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By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

At the start of 2020, my daughter Emilia turned 18 months. This was an age that promised a series of new beginnings, including enrolling her in preschool and, in turn, gaining a few hours of child-free time. As we approached spring, I was even feeling ready to introduce her to new social settings beyond the playground. Being the raver at heart that I am, this meant taking her to all the daytime outdoor house and techno parties I used to attend. I couldn’t wait to strap her onto me in an Ergobaby carrier so I could dance freely — and reenter a world that I loved and missed so much. But when lockdown became our reality, none of this happened. This past weekend, then, was a long time coming: I took Emilia, now 4, to her first event, complete with DJs, ravers, Burners, and thumping house music.

As my nights out dancing until four in the morning became less frequent in my 30s, I gained a few things — sleep, brain cells — but lost a cathartic and deeply physical outlet to music. Taiko, which I practiced for a few years before I became pregnant, unexpectedly became a way for me to reconnect to both music and a community. I drummed and performed a lot during those nine months, my round belly absorbing the rumbles of big Japanese drums, so the music’s deep vibrations at the party shouldn’t have been a totally unfamiliar sensation to her. Still, loud and frenetic dance music can be a lot for a preschooler, even one who grew up with mama’s Soundcloud mixes playing at home. In fact, while we were out among the crowd, surrounded by dancing strangers, she felt safer being held — so I kept her close, our chests glued together, our bodies experiencing the four-on-the-floor beat as one.

There were moments that afternoon, as she embraced me tightly while I danced, when I couldn’t help but feel like I’d returned. But to what? It’s always been a challenge to articulate how freeing and empowering it is to move to this music — to house and techno and breaks and drum & bass and jungle — which is why I lean on other people’s words. The pieces below immerse us in distinct experiences, whether the wild life of a superstar DJ on Ibiza or the darkness of a famed Berlin club, but what they all do well is encapsulate the pull of the rave for me, after all these years.

Solomun, the D.J. Who Keeps Ibiza Dancing (Ed Caesar, The New Yorker, September 2022)

Ed Caesar’s piece on Solomun, a DJ described by some people as the “king of Ibiza,” prompted me to compile this list. It’s an entertaining profile of a DJ living a glamorous life, but what really got me were the lines that capture the timelessness of a long and transformative DJ set. (Solomun, known for his marathon sets, once played for 27 hours straight at Club Space in Miami.)

When Solomun began his set, I was transfixed. This was no sugar rush. I didn’t know any of the music, I didn’t even understand some of it, and there were stretches when I didn’t take much pleasure in what I was hearing. The music was presented as one long phrase, continually promising a resolution that never materialized—it was like being trapped inside a five-hour Bach fugue. … We remained on the dance floor until 7 a.m. I emerged onto the sidewalk, astonished by the morning sunshine and tottering like a newborn foal—a convert.

Caesar got into dance music later in adulthood, calling it “a strange kind of midlife awakening” and “a bug” that his wife caught as well, so there’s a bit of a fledgling perspective he brings to the piece. Still, I love Caesar’s observations about a Solomun set: a spontaneous, crowd-inspired, moment-to-moment manifestation of now, which he describes beautifully in these lines:

But a set cannot be designed as a future relic. It is a work of improvisation that succeeds or fails as it flows onto the dance floor. Solomun says that his job is to “create moments.” The evanescence is the thing.

Acid Church (Courtney Desiree Morris, Stranger’s Guide, May 2022)

After reading the Solomun profile, I revisited Courtney Desiree Morris’ moving essay from earlier this year about her grandmother, her love for New Orleans, and finding her queer tribe. I love the raw and bold writing, the palpable energy during the fuzzy wait for a drug to hit, the urgent and primal need to dance. “I am enveloped in a crush of vibrating flesh,” Morris writes, which may not sound appealing, but it reminds me of what it used to be like to get pleasantly lost on a packed dance floor, dancers’ slick arms grazing mine as I found my way into the hive’s warm core. For Morris, the dance floor also brings joy, and a sacred space to both surrender and remake oneself.

I return to the dance floor and dance for the DJ for what feels like hours. I roll my hips like the Mississippi, joints loose and easy, feeling light and free. I cannot remember the last time I felt this way. That makes me sad. I accept this insight and let it go as quickly as it comes. I am here in my body right now, and I am dancing like a bad bitch. The beat drops into a smooth bassline as I sweat the grief out. I dance for my grandmother. I dance for the elders in the synagogue. I dance for Ntozake. I dance for all the Black women I know dying from cancer and strokes and stress and sadness. I dance and dance and dance and laugh and celebrate and feel my aliveness.

