BLESS THE RAINS DOWN IN AFRICA!’ is oddly moving.”
Someone else mentions the joy of finding a stranger who is dancing to the same beat you are: “Asexual dancing has never felt so intimate.” That, I can imagine. Years ago, I realized that living in a conservative, mudstuck city was rather exciting, because coming upon someone else who shared your tastes and opinions was such a thrill, and forged a stronger bond. We treasure what is rare.
But a sense of community should not have to be rare.
Is it so awful to be in unison for just an evening? Everyone is plugged into their own reality all the time. It takes rude courage to interrupt a stranger with a simple question.
In a memoir, a friend who came here from East Africa explains to people back home how individualistic Americans are, how nothing will tug us away from our personal ambitions (which usually involve money), and how we are schooled from a young age to develop a unique personality and treasure our own taste and traits rather than subordinate them for the good of the group. He is so right, a chill runs through me as I read. The trope of rugged individualism is well-worn, but hearing it fresh, from an outsider’s perspective, makes it strange.
I am thinking glum thoughts about how self-centered we are—and how disconnected all our connective technology has allowed us to be—when I read that more and more first dates are happening by video. That way, no one has to leave home, risking safety or contagion or boredom, and one can prescreen quite a lot of people with a minimal investment of time and energy. The Atlantic quotes Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, suggesting that this is a return to the older form of chaperoned courtship in the safety of the home.
No. It is not. There is no prim dowager on the sofa, pretending to embroider while she eavesdrops and guards your welfare. There is no chance of an accidental, perfectly proper brush against someone’s arm, let alone a stolen kiss. You cannot smell the other person’s soap or hear that they are breathing a little fast and might be nervous, too. You see them in only two dimensions, maybe with a fake backdrop, performing as much for the camera as for you.
When you do meet in person, maybe the two of you can put on some headphones and dance to different music. Immersed in your own choice, you will find your date easy to ignore.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.