On a Saturday evening in June, the dance floor at Santa Monica's Central Social Aid & Pleasure Club was packed with patrons enthusiastically dancing, singing and doing call-and-response with the DJ. It's a scene that could have been unfolding on umpteen dance floors across the city, but in this case, something very different was going on.
The cool-kid crowd was moving and grooving to silence. Or so it seemed.
Actually, the revelers were taking part in a phenomenon known as "silent disco," a dance party where the booming music is both private and shared. Instead of getting their audio fix from the massive speakers found at most dance clubs, partygoers donned custom wireless headphones to tune in to a live DJ broadcast.
The term silent disco was coined in 2005 at the U.K.'s Glastonbury Festival, where headphones were used to share music en masse without violating local noise restrictions. Robbie "Motion Potion" Kowal, a San Francisco-based DJ, was the first to try the concept in the U.S. at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2006. Since then, he's invested in his own set of 1,000-plus headphones and has taken silent disco on the road to clubs, festivals and public spaces where noise ordinances would otherwise make a dance party impossible.
Friday night will be his third time bringing silent disco to Central since the club opened to the public last September.
"It's becoming one of our signature parties," said Rory Lovett, one of Central's co-owners. Due to its growing popularity, he said, Central has decided to make it a monthly event second Saturdays starting in December.
According to Kowal, one of the things that makes silent disco such a crowd-pleaser is the "voyeuristic passerby factor." In previous months, the party at Central has spilled out onto 14th Street. People who stumble upon it "can't even conceptualize what the heck is going on because they see people dancing around and they don't hear anything," he said.
Kowal thinks the "unintentional comedy factor," as he put it, is equally compelling. "You see people trying to sing along and not knowing the words ... or pretending to know the words so their friends think that they [do]," he said. "So much of club culture now is so over-serious.... This has a way of bringing the smiles and laughter back."
Stephanie Tucker of Hollywood, who in June was attending her second silent disco night at Central, said that "on a normal dance floor, everyone stays in their little circles." But at silent disco, she's experienced more interaction among strangers. "It's almost like because everybody has got the headphones on that we all have something in common."
The headphone concept encourages more conversation too. Dancers can take their headsets off (or turn down the volume) at will to chat with someone, and the lack of a sound system means they can actually hear one another — an option, well, unheard of in conventional clubs. "It's not this inescapable pounding DJ set," said Lovett.
Those tuning in to Kowal's broadcast will hear his signature blend of rare groove and album rock reimagined as dance mixes — in June, his "Good Vibrations" mix included the Beach Boys and Marky Mark. Friday night he'll be joined on the decks by Los Angeles-based DJ Quickie Mart.
Kowal will also be bringing silent disco to the sprawling Sunset Strip Music Festival on Saturday. See the website for details as they emerge: http://www.sunsetstripmusicfestival.com.
Silent disco "favors more adventurous music," said Kowal. Participants are "really listening ... because you put those headphones on and it goes directly from the DJ's brain into yours."