It is half past eight on a Tuesday night and I am in a Brooklyn church basement. It is almost pitch black in here, and September by Earth, Wind and Fire is playing, and I and about fifteen other people are dancing as hard as we can. We are all sober.

This is No Lights No Lycra, an attempt to let people dance for the sake of it.

Here is the setup: every week, for an hour or so, we are invited to attend a dance for the price of five dollars. The room is spacious, slightly too warm, and very dimly-lit – aside from green laser light making a constellation on the ceiling, there is no other illumination. There are three rules:

NO WATCHING. If you want to stop dancing, you have to leave the hall. This is to ensure that we do not feel self-conscious; we are all in the same boat.

NO BREAK-DANCING. This is a safety concern, and one that must have a story behind it that I kind of want to hear.

NO PHONES. This a) keeps us focused on dancing and b) eliminates the chance of someone filming us. (Although it’s so dark, I doubt you’d get any usable footage.)

Aside from this, there are no guidelines. Dance as hard as you like. Treat this as exercise if you want, or not, if you don’t. Leave when you want. Arrive when you want. (The “No Lycra” part of the name isn’t enforced, from what I can see, and is more of a philosophical thing: this is not a workout, this is not a dance class. You will not be judged.)

What this does is encourage people to dance honestly, and it is wonderful.

(This article has no pictures, for obvious reasons. If it helps, imagine a dark room.)

HONEST DANCING

Listen: I am not good at dancing, but I have enthusiasm for it. I have been encouraged not to dance all my life, both on a societal level and in several personal face-to-face consultations with well-meaning bystanders. I have rhythm but no idea where to put it. I dance hard, like my life depends on it, and I take few prisoners. I enjoy music, and enjoying it with my body is wonderful.

Now many people who can dance use it as a form of sexual attraction, or at least attempt sexual attraction during dancing, and that changes the interaction with the music – the dance becomes a performance and it ties into a vast and confusing social web.

This is why I don’t really like dancing in standard clubs, because it is a social activity, not a physical one. It is endlessly confusing; I do not know where to look, how to stand, in what proximity I am allowed to be to other dancers. Furthermore, as a straight white man, I am not supposed to dance; as I said before, I am told universally that not only am I not able to dance, but that I shouldn’t dance. At least not like I’m enjoying myself; I can step from side-to-side, if I want, and maybe hold my arms at chest height, but that’s it. I am given a tremendously limited repertoire of moves which which to express myself, and no-one really tells you what those moves are. It is a bloody minefield. Step outside of these loosely-defined boundaries and you look like an idiot.

(I am endlessly thankful that, as a straight white man, this is among the greatest of my societal worries. And that other people have rules, too, about how they can dance: like how that a man is probably not going to be judged for dancing too sexually or not sexually enough.)

But honest dancing is not that, it is plugging directly into the music and waving your body around like you are on fire. It is letting yourself get carried away by the whole thing, and leaving the performative elements behind. I love seeing people dance honestly, I love dancing honestly with them, and it’s so bloody rare. I have tried to explain this to friends and it boils down to “I like it when you dance like a dork” and I get a lot of confused looks, honestly.

(This, by the way, it probably at least 80% of the reason I like going to raves, because the drug of choice at raves is either ecstasy or MDMA, both of which surgically remove social awkwardness and replace it with all the happiness you were scheduled to portion off in sensible doses throughout the next week, so people are bloody joyous at raves, and boy, do they dance. And you can go up to someone and say “YOUR DANCING IS FUCKING RAD,” and grin and then just go your separate ways. There’s no subtext, there, no great social web. You are there to dance and you have specialist chemicals on hand to make an already lovely act super-lovely.)

I mean, compare dancing at home – in your pants maybe, when you’re in your living room, I know you do it, we all do it, I did it this morning – to dancing when at least even one other human can see you! How intimate is it, to show someone else how your body moves when you take the limiters off?

To dance is a tremendously honest thing to do, as honest as crying or belly-laughing or climax, and it can make you vulnerable because it is a genuine expression of emotion, and we spend so long with our shields up that we either don’t dance altogether or shackle it with enough rules, steps and formality that we can slip inside an accepted structure of movement around other humans.

Anyway – no-one can really see anyone else, so everyone in here is dancing honestly, and it is beautiful.

