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Silent Ravers Dance 'Together, But Individually'

Question: If several hundred young people gather in a crowded public place and throw a raging dance party and it doesn't make a sound, did it really happen?

Answer: Yes. And it happened again at 7 p.m. on Sept. 12, in Boston's Copley Square.

It's called a "silent rave," and it goes something like this: Young people show up en masse at an appointed time and place, with headphones and MP3 players in hand. Then — at exactly the same time — they switch on their personal music devices and ... dance.

Silent raving — also known as "mobile clubbing" — is already popular in cities across Europe and Canada. And with the help of online social networking, the phenomenon is catching on in the U.S., too.

Dancing To Your Own Beat

On a beautiful summer Sunday, a silent rave in New York City's Union Square commenced at exactly 5:28 p.m.

Teens and college kids casually loitering in various corners of the park gradually coalesced into a booty-wiggling, fist-pumping mob — albeit one that looked somewhat rhythmically challenged in its attempts to dance together. (Though the starting time is synchronized, the music isn't.)

More than a few toes got smashed by the spastic conga line, which wove recklessly through the crowd. Between the shouted apologies, laughter, chatter and cheers, the term "silent" rave became something of a misnomer.

Back in the 1980s, philosopher Allan Bloom predicted in The Closing of the American Mind that the Walkman — remember those? — would contribute to a decline in civility. Curious onlookers in Union Square, including Alice Arnold, an independent filmmaker who emerged from her nearby studio to watch, echoed Bloom's concerns.

"I think it creates a sense of isolation," Arnold says. "Club culture was so much about dancing with somebody else. ... You had a room full of people moving to the same beat. And that was what was so exciting about live music, DJ culture, and this takes that away."

Many of the ravers in Union Square weren't yet born when Bloom's book was published. Today's young people, who have always been their own DJs, perhaps feel alienated by the club culture that the older generation found empowering.

'How Is This Anti-Social?'

The Union Square event materialized through networking on Facebook. Jonnie Wesson, the organizer, had danced in London at silent raves in St. Paul's Cathedral, Paddington Station and Trafalgar Square, but hadn't heard of mobile clubbing in the States. The 18-year-old exchange student planned his first, which also took place in Union Square, last April.

"It was actually very, very simple," Wesson says. "All I did was set up a Facebook group and then an event. A month later, I had 7,000 people [RSVPing]. And there were 2,000 people at Union Square that time."

Eric Garment, 17, breathless and sweaty from dancing in circles at Wesson's second Union Square event, takes issue with the charge that the silent ravers are self-absorbed.

"How is this anti-social?" Garment asks. "We've got hundreds of people coming together as one, all dancing together, but individually. You've got people meeting people, dancers meeting dancers, people who are sitting around watching meeting people who are just sitting around watching, photographers meeting photographers. Everybody's meeting up with each other, right here, right now."

Why Not Just Go To A Club?

Wesson says there are a number of reasons to hang out and dance with your friends in the middle of a public park rather than in a private club. First, clubs are expensive and often have age limits.

Second, there's a certain quirky je ne sais quoi to dancing with hundreds of strangers in a public park — many of the dancers were documenting the event as it happened and posted photos and videos online afterward. (You can see user-submitted photos from the New York rave and the Boston rave on Facebook.)

"Clubs aren't a public place," Wesson says. He says that silent raves can be seen as the "public taking back the parks for the uses that they want."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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