The potential power of the clubbing and dance culture event.
Essay written for the Radical Performance module during my Performance Making MA at Goldsmiths
An investigation on the club and dance culture event, stressing on the empowering potentiality of this practice in both an individual and a social level, with particular reference to the rave movement emerging in London in the late 80s and spreading in Western Europe from the beginning of the 90s.
Having done dance from an early age, been clubbing a lot in my teens, especially in 1996-98, then studied contemporary dance and been interested and active in the performance world, I since a few years have been more and more passionate about and interested in music. This led me on a vast journey of enquiry, of the effect of music on the brain, on the mind, on the body, interested in rhythm and its effects, and in popular music in performance. Through this, I more and more realized how my dance background and especially my clubbing influenced the way I hear and perceive music, and also especially how it affected my relation, perspective and inclination to the performing arts. Inspired by how music could touch, influence and positively energize me, I wanted to inquire into performance that has positive empowering potential, that can be vitalizing, connecting and enlivening us to our own energy and to the energies around us. This led me back to the club and dance culture event, and its practices, particularly the rave movement, looking at the role of music, of the dancing, the crowd community, and how it can facilitate ecstatic experiences and be empowering on an individual as well as on a wider social level.
“club – (often followed by together) to gather or become gathered into a group; to unite or combine (resources, efforts, etc) for a common purpose.” (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1995, third edn)
The subject of this writing is particularly relevant to the rave movement, though it is not limited to it and generally is not limited to a specific time, place, or music. The club and dance culture is a vast phenomenon, from the Stonewall riots of 1969, New York’s gay clubs, the advent of disco and its celebratory practices, the genesis of House in Chicago and Techno in Detroit, through the British Northern Soul scene, Hip Hop in the U.S.A , through acid house to the raves in England. From the use of tapes and vinyl, from turntables to completely computer generated music, dance music, and especially electronic dance music culture, such as the rave, is a truly heterogeneous global phenomenon.
“Emerging in London in 1988, and subsequently exported around the world, rave has proliferated and mutated alongside associated music and body technologies. Its primary theatre of action was and remains the dance floor, a kinesthetic maelstrom inflected by diverse sonic currents and technological developments influencing that which has been generically dubbed ‘house’, ‘electronica’ and ‘techno’. Rave enjoys a direct inheritance from disco and house developments in the post-Stonewall gay communities of New York City and Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. It was in this period in NYC that an oppressed subculture consisting of a fair proportion of African-Americans and Latinos gave birth to house music and modern electronic dance culture. Deriving from gospel, soul and funk, as well as Latino salsa, house is said to be the music ‘of both sin and salvation’, an attempt to ‘reconcile body and soul’ which, in its current manifestations, retains ‘that yearning we all have to celebrate the spirit through the body”. (St John, 2004, p.3)
“House music was used to indicate a kind of urban DIY electronic disco music, incorporating a rich African-American cultural tradition which can be traced back to jazz, funk, soul music and gospel, mixed with European styles like electronic trance and electronic pop” (Thomas, 2003, p.185). House music wanted to abolish racism, bigotry, poverty, war and instead was about love and peace. The ‘Four Pillars of House Community’ were peace, love, unity and respect. “The anthem was sampled and remixed in time for the much-mythologized ‘second summer of love’ “ (St John Graham, 2004, p.3), the name given to the period in 1988-89 in Britain, during the rise of acid house music and the euphoric explosion of unlicensed MDMA-fueled rave parties. Because of its, at least in its early years, underground and sub-cultural existence, its participatory and democratic identity, and the emphasis on often very physical and energetic dancing and the happy, empathetic atmosphere, both often boosted by the love drug MDMA, also called ecstasy, rave events are particularly of a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual shamanistic vitalising and empowering spirit. Although the use of drugs, and within raves especially of MDMA, plays a huge part in reducing people’s self-consciousness and censure, allowing them to open up and have ecstatic experiences, these ecstatic experiences are however not limited to the use of drugs and can be reached through the club or rave event, the music, the dancing and the crowd, which are the aspects I’ll focus on in this essay. Rave events were often held at secret places, such as warehouses, and it was about the people, the crowd, the community rater than a specific venue. Club events are whole immersive social and performative events where music and dance merge and are embodied by the crowd. Clubbing isn’t just about listening, it is about doing. It is a socio-spatio-temporal and bodily-emotional practice. Clubbers normally repeat clubbing or rave nights, they usually constitute a series of events. It is a corporeal experience, the clubbers are co-creating the event. They are active participants and vital components of the transcendent musical ritual. The music becomes bodily, becomes embodied. The music is played by a DJ, who is there to facilitate the event, creating an atmosphere and a journey. The audience is the event and the DJ a responsive controller of their pleasure. As written in Brewster and Broughton: “In the hands of a master, records become the tools for rituals of spiritual communion that for many people are the most powerful events in their lives” (1999, p.11). The climax is in getting people high, as described by Reighley: “that time of the party where the energy gets so intense that everybody starts screaming and hollering. […] to provide [the audience] with the backdrop to actually feel comfortable and stimulated enough that they go to the point of no return, like a sort of a musical orgasm” (2000, p.155).