A MAGIC CIRCLE

I’ve blogged about the idea of the Magic Circle on here before, but to summarise: a magic circle, in game design terms, is the idea of establishing a space where actions outside of societal norms are permitted. In a LARP, the magic circle is the field where you can wear elf ears and hit people with axes. In a tabletop game, the dice and the character sheets and the snacks give us a place to pretend to be other people. It extends out to other things: a boxing ring is a magic circle where people can hit each other and other people can cheer. A theatre is a magic circle where you stay silent and listen to people tell you a story. A club is somewhere you can dance.

But the magic circle here is masterfully, effortlessly done; it’s not in a standard clubbing space, and it’s not a standard clubbing setup. There’s no bar, no smoking area, no chillout room. All we are here to do, all we really can do, is dance. The leader is tremendously hands-off; she wordlessly sets up the laptop and speakers at the start of the event, then queues up each song separately, one after the other, while she dances along with everyone else. (After each song, we all clap. This is mandatory.) On the last song of the night, she turns on a side-light and sits by the door on her phone to make sure that everyone has left okat.

That’s it. She’s not said a word to me, or to anyone else that I could see, in three weeks.

So: she is giving permission to dance, and she is dancing with us, and there is very little of a power structure here.

No Lights No Lycra Brooklyn is not the only one of its kind – there are others like it all over the world. It’s easy to see why; people want to dance like they mean it, and they want a safe space to do that without the need for drugs or alcohol to power them into dropping their social anxiety over doing it.

Anyway. I am dancing; I am nervous, still, because I am sober and I am always nervous in social situations anyway, so there is an element of the performance in this, still. But much less. It is wonderful to be part of this – we are all dancing. We are all different sizes and shapes and we are all dancing in different ways and we are having fun together, alone.

EYELINES

I should note that the facing of each individual dancer in No Lights No Lycra is important; we carefully dance out of each other’s eyelines, like we’re in some kind of logic puzzle where no sentry can meet the eye of another. No-one dances facing anyone else, unless they came as a pair or a group. On the whole, we don’t even give encouraging looks to each other, or smiles, or take our cues from each other’s movements and sync up; we are doing this for ourselves. I haven’t made eye contact with a single soul. I love it.

(And, yes, it would be fun, perhaps more fun to dance as part of a big group, but fuck me if that wouldn’t change the dynamic to something dificult, back to that performative state, the constant question of “is this person looking to sleep with me as a direct result of this dance” hovering over the floor, as invasive as any chaperone.)

But people dance, and I can see them do it a bit, and it’s wonderful. Men, big guys, straight-looking guys, are letting go and dancing on their own, throwing shapes, sliding across the dancefloor. Men are being allowed to enjoy music, sober, for it’s own sake, with their bodies. And the women – some of them dance with cocked hips and sensual hands, because that’s how they want to dance right now, that’s what feels good, and some of them dance like individual cats are strapped to each of their limbs. I love it. One girl dances like some genetic throwback that’s emerged fur-cloaked and bestial from a cave and is celebrating a kill, all hunched swoops and elbows and knees. One bounces on the balls of her feet like a cheerleader and kicks the air. One runs on the spot and spins gracelessly, freely, at the front of the room.

And it spurs me on – so I am taking cues from the movements of other dancers, I guess – and I keep up. I jump up and down, wave my hands, flick my hips out, run my hands through my sweaty hair, act out the lyrics, play air guitar, thrash my head about, holler and whoop and yell. I am determined to be the stupidest-looking person on the dancefloor at any given time, because that gives everyone else license to take up the spot directly beneath me in the Looking Stupid hierarchy and get away with it.

THE LIGHTS

And an hour after it starts, the organiser turns on a side-light, and turns the music down by about 30 percent, and people start to leave. Some of us still dance – I don’t like the last song, much, tonight, so I dance for half of it and then put my shoes on, get ready to leave.

And I’m not brave enough to dance in the light; it changes from “we are dancing” to “who is going to be the last to leave the floor, who is going to stop being honest first and put up their shield again to go back out into the world?” So I shoe up and leave without a word or eye contact.

I never liked it when the lights came up in clubs, and, well, that’s rather the point – it gets you out of there. It shatters the glamour, breaks the magic circle. Dancing is now no longer allowed; in fact just being here is uncool, the precise opposite of what it was only seconds before. I am always worried what a hot mess I will look, as well, all sweat and pale skin and smudged eyeliner and surplus glitter, when the music stops.

I don’t like it here, either, but it’s needed. I get the hell out of there. I can be honest, for sure, I can strive to look daft, but not look these people in the eye afterwards. I’m not there yet.

