It's late on a Saturday night in Santa Monica, and the dancers are just getting going. A huge disco ball slowly rotates, sending flashes of light across ecstatic faces among the crowd. Around the edges of the room, drummers use their hands to pound out a hypnotic rhythm. Then the DJ kicks in and spins Destiny's Child, and a new surge of dancers rushes the floor.
They are grabbing hands or dancing alone in trance-like states; they are jumping frantically, spinning off the pent-up energy from the week.
"OK," the DJ calls out, "everybody do the ankle dance! How do your ankles like to express themselves?"
Welcome to KidTribe, a dance party for kids ages 5 to 11, led by DJ and founder Kellee McQuinn, a pixieish woman of 31 with bright eyes and a feather boa.
McQuinn, who grew up with a dance-instructor mother, describes dance as a place "where every road converges. You're processing and feeling and expressing and connecting all at the same time, and it's completely nonlinear."
It was while she was at a communal dance last summer that it occurred to her there was nothing like that available for kids. "I wanted to create a safe haven so that these people can grow up with choices, with joy, with peace and empowerment."
So the first and third Saturday of every month, the drab walls of the Santa Monica Place mall's community room are hung with ropes of lights, balloons and glittery streamers and, at $15 a head, the kids take over. In one room kids feed from a massive bowl of Goldfish crackers and stand in line to get temporary tattoos, glitter spray and hair wraps. On the dance floor, there's the ankle dance.
The kids hop and shimmy, expressing themselves through their ankles. "Now knee dance! Knees are beautiful things!" McQuinn giggles as the kids start dancing like drunken sailors. "Now put your arms around yourself. Kiss your arm and say, 'Self, I love you, Self. If it weren't for you I wouldn't be here!' " The kids think this is hilarious and start kissing their arms.
KidTribe has a firm "no parents" policy. "There's definitely a difference in what happens when kids are in front of their parents versus when they're in their own context, when they can create themselves in the moment," McQuinn says.
Leslie Cabarga, a KidTribe dad, has no problem with that. "It just seems like the perfect opportunity for my daughter to interact with other kids in a healthy environment. Naturally, it also gives me a chance to get out on the Promenade on a Saturday night. But that is secondary. I would take her anywhere KidTribe was."
McQuinn and her staff of teenage girls monitor the door, chaperon kids to the bathroom and help work out the occasional conflict. But mostly they dance, drawing younger children out onto the dance floor.
"I know what a powerful effect music has on children. A lot of their peers are listening to heavy-duty music." She scans all the songs for content. "Anything that has too much anger or is too much about money or driving a Mercedes won't get played. But if you're 8 years old, I am the bomb when it comes to music."
In her literature, McQuinn has described KidTribe as a rave for kids, which has upset some parents, who are wary of kids socializing in an adult way. McQuinn appreciates their concern: "I say 'rave for kids' because it paints the picture right away, but I'm still looking for the perfect phrase to let everyone know that it's safe. Because the last thing I want to say is, 'Hey, drugs are cool.' I'm saying, 'Hey, your body is cool. Dancing is cool. It's better than having a baby-sitter and watching 'Lilo & Stitch' for the 12th time."
In these times when kids are being kept under an ever closer watch, there are relatively few outlets for what clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," calls "wholesome danger." Gone are the days when kids can build forts in the woods or cruise the neighborhood on bikes until dark. At the same time, kids are under increasing pressure to perform at school and in extracurricular endeavors.
Mogel says she is "desperate for kids to have a place to hang out where they aren't being taught anything, and they aren't being spied on and evaluated and measured and intruded on."
Veteran KidTribe member Frances Freeman, 7, seems to agree. She likes KidTribe because "we have more time to be ourselves and be crazy. Parents like us to be quiet and not so noisy. I like it because we get to have the time of our lives." Noah Ulin, 7, says he feels very comfortable at KidTribe because "I feel like all the kids here are my friends, even if I don't really know them. They're all very nice."
McQuinn hopes to open KidTribes across the nation, places where kids can meet, dance, make new friends and then stay connected with one another through the Internet, creating a legion of what she calls "peaceful warriors."
Mogel welcomes this vision. "They need this: the legion part, the peaceful part, the warrior part. What she's doing is embracing the best part of the modern world. Instead of just scorning it, or feeling helpless, she's saying, 'Let's take advantage of the technology and the really fun music and let them play.' "
The hip-hop beat gives way to the spiraling, rhythmic growl of a didgeridoo. McQuinn's friend Andrew Werderitch is this week's guest performer. This is a chance for kids to feel themselves buoyed by this hypnotic instrument. They all lie on the floor, their heads on one another's bellies, as Werderitch passes the end of the long pipe over their bodies. The children are still, held in the embrace of sound and lost in the moment.
"Something spiritual happens when people are all in the same rhythm," McQuinn explains. "It's total unity. Since the beginning of time it's been the drumbeat that keeps us together. We have the same rhythm going on in our hearts."
For more information contact Kellee McQuinn at (310) 455-0580 or online at www.kidtribe.org.