“The difference between DJing and a rock concert is that at a rock concert, the audience is passive […] In the club/party atmosphere, it’s a lot more democratic. People are really what make the party. Everyone who attends contributes their energy and their dancing to the motion and dynamic. The DJ is supplying the music that will help that chain reaction be possible. But I don’t think that [DJs] should consider themselves the centerpiece.” (Francois K. in Reighley, 2000, p. 204)
The clubbing experience is primarily about music and the clubbers’ understandings of that music. Music is central to the practices and spacings of clubbing. Music is three dimensionally in the air, it is everywhere in space, it has no fixed position or facing, it is present no matter where you are or what direction you turn. It normally has no single focus, such as on the artist or art object, there is less importance on the creator or the creation and instead is more about how it shapes the event. Music is emotional and it transforms itself into motion within the clubbers, who face less the DJ than an audience faces the musicians at a concert. Their appreciation and understandings of the music are largely expressed and addressed through dancing, and through their dancing, “the listeners also partly create the experience (and production) of that music” (Malbon, 1999, p. 71). “The rave/club culture is described as an arena of youth transformation made possible by the spatialization and performance of music, and thought dependent upon the way participants ‘negotiate liminality’ throughout the course of events” (St John Graham, 2004, p.11).
“In musical terms, which is the odder event: a classical music concert where we expect to see musicians bodily producing the music which we listen to thoughtfully, silent and still; or a club night at which we don’t expect to see the musicians (or even the deejays) producing the sounds, but in which our physical movement is a necessary part of what it means to listen.” (Frith, 1996, p.142)
Clubbing and especially rave’s dance music are predominantly emphasizing the rhythmical aspect of music, the beat and bass, which, when going through the strong and loud sound-system, become an intense sensory, bodily and viscerally felt experience as much as heard, especially the sub-bass, and initiates a new and utter physicality. It is pure energy. “The sheer volume is one of the important differences between club sounds and other music as it literally amplifies the music’s presence in your bones. The crowd and the beat nourish one another and the music exists as much through the body of the crowd as through its audible presence”(Jackson, 2003, p.27). Club music has the ability to generate and manipulate the realm of the sensual and to move you physically, emotionally and mentally. The music, and especially the rhythm, powerfully impacts upon the clubbers’notions of time as well as their experience of spaces.