But it’s beautiful, this thing, this collection of awkward people thrashing around to music, all the difficult stuff from clubs removed. Because it’s nice to dance, isn’t it? It’s nice to move. It’s nice to say “HEY I LOVE THIS NOISE” with your body and to have someone else also bloody love their noise with their body, in proximity to you. It is playful, it is carefree. It is movement for the sake of it; it is doing something because it feels good, and for no other reason.

What I’m saying is that you should give it a go.


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2 thoughts on “NO LIGHTS, NO LYCRA

  • Jon Jones says:

    Wow, Grant, you lead a really interesting life. Sounds like a fantastic experience, how did you find out about it?

    I myself have felt the similar urge to just dance, and also felt I was held back by societal coercive pressures.

    I think I was lucky, though, because when I first started “going out”, the Industrial Music scene seemed to have been at its peak in Los Angeles, and it provided an environment very similar to the one you describe at No Lights, No Lycra. The clubs were very dark, full of dark-clad people and whether you had had a drink or not (I hadn’t), self-expression *wasn’t* something that seemed to be looked down upon. In fact, it seemed to be encouraged… imagine that!

    But although I have had negative experiences like the ones you describe (sometimes with out-and-out laughter), I have also had the pleasure of positive experiences as well. Some of the gay and bi-friendly clubs in LA in later years were the most liberating in terms of letting people just get in tune with the music, in that since it wasn’t a typical “meat market” type of place, you were free to dance however you liked without fear of being judged. Everyone just seemed to be wowed by the half naked guys up on stage. And even more hetero-friendly places like Club Rubber, which even though they were “behind the Orange Curtain” in conservative Orange County, promoted a spirit of spectacle and ostentatiousness in the mode of dress, which did little to limit people’s individuality and inhibitions. It was sort of like Cosplay before there was Cosplay. The other nice thing about clubs in America is that huge burly dudes prevent anyone from bringing drinks onto the dance floor (not to mention there’s lots more space in the average dance club to cut your favourite shape), so you don’t have to suffer the indignation of a spilled drink, or feel like you’re skating across a lake of fine scum whilst crossing the dancefloor.

    That being said, even at the most diverse clubs, there were pockets of machismo. Drunken fights would sometimes break out, which were quickly pounced upon by the said burly dudes. And at times they would still get a bit meat-markety.

    I suppose the avoidance of eye contact at NL,NL is a necessary evil, but it’s kind of an unfortunate one. Some of my best dancing experiences were like you describe, but the great thing is, you suddenly have a connection with some strangers, not in a creepy way, but you’re all sweaty, out of breath, sharing this enjoyment. Everyone, even if it’s for just one song, is on the same wavelength. Okay, so some of them might be high or under the influence of one thing or another, but I love and miss the sense of raw enjoyment of music in that way. It really is so fantastic. Perhaps I’m not imagining the setup properly, though, as it sounds like it was more of a benefit than a restriction for you at No Lights, No Lycra.

    There *is* something wonderful about appreciating someone’s dancing skills, though, too.

    Once, at an impromptu night out in London (were were just at a bar on the Minories for after work drinks), a girl started **really** showing how she could move. It was sexy, but not because she was dancing sexily or especially provocatively, she was just damn good. And I’d like to think that there were others that felt the same; not in a lascivious way, mind you. We were just in awe of how well she could move. And that was fantastic, like some sort of performance art that we were all appreciating in and sort of participating with. No one tried to get close to her or interfere with her, it was just like, sitting back and appreciating someone who was young, was in touch with their body motion in an inspiring way… And I don’t think it made anyone feel like, “well I shouldn’t even bother now,” it was more like, yeah, that’s how you do it, let’s all get up and move!

    Anyway, it’s something like that which just makes me appreciate how powerful a force music is in feeling alive.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Alastair Christie says:

    This sounds awesome. I checked out the NLNL website off the back of it. Inevitably the somewhat repressed British haven’t managed to (publicly) organise anything like this yet, at least not as part of that group.

    As someone who quite happily acts without much shame in public*, I have had similar positive experiences going to “dry” clubs in the past where people had chemically-plastered happy faces. The environment is certainly preferable to regular clubs, with their exciting mini-games like Stick To The Floor and Dodge The Vom.

    *when on my own time. I feel some vague responsibility to act reserved when someone is paying me to represent them.

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