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Last night a DJ probably didn’t save anyone’s life – but not through lack of want or need. Among the many calamities of the pandemic, one of the underreported ones is the sweeping obliteration of social dance, particularly in its most popular form: dancing to the selections of a DJ.
Raising concerns about party culture at a time when so many lives and livelihoods have been lost might seem facile. Opinion largely views DJ-led dance culture as a self-indulgent, frivolous, non-productive pleasure. It encourages participants to escape the world rather than engage with it.
Then again, the culture has become integral to the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of us. The Night Time Industries Association recently warned of a looming “financial Armageddon” that could lead to 754,000 job losses in the UK. Many more dancers derive a sense of wellbeing and release from a constantly evolving culture that enables them to forge new forms of open, pleasurable community – or, to quote the polymath musician and composer Arthur Russell, to see all our friends at once go bang. It also encourages strangers to trust one another, in turn promoting social cohesion.
Party culture exists on a continuum alongside other activities whose communally based, psycho-acoustic underpinnings provide participants with a dose of natural serotonin, among them music concerts, theatrical performances, sporting events, religious gatherings, choirs and walks in the park. As the New York City DJ and party host Jon Martin asked during a recent conversation, to what extent can the spiralling anger, domestic abuse and everyday violence of the pandemic be partly explained by the collapse of these forms of socialisation?
Party culture’s kaleidoscopic, connecting potential arguably outstrips these other experiences in terms of immersion, duration and joy. David Mancuso, pioneering host of the Loft in New York, even believed that communal dancing amounted to humankind’s best attempt to tune into the underlying essence of the universe, which was born out of sound and amounted to one big party of constantly, intensely vibrating atoms.
Party organisers and DJs have overwhelmingly placed safety above desire during the pandemic. Back in mid-March we took matters into our own hands: cancelling events, losing money, disappointing dancers and forsaking basic freedoms after the government fell asleep at the wheel, delivering only mixed messages and half-measures. Since lockdown was eased over the summer, organisers have reopened nightclubs as socially distanced lounge spaces and staged summer-friendly, safety-conscious outdoor gatherings. Their efforts have been impressive, the results somewhat underwhelming. Attracting younger dancers who have had their lives snatched away, only the rebounding unlicensed rave scene has combined kinetic energy with transformational meaning – yet such gatherings are potential hotbeds of Covid-19 contagion.
In the most sustained attempt to fill the void, DJs and dancers have headed online. Financial hardship and loneliness have given this new breed of recalibrating reveller little choice but to migrate into the digital realm. It would be unreasonable to expect a whole culture to press the pause button and wait for the pandemic to pass. Something is better than nothing. And why should party people behave differently from everyone else?
Yet whereas an activity such as professional football has switched to online relatively seamlessly, with most fans already used to following the sport via a screen and the advantage enjoyed by home teams intriguingly unaffected by the absence of their supporters, party culture’s parallel move has been more obviously compromised. Fragmented, isolated and transfixed by a two-dimensional display monitor featuring a webcam pointing at a DJ, online dancers can’t combine as a crowd to send energetic messages and have limited opportunity to lose themselves in music. Communication is possible but can’t rival the visceral, kinetic dancefloor and accompanying sound system.
I’ve channelled much of the time I’d have dedicated to organising parties, among them All Our Friends, into displacement activities that have come to carry a sense of loss. I started to research a new book about the history of party culture but don’t want to publish an account that’s condemned to stay in the past. I began to buy less new music and instead listen more carefully to records I already owned, only to misplace the hunger to share music. I’ve cherished playing the searching, cathartic strains of Astral Weeks over and over but am startled by how little dance music I’ve been listening to at home, my ears no longer tuned by recent memories of an ecstatic crowd.
With no end to the pandemic in sight via eradication, mass testing or a coronavirus vaccine, party culture must re-embrace the simplicity, intimacy and even domesticity that have become hallmarks of life. Wanting to connect with our dancers while raising funds to help Chats Palace in east London – the venue where we host parties – survive the summer, All Our Friends held a radio broadcast in a compact flat with a gorgeous stereo system and a ventilated balcony back in June. Co-founders Cyril Cornet, Cedric Lassonde and I rotated from 7pm to 1am to keep things moving. A few friends joined us for a safe and intimate gathering that observed government guidelines yet still turned into an intense little party. The hope was for listeners to gather in small groups, tune in and share the vibe.
The experience reminded us of the simplicity of the ritual, and it was safer than going to the pub. Knowing that Mancuso held parties in his own home for close to three decades, and working alongside him when he came to London, helped us on our way. It doesn’t take much to host a small house party, even when taking into account Covid restrictions – just go for a simple stereo and keep the room aerated. Afterwards, I felt inspired to prepare for another one.
Just last Friday we decided to hold another broadcast on Saturday 10 October. We want to reconnect with our dancers, many of whom have been partying in public settings during the summer. And yet, at the time of publishing, I’m coming to conclude that perhaps now isn’t the right time to be organising another real-world gathering. A house party? Nice. But you might want to log in and close your eyes.
• Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, and a co-founder of All Our Friends
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid-19 has hit dance culture hard – but the party can go on | Tim Lawrence | Opinion