“While the music is playing the notion of linear time passing can seem to have changed. […] one of the essential qualities of music is its power to seemingly create another world of virtual time: We often experience greater intensity of living when our normal time values are upset … music may help to generate such experiences. The massively loud volume of the music typical in most clubbing experiences not only virtually obliterates verbal communication, especially on the dance floor, but it can also act to structures time for those present, while they are present, as eternally in the present, as a momentary time of continual ‘now-ness’. Through imposing sonic orderings and spacings upon the social gathering, music can affect emotional responses” (Malbon, 1999, p.102)
“Drum’n’bass or techno combine the power of bass with an acceleration, which lifts the body. This force is infectious, it drives you on and energizes the entire club space” (Jackson, 2003, p.39). The music structures time and space and so guides the crowd and the event. Music’s sensual potential is embodied through the writhing dynamism of the crowd. Music has the sheer power to bring people together and radically shift the social and emotional timbre of clubs. It has the ability to act as a form of sonic adrenaline that consistently re-energizes the night and units people. The crowd is linked through the experience of the beat; it is a tangible kinetic rush that drives them on. The beats exist not only as a type of music, but also become inextricably linked to the emotional experience of clubbing, you feel it pulsating through and massaging your body. The beats and the bass are energizing, challenging the Western focus on bodily discipline and control, and seducing people to let go, abandoning themselves to the music or becoming the music, grooving and dancing. “This is music as a viscous, material force that penetrates deep into people’s sensual core and either radically alters or powerfully reflects the way they feel in the world” (Jackson, 2003, p.28). “The kinetic qualities of the beat intensify your perception of your own body and add to your sense of bodily acceleration. The beat infects both body and mind; it exists as a combination on mental schema and bodily practice that together creates the experience of dance”(Jackson, 2003, p.41).
Music can also have the effect of intensifying shared experiences through magnifying an emotion or set of emotions that an event or social interaction brings forth by simultaneously evoking similar emotional and physical responses amongst a group of co-present people. “Music also assists us in ‘getting out of ourselves’, in experiencing extasis and momentary loss of self through musically supported social interactions such as clubbing” (Malbon, 1999, p.77-78). Within the clubbing and rave event, music can be seen or rather, heard and experienced as visible and danceable.
“The music is also partly reproduced through the clubbers and their role as the ‘audience’, as an active and ‘musical’ crowd, listening to, understanding and expressing the music through themselves and their dancing. The clubbers as consumers of the music are also simultaneously the producers of the performance of that music. […] clubbers as performers.” (Malbon, 1999, p.83)
An ideal way of listening to music is to dance to it. Dancing can be a creative way of listening to music, to feel and let it resonate through the whole body, and through dancing one may lose oneself in the music physically and mentally, and thus fully embody and live it. “Dance expands your affinity to music by allowing you to build deeper and deeper physical relationships to it. Music ceases to be something that washes over your ears by becoming a corporeal force that is expressed in your whole physical response to the tune” (Jackson, 2003, p.27). To dance is not just to experience music as time, but also to experience time as music.
“Dancing represents a more spatially constituted form of listening to music […]because understandings are more actively traced and visibly performed in space. Through their actions in inhabiting and constituting spaces, dancing clubbers express a listening experience. Through the techniques of the body in understanding music they can explicitly identify with others through mimicry, with a style, through the display or emulation of that style, and with a crowd through combining proximity and tactility with this mimicry and its style.” (Malbon, 1999, p.99)
Dancing is an essential part of the clubbing and rave event. It is a moment of reconnecting with our body in a sensual and playful way, through moving in our own imaginative, creative ways, through being bodily and through bodily enjoyment. It requires no partner, is not limited to couple dancing, has no routine, requires no training and has no set steps. One can dance on one’s own, with one or more people or with a whole crowd. It is an individual, playful movement practice in relationship to the music, one’s emotions and imaginations, others, the lighting and the space. Through dancing a clubber can create his or her own identity and way of being and of being perceived by others, or of interacting and connecting with other. The dancer can also join the music and play with its given structure by ad libing his or her rhythm or beats to it. He or she can play with the spatial norms, as to where one normally dances and where not, loosening these boundaries and changing spacial orderings.
‘Dancing constitutes a form of cultural knowledge that is articulated through the ‘bodily endeavors’ of dancing subjects and not through the ‘power of the word’. In dancing […] individual embodied subjects/subjectivities enact and ‘comment’ on a variety of taken-for-granted social and cultural bodily relationalities: gender and sexuality, identity and difference, individuality and community, mind and body and so on. (Thomas, 2003, p. 215)
“Dancing within clubbing might be interpreted as an expressive form of thinking, sensing, feeling and processing which may be constituted through, as well as reflecting, strong relationships between clubber and the clubbing crowd, and in turn between the clubbing crowd and the society of which it is a part. Dancing within clubbing can be about […] a form of embodied resistance and source of personal and social vitality. (Malborn, 1999, p. 86-87)
Dancing ca be a unique power source, fully relaxing and vitalizing, the feeling of one’s whole body being completely connected, fluid and strong, powered up by the beat, and grounding the dancer into the present. It can make one feel more and fully alive, giving the feeling of living one’s truth. It is about itself and carries its own meaning. To dance is to physically occupy a meaningful time and meaningful space. It is in and about itself in that space in the moment, in and about the ephemerality and timelessness of now and here.
