Sundays are for restorative “silent nightclubs” in Long Beach

As the sun begins to set on an unusually hot and crowded Labor Day weekend at Junipero Beach, bewildered onlookers gather around a curious sight.

About two dozen strangers stand in an awkward circle on the sand, avoiding eye contact as they fidget with identical wireless headphones. But the self-awareness of being an oddity on public display vanishes as these headphones pass over their ears, silencing the rowdy beach sounds. Children scream in the nearby playground, teenagers scream, a heated family argument – all of this is drowned out by the mellow tones of a song titled “Akal” by White Sun.

A 25-year-old woman with a microphone speaks quietly over the music, asking if this is someone’s first silent disco. Most of the members of the eclectic group – which spans a wide range of ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities – raise their hands.

Dancers twirl streamers while listening to music as part of a ‘So We Are Silent’ disco event in Long Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The So We Are Silent Disco has met every Sunday in Long Beach since its launch in March – nearly two years to the day after Los Angeles County first implemented its Order Safer at Home COVID-19 and changed the way we could socialize together in public.

It begins with a simple mirror exercise, with each willing participant contributing a dance move that the rest of the circle mimics. Some freeze under the pressure of creativity, just repeating a variation on what the last dancer did. It doesn’t matter because no one is keeping score.

As sheepish as this mish-mash crew had seemed before, everyone spends the next hour quietly gasping as their members thrash about in an uncoordinated dance to music only they can hear. When a remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays, Katie Neary, the event’s organizer and guide, asks how each attendee’s body dances when it “feels good,” even though it doesn’t is possible to feel only 1% better.

A detailed image of headphones used for silent disco dancing, inscribed with the words, "U.S. too."

Headphones used for silent disco dances, bearing the words “So We Are”.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

It’s so infectious that an intrigued viewer makes a grand spectacle by joining in without a helmet. After a pair is handed to him, he quickly withdraws, seeming surprised at the unfettered intimacy. A few chaotic children take his place. They stick around until the end, though they don’t have the rhythm or vibe of a single song.

Many silent disco newbies break down in tears after being asked to talk about their experience, stifling fleeting words of gratitude for something they can’t quite describe.

A returning participant braves the first share by congratulating everyone for going from strangers to community in just an hour. A preteen girl struggles to keep her voice steady; his uncertainty about the strangeness of a silent disco was washed away by the waves. Life can be long sometimes, she says, but somehow her mother always finds a way to create beautiful memories like this for their family, no matter how hard it gets. A soft-spoken young woman reveals that she was stuck in a depressive episode and almost forgot that it was possible to feel as much or as good.

In 2020, So We Are founder Neary was fresh out of college and making big money as a commercial insurance broker. “I thought that was what I wanted my life to be like,” the Cypress resident says. “Then the pandemic happened and everything stopped.”

A man and a woman standing with their feet in the waves, holding hands and looking out to the ocean.

Nathan Hildebrandt and Adelyn Reed, of Bend and McMinnville, Oregon, hold hands as they take a moment with their thoughts in the water during ‘So We Are Silent Disco’.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

This break inspired a shift in priorities, away from business success and toward more fulfilling interests. She discovered Ecstatic Dance, a spiritual practice popular in Los Angeles that uses rhythmic movement to achieve meditative or trance states. From there she gravitated to a Venice Beach-based silent nightclub called The Wave, which borrows from dance movement therapy. The principles of this creative arts therapy range from embodying positive feelings to resolving stored trauma in the body. This resonated with Neary, who battled eating disorders and rare chronic illnesses affecting her digestive system that hospitalized her throughout her senior year of high school.

“My body continues to be my biggest lesson. Even though I’ve healed, it’s the train that never stops,” she says. When she was younger, Neary tried to hide her illnesses to avoid being branded as the sick girl.” But the more you hide from something or try to pretend it’s not there, the more your body will burn on you. I didn’t even realize how much I was running away from myself until 2020, when I was finally able to look back.

So Neary took The Wave’s five-week host training course and decided to bring a healing-focused silent disco closer to home. However, she is careful not to pass herself off as a dance movement therapist. Each silent disco begins with a reminder that participants can withdraw at any time, especially if intense emotions arise.

After finally quitting her job with the company this year, she teamed up with her brother Michael Neary (who holds the title of Ambiance Director at So We Are Silent Disco). They struck algorithmic gold in go semi-viral on TikTok in July, boosting attendance rates from around 10 to 15 to 20 to 40 people each Sunday, with tickets priced at $30.

But TikTok’s For You page isn’t the only way people can get to So We Are Silent nightclub.

A woman wearing headphones with her arms raised in the air, on the beach at sunset.

Katie Neary, center, hosts ‘So We Are Silent Disco’.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

In April, 30-year-old Jordan Alexandra Lynn found herself lost after leaving the evangelical church and moving to Long Beach from Orange County in search of more gay-friendly communities. As they cruised down Junipero Beach, they asked the universe for a metaphorical sign in the right direction. Then there was the literal So We Are sign on the beach, with rainbow flags proudly planted in the sand below (Neary is also queer). Like many attendees, the usually reserved Lynn was initially surprised by what she signed up for. But the public vulnerability exercise proved to be more fun and accessible than most other healing exercises.

“The last two years have been incredibly difficult for me. But I’m here, feeling, in this body. In front of all these people,” Lynn says.

For Neary, the public setting only strengthens the bond within the group, especially for those who suffer from social anxiety, because “we are all in this together. You don’t do anything alone. If you jump, we jump. Additionally, for people who continue to be wary of large gatherings due to COVID, “it’s a way to get out and reconnect, to be in the community – but still feel safe.”

Silhouettes of people dancing on the shore at sunset.

Dancers revel in the experience of dancing beside the water as the sun sets.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Unlike the newbies, Lorraine Aguilar, 58, is exactly the kind of hippie you’d expect to wait for a quiet nightclub to hit Long Beach. “Honestly, that’s what’s going to save us as a planet. I know that’s a big statement,” says the CEO of Working Harmony, a company that teaches corporate empathy training. respond to uncertainty by navigating from a place of fear, anger, depression, reactivity – or we can fill ourselves with love, joy, creativity, without judgment. … So it’s much more than just dancing.

For sneering skeptics, the unreserved sincerity of So We Are Silent Disco may sound like little more than an embarrassing public display of cringe. But Neary welcomes the label, saying “the more you embrace your cringe, the more freedom you’ll have.” The grimace is just a judgment you pass against yourself.

In many ways, the silent disco can serve as informal exposition therapy of sorts as we enter yet another phase of the pandemic. For the chronically jaded, it injects a sense of hope straight into your veins. For the socially anxious introvert, reliance on nonverbal communication acts as an equalizer. To those who can’t shake the certainty that we’re always safer at home, you can be in community with the public while staying 6 feet apart.

For now, that should be enough. We’ve spent so much time “alone together” that maybe dancing alone together on a beach is all we can handle.

A sunset image of a woman wearing headphones, dancing on the beach and creating bubbles with a bubble wand.

Lorraine Aguilar of Seal Beach spins around releasing bubbles as she joins other dancers in a silent disco at sunset.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Comments are closed.