Notes From the Underground (Zack Graham, Astra, April 2022)

This essay by Zack Graham, which I recommended back in April, recounts his first experience at an underground rave in a warehouse in Queens, and his later encounters with underground scenes abroad, notably Vienna’s Freetekno movement in which people take “the origins of raving to an extreme.” Like Caesar, Graham observes and revels in the timelessness of his experience. But, like Morris, he’s also aware of the power of the body, and the escape this world provides.

My body moved in ways I’d never thought possible. The track unleashed a creature inside me and time disappeared. Night had already fallen when I managed to extricate myself from the warehouse. I was shocked to discover I’d been there for eleven hours.

The more times I went to the party, the more quickly and seamlessly I transitioned into that timeless flow-state. I started wearing scarfs and shawls and cloaks and weird sunglasses. I hooted and purred and hollered when the DJ transitioned. When I went underground, my life above ground became a distant memory. I entered a parallel reality. When I walked through that door, I became someone else. There was no grand design, nothing to be gained, no goal to be accomplished, no honor to achieve. I simply was.

Electronic Music Is Black Protest Music (Whitney Wei, Electronic Beats, June 2020)

In this piece, written in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, Whitney Wei traces the history of techno’s origins. She explains how Black DJs — pioneers like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson — created the sound in the early ’80s in response to the decay and decline of post-industrial Detroit.

Nightclubs, as it so happens, bear a long legacy of being one of the very few spaces in society where Black and Brown people are able to freely express themselves, where they are able to, for a few short hours, reclaim the bodies that are systematically regulated, attenuated, and deliberately destroyed by the state.

Wei describes the spread of techno and house to Europe, including Germany and the U.K., commenting that “its European regional variants quickly became divorced from the genre’s original ethos of sublimating Black and Brown collective trauma into art.” It’s important to realize that rave and club culture — and their vision of the dance floor as a haven — is rooted in the struggle and survival of Black and brown people.

Through this assessment, freeform dancing, the process of trusting an innate, rhythmic impulse that shirks a set of codified behaviors, then becomes a powerful gesture of resistance. It’s no coincidence that rave music and its surrounding culture of escapism originated in Black and Brown communities. These underground club scenes have traditionally provided a momentary refuge for sexual and ethnic minorities from persecution, but, even more powerfully, they have provided a space to cultivate the self-sustaining joy and pride that is so often stripped from them.

Really Techno (Julia Bell, The White Review, June 2018)

Julia Bell’s entrancing account of Berghain is one of my favorite reads of the past several years on dancing and the rave scene. In the darkness of Berlin’s famous nightclub known for both its techno and its strict door policy, Bell notes a less overtly joyful atmosphere than what Morris describes. In Berghain, ravers’ movements are more militarized and precise than elsewhere — their bodies twisting and angling as physical manifestations of the beat. Like a Solomun DJ set, nothing is planned, and yet everyone moves exactly as they should in a symbiotic display. Even though dancers here are focused on their own journeys, the dance floor is still communal — it ebbs and flows as one organism.

Dancing to techno rejects the disco values of sociability, of looking at your partners, making eye contact, for a much more individuated approach. Everyone on the dance floor is together but separate, facing the DJ booth, lost in sound and light. You dance with other people as anonymous silhouettes, maybe catching someone’s eye when the break is especially ecstatic or a mix just dropped. Watching from the edges, the dance floor heaves, it moves as one body, like the surface of the sea.

I especially love Bell’s observations about her body’s automatic movements. She describes dancing not as her body’s response to sound — her body becomes the sound. 

I let myself into the rhythm and my limbs move of their own accord. I don’t control it. I’m not making any rehearsed moves, just letting my nervous system respond to the beat. My arms and legs and torso move as if connected to the sound, bypassing consciousness.

Like the writers above, Bell works toward a moment of clarity; she knows that the dance floor, this shared experience, connects her to something larger. Reading how they all come to this realization is a powerful thing.

I am not aware of myself. I am at once all body and no body. I am out of time, out of language, my mind all sensation. … In this place I am connected to something bigger than me, a place outside the ego. The split parts of me are, for these few moments, suddenly whole.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.