“The clubbing experience effectively transforms time into space and music for the clubbers whilst they are clubbing. The now-ness of clubbing, its insistence on the present and the significance of the moment repeatedly reinforces the notion of clubbing as somehow outside time, regulated temporally only through rhythm.” (Malbon, 1999, p.102)
By fully giving into it, it can produce strong sensations of joy, bliss and freedom. The music unleashes a sensuous fever that infects the crowd. The embodied residue of the week, one’s weaknesses, anxieties and strengths are channelled into the dance and so transmuted into movement, energy and heat. At times this can literally feel transcendent; it is a physicality that takes one so far beyond the everyday experience of one’s own social body that it feels like a sublime manifestation of self-in-world. “Dancing is one of the most crucial elements of clubbing because it unleashes the Dionysian body from the Apollonian constraints imposed upon it in the everyday world” (Jackson, 2003, p.15). Especially in the rave scene, where guys and men are as much dancing as girls and women: “The arrival of ecstasy and the rave scene altered the face of dance by rejecting the adoption of any particular dance style and by placing it in an environment that viewed macho posturing as a complete waste of time and energy” (Jackson, 2003, p .16).
“The inclusion of men on the dance floor also had a positive effect on women’s dancing; suddenly they were no longer dancing under the watchful eyes of sexually tense men who were only in the club to get pissed and pull. Instead everyone was in it together and the general air of delirium granted both genders an increased sense of freedom on the dance floor as the sheer sexual and sensual aspects of dance re-surfaced via this on-going liberation of the body from the judgmental gaze of the gendered other.” (Jackson, 2003, p.16)
Club dancing is an expansive and Dionysian practice in that it moves people beyond their everyday social, sensual and emotional boundaries. It is therefor a form of knowledge: a way of occupying the world that challenges the sensual limitations imposed by societ and the dominant culture, and thus has a liberating potential. This Dionysian rush of the rave environment allows both women and men to savor the sheer physical seductiveness of their own and other’s bodies in a safe and supportive space.
The feeling of pure energy, in oneself and feeding off everyone else’s energy and feeding off the music, the rhythm of the night,is a point of deep sensual connection to oneself, the crowd and the music. The sense of energy flowing through one’s veins makes one feel exquisitely alive and supercharged, and can make one feel very connected to the moving crowd, which can create a strong sense of community and belonging. People can be very close to each other, through emotional and physical proximity. “Clubbing is very much a social phenomenon at the heart of which is the clubbing crowd. The clubbing crowd is the foundation for the establishment of the belongings and identifications […] being the forum for the most overtly bodily enjoyment of the music and movement which largely constitute the clubbing experience” (Malbon, 1999, p.70).
“Moving together in time and place […]is a powerful force in the affective bonding of the individual with the group […] Communitas, for Turner, involves rituals ‘in which co- operative and egalitarian behavior is characteristic, and in which the social distinctions of rank, office and status are temporarily in abeyance, or regarded as irrelevant.” (Thomas, 2003, p.182)
“Structure of social relations in the contemporary clubbing account of this coming togetherness appears more fluid and transient […] and more equal. […]participants in rave ‘celebrations’ lose a sense of their (everyday) subjective identity while dancing and ‘merge with the crowd’ into a kind of ‘collective body” (Thomas, 2003, p.182). Through, above all, dancing, clubbers can trace unique paths through the clubbing experience, distinguishing themselves as individuals. Yet these practices and spacings of dancing are overwhelmingly crowd based. Through movement, proximity to and, at times, the touching of others, and (crucially) a positive identification with both the music and the other clubbers in the crowd, those within the clubbing and especially the dancing crowd can slip between consciousness of self and consciousness of being part of something much larger. “ The clubbing experience can be understood as a form of togetherness in which a central sensation is one of in-betweeness (or extasis) – this is the flux between identity and identification” (Malbon, 1999, p.74). The individual dancing and the dance with and within the crowd can create a strong sense of flow and flux, between self and non-self, between inner connection and experience of self within and of the and connected to the crowd. This can “foster a going-beyond of individual identities, an experience of being both within yet in some way outside of oneself at once” (Malbon, 1999, p.49).
