Giulia Federica Zampini and Eveleigh Buck-Matthews
Dancefloors are sites rife with narratives. Young people congregate in clubs, pubs, raves, and muddy fields seeking out like-minded revellers. The city has allowed dancefloors to flourish, drawing in diverse communities, neo-tribes with unique perspectives, behaviours and norms.
How could a dancefloor be a safe space to nurture a caring community? Can a dancefloor be a truly progressive space actively combating capitalist, patriarchal, and heteronormative forces? Can a dancefloor be caring if it involves drug-taking? The dangerous, unhealthy nature of drugs makes this association almost paradoxical. But what if there is a nurturing aspect that remains hidden in the dancefloor on drugs? These spaces are usually enveloped in leisure, public health, law enforcement or moral panic discourses, with little space left for alternative readings.
“People and Dancefloors: narratives of drug-taking” is a UK-based project that explores experiences of drug-taking on the dancefloor through the medium of film. Thirteen people from cities across the UK and beyond, including Manchester, Bristol, and London, have made contributions to the project so far. While most participants are in their 30s and 40s, they are recollecting experiences of their early youth in the city and, we argue, also represent the ‘new youth’. Delayed entry into traditional, stable forms of living, working and family life means people maintain ‘youthful’ lifestyles for longer. While participants reflect on the process of negotiation between youth and adulthood, they discuss the important place that dancefloors and drugs have had in their lives.
Uncovering the sociality of the dancefloor and the care it offers challenges the drug discourses that permeate mainstream media. It is often within young people’s self-made spaces that we find resistance, and we can best channel it through participatory action research. In the UK, an informed public discussion on drug taking in the context of clubs, raves, festivals, gigs and other music venues remains a taboo. The project actively communicates urban youth’s experiences of drugs and dancefloors, and relationships therein. It also brings the drugs debate back to the space and the communities that it affects.
Drugs, particularly of the recreational variety, are often consumed in urban environments and in social and music spaces. Like our understanding of most categories, the category “drugs” is plagued with dichotomies: drugs are depicted as either emancipatory or dangerous, involving either an act of rebellion or an act of coping and conformity to our consumption frenzied urban environments. In Jock Young’s classic reading, hedonism is seen in its productive capacity, as a tool to keep people working and consuming. What is often less visible is the need for belonging that stands in opposition with isolating, individualistic ways of living and working that mine the very foundation of community. Conforming to a group that engages in an activity together may help people meet such a need for belonging, as one that is constantly challenged in disconnected urban environments. Dancefloors are places where liminal communities can come together. While these communities are transient, the sense of belonging created and recreated through the experience of dancefloors can transcend time and space, making people feel a permanent sense of belonging to an imagined community and the culture surrounding it (1).
Participants’ narratives directly refer to inclusion, community, and connection as shaping their dancefloor experiences, in opposition to the alienating spaces of the city and its productive modes. This is particularly evident in Russ’s remark, when he juxtaposes the city’s anonymous encounters to people making friends on the dancefloors while under the influence of drugs.
Friends with strangers, it’s so rare that […] even if in a city with people around us, we ever talk to strangers, but you will literally have conversations with strangers the whole night, sometimes take them back to your house, and it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before.
Dancefloors could be re-imagined as an alternative, more liberating way of being socially connected while seeking detachment from social structures. On the dancefloor, there is an emphasis on common experience and emotional bonds forged through music, dance, and communion that stand in opposition to daily routine. As Sarah notes, ‘it’s just not something that you would experience in the day to day life, this kind of “communitive”, friendly, empathic, joyous thing.’
Beyond their proclaimed emancipatory value, dancefloors on drugs can also be risky. Drug-taking always involves risk; negative consequences may manifest in the moment, through acute toxicity and overdose, or over time through habitual use. Dancefloors facilitate close proximity with strangers under the influence of disinhibiting substances while also potentially subjecting revellers to sexism, racism, and ableism. Disinhibited bodies on dancefloors are less on guard than the barrages of bodies that barely touch each other in routine activities and interactions in the city. Perhaps the emancipatory power of drugs and dancefloors lies in facilitating an openness in opposition to the atomised, individualistic and normative body in space, a body so rigid and stiff. The negotiation of new, alternative bodily and social relationships should be at the centre of reading these spaces.
On the dancefloor, revellers seek safety and inclusion, and often find a sense of acceptance from others, and acceptance of themselