New York City's always-bustling Union Square is not known for an abundance of silence. Located atop one of the city's largest subway stations, Union Square park is a thoroughfare and meeting place for students, hipsters, tourists and locals, making it perhaps the perfect location to host a silent rave Saturday afternoon.
Popularized during the 1990s, the rave has come out of its dark and private underground place with a 21st century twist. The phrase "silent rave" seemed counterintuitive, as traditionally, the parties were quite loud, but what unites the old school rave with its new, noiseless incarnation is the pursuit of fun.
A couple hundred solo rave dancers gathered in the park with their digital music players and literally danced to their own beats, flailing around to personalized soundtracks after event organizer Jonnie Wesson led a 10-second countdown to exactly 5:28 p.m. With headphones and earbuds fastened securely in place, the ravers rocked out with nary a noise complaint from the neighbors.
"At a completely random time, thousands of people who have heard about [the event] would all meet up in a public place. Everyone turns out and [puts on their] head phones and has a good time," said Wesson, 18.
Instantly, Wesson, a foreign exchange student from London, began throwing his arms in the air as others followed his lead. Some, like Wesson, had preplanned their playlists. Others, who weren't so wise, just winged it or opted for the random option on their iPods.
My own lack of planning resulted in some interesting combinations, like bouncing between country group Rascal Flatts, tween sensation the Jonas Brothers and pop heavyweights Rhianna and Beyonce, making it hard to keep the beat. In all honesty, my moves probably shamed my Nigerian family just a bit.
With your headphones on, it's as if everyone moves to your beat; when they're removed it feels as if the hundreds of people are dancing to the city's ambient sounds of humming car engines, shuffling feet and reverberating chatter.
Confused Stares, Awkward Moves
Curious and confused passersby were surprised to see people dancing so intensely to what looked like absolutely nothing to the spectators. Many stopped and stared for minutes, attempting to figure just exactly was happening.
Even as a participant it was confusing to see the diverse group of tweens, teens and middle-agers moving as if someone has just yelled "action" in a movie musical.
For the curious observers, the questions weren't exactly clarified when a participant yelled out, "It's a silent rave!"
"I think it's very fun and unique because people are having fun," said 10-year-old Alexandra DeSandis, who stumbled upon the event with her family. "I'm dancing in my head."
But her 12-year-old cousin wasn't as enthusiastic and said the dancers looked awkward. I secretly wondered if she meant me.
Still, the boppers reveled in the attention, the music and the inevitable conga lines.
"What could be better than a party with your own music? You can change the song whenever you want to," said 17-year-old Manhattan native Eudora Peterson, who learned about the event through the social networking site Facebook.
The History of the Silent Rave
The idea of the silent disco isn't a new one. Silent raves, or silent discos as they are sometimes called, have been occurring in Europe for years.
"I've been going to them in London for the last three or four years," Wesson said.
In April, Wesson planned New York's first silent rave, and 2,000 people showed up. But even that turnout paled in comparison to a 2006 event at London's Paddington Station, when 3,500 people arrived to rave at the height of the evening rush hour.
Though Wesson's Union Square party had far fewer people, the student said he was happy people were having a good time in the city he's come to love while studying as a foreign exchange student the last seven months.
"It's a lovely farewell to a lovely city," said Wesson, who heads back to England next week. "The last silent rave I did as sort of a thank-you to New York."
Party Like a Rock Star in the Park
"The only point of the silent rave is to have fun," said Wesson, while listening to Klaxon's "Gravity's Rainbow." "That's why they are so appealing."
Wesson said he is self-conscious about his dancing, but when he attends silent raves, they allow him to let loose.
But that wasn't true for all of us.
Personally, while I'm more than happy to bounce around to my iPod, without worry of what others are thinking, on my daily, hour-long commute into work, I could only manage a two-step to the songs my music player randomly tapped and fell far short of my goal to "party like a rock star" with the Shop Boyz.
My insecurities seemed a little ridiculous when I noticed an elderly Asian couple sharing an iPod and carelessly dancing the evening away without worry.
What's on Your Playlist?
Many dancers said they'd chosen up-tempo dance or techno music.
"It's nice because this is something people usually do in front of their mirrors at home," said 26-year-old blogger Gen DiNapoli, a first-time attendee who learned about the event in a newspaper
She created a playlist with 13 songs of her favorite music, including indie rock and ironic dance tunes.
Attendees were eager to share what was on their playlists — even if I was too ashamed to reveal I was listening to something from the MTV hit "Making the Band" and the "Survivor" television theme song. (Don't judge me. The beats are hot.)
Mick Stevens, 42, opted for Bobby Darren, Katy Perry and Leona Lewis.
"I know I'm going to look like a fool. I've accepted this," the Brooklyn resident said.
Forty-five-year-old Bronx resident Malinda McKinnon shared some of the same thoughts and artists, like REM and Nirvana. She also had rap icon Biggie Smalls.
"It's so random," she said. "[This] is one of the things that makes the city so great, that people can just get together and have fun despite the rumors of New Yorkers being rude."
At least for the day, New Yorkers were nice. They didn't make fun of the kid who danced so hard he tripped over a garbage bag and nearly hit the ground face-first, nor did they blink at the dancing mustard or cardboard box robot.
They did pay homage to a glow stick filled pineapple, screaming "Woooo!" each time it was hoisted in the air, for reasons that remain unclear.
The one thing that many participants weren't fond of was the commercialization that accompanied the rave. Some advertisers and performers took the opportunity to show themselves off. A group flipped large, arrow-shaped signs saying "advertise here" as a street performer danced nearby for money.
Wesson worried that what began as a way for people to express themselves could become co-opted by advertisers. Several agencies have already approached him about planning a silent rave as a promotional act.
"My only really motivation for doing this is fun," he said. "It's great to be able to let loose and relax, and that is what this is for."