A sense of transcending oneself, of becoming the music or losing oneself to the music and to the crowd, a loss of self can be experienced:
“Through dancing to music in a crowd, a high degree of individuality may be generated, while concurrently providing, if the dancer so desires, and is technically competent, opportunities for the loss of that individuality within the crowd. The experiencing of these crowds can provide pleasurable sensations of ‘in-betweeness’- or extasis -as crowd members flux between awareness and sensations of their own identities on the one hand and the identifications and belongings achievable through the crowd on the other.” (Malbon, 1999, p.71)
There is a duality of dancing for oneself, yet also in and for the group. “Togetherness of this kind is mostly about the unloading of the burden of individuality” (Malbon, 1999, p. 73). Dancing can be about becoming part of and submitting to the dancing crowd, yet also individualizing the self through the bodily practices of dancing within that crowd. “Women who went raving experienced the new-found tension that comes ‘from remaining in control, and at the same time losing themselves in dance and music” (Malbon, 1999, p.43). Dancing fuses notions of ‘inside’ (emotions) and ‘outside’ (motions) as the internal becomes externalized, and the external becomes internalized. “Dancing is at once both a cause and an effect. Emotions are expressed through the body, yet concurrently instilled through bodily movement, in tandem with music and other mediations” (Malbon, 1999, p.99) Through intense motion, intense emotion are set in motion, such as emotions of love, joy, empathy, elation, euphoria and notions of freedom. For clubbers, dancing is about simultaneously losing yet also gaining control over one’s body; dancing is about becoming part of and submitting to the dancing crowd. Clubbing crowds are at once both emotional and motional, both social and spatial formations, both expressive of style yet also constructive and transformative of self. Through focusing attention and concentrating the senses, music and the other mediations of clubbing can limit the stimulus field, distractions are temporarily eliminated and a sense of merging with the music – a loss of self or sensation of exstasis – can be experienced.
Potential ecstatic experiences or altered states, involving some form of transformation in consciousness, may be experienced:
“If successful in meeting the spacings of regionalization, mediations and bodily techniquesthrough understanding where and how to use one’s body, a sensation of momentary introspection ( or extasis) may be experienced. During these sometimes deeply emotional moments […] the individual clubber is outwardly participating in thepractices of dancing, but inwardly momentarily allows his or her attention to switchfromthis dancing to a play-like and reflexive world in which s/he alone participates. These relationships between bodily actions and emotional and mental reflection can be forcefully experienced.” (Malbon, 1999, p.100)
An ecstatic experience can consist of a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole or of oneness of everything.
“Altered states [do include] experiences of euphoria, happiness and joy characterized by a transitory, unexpected, valued and extraordinary quality of rare occurrence and magnitude in which an altered sense of consciousness is temporarily experienced. People describing oceanic experiences often evoke their feelings by describing sensations of upness, swelling, warm flushes or glowing in the heart, feelings of warmth, of liquidity, tinglings in the head and spine, and the attainment of calm and peace.” (Malbon, 1999, p.107)
The ecstatic thus can be experienced as an in-betweeness or liminality that characterizes clubbing and particularly the practices and emotions of dancing. Through the fluidity and constantly shifting socio-spatial dynamic of the dance floor. It can be experienced through dancing and the embodiment of that music, through self-mastery and the use of body techniques in the expression of a dancer’s understandings. The dancer is able to transcend or escape the self and strive for a realm beyond the confines of the body. Or through notions of loss (of differences between self and others, of time and space, of words, images and the senses) and simultaneously through notions of gain (of unity, of timelessness and eternity, of control, joy, contact, ineffability). “The ecstatic experience facilitates what can seem like a fleeting glimpse of sanity or ‘naturalness’, as the inhibitions of an apparently rule-bound ‘outside world’ dissolve in the space of the dance floor and within the dancing crowd” (Malbon, 1999, p.126).
“The experiencing of ecstatic sensations can actually be about an extraordinary and, for many, unparalleled and extremely precious experience of their own identity. Crucially, this experience of identity is perceived as their ‘real’ identity – how they really are (and/or want to be). This dramatic sensation of having one’s ‘true’ self or ‘natural’ state uncovered, unveiled or released can be so powerful as to be experienced as a form of earthly utopia or dream-world.” (Malbon, 1999, p.127-128)
These experiences of playful vitality and ecstatic states can be refreshing and revitalizing and provide sensations of strength and empowering individually and socially, in the moment but also beyond the clubbing event, infusing into the clubbers’ daily live. The urban and subcultural beginning of clubbing, such as of the black/gay minorities in the USA, Disco was a supporting force in creating social change through the acceptance of homosexuality and the back right’s movement. In the UK it was a strong sense of community for the working class people. With rave, class, ethnicity, gender and other social distinctions were imagined to dissipate. It is to some part underground and for insiders, but is also in some events open to a wider audience, and so more popular and accessible. It is not not secluded in an arts or other more secluded community, group or arts form, it is outside the linear, literal, reason mindset, outside the language system, it does not communicate in symbol or sign, you do not need to be in the known, no does it require pre-knowledge or understanding in that field. It is not about something, representing something else. It is not simulating something, not pretending to be something else, it is here and now, about the moment, the ephemeral and the unpredictable event, it is flux and flow, constantly shifting. Its roots are underground yet it has a wider popular potential to touch people and support or create social change.
It is radical in that it can have a radical effect on the people, the audience and the participants, as it is immediate, and awakens people’s raw life energy and potential power.
By bringing people back to their bodily, vital, emotional, communal and spiritual energies and to an altered state, an ecstatic or oceanic state or experience it can be seen as a contemporary shamanistic performance, as Reighley mentions: “DJs are modern-day shamans” (2000, p.11).
“The rhythmic soundscapes of electronic dance music genres are thought to inherit the sensuous ritualism, percussive techniques and chanting employed by non-Western cultures and throughout history for spiritual advancement. As house is compared favourably with the Cult of Oro in pre-Christian Polynesia, the Hopi Indian Snake Dance and Yoruba trance, and raving with Sufi dancing or the Kirtan dancing of Hare Krishnas, the new church [the rave] ‘non-denominational’ – with the ‘trance states’ serving ‘a more personal journey through the dancer’s own psyche tat can ultimately prove to be [..] rewarding for spiritual or psychological growth.” (St John Graham, 2004, p. 4).
It is also radical in that it is a different form of resistance to the dominant power structure and system, “less in terms of being concerned with effecting changes in a macro or overtly stated context (or scale), but rather as constituting a situation in which an ‘alternative conception of the self’ may be fostered- an alternative conception which may provide a sense and a source of vitality, or personal worth” (Malbon, 1999, p.146). It’s power lies not in going against, reproaching outside forces and powers, but by living up to one’s potential powers and creativity, one’s energy, vitality and thus creating an alternative, such as an alternative social ordering and a sense of other-worldliness. Clubbing can be a source of extraordinary pleasure and extraordinary states of being and ways of living, a vital context for the development of personal and social identities and so dance cultures may represent social movements.
“Play is also about an engagement with and an expression of a different facet of power altogether. This power comes not from above – it is not ascribed – but from within – it is achieved. Rather than being a mode of power that is evaded through play, it is instead a form of micro-power or ‘vitality’ that can be inhabited through play” [in] understand the practices of sociality that constitute play more as implicit notions of autotelic strength or vitality than of power or resistance the face of any explicit, or dominating authority. In this sense play can be understood not so much as a reaction to ‘all the dangers and dysfunctions of the moment’, but more as in spite of them.” (Malbon, 1999, p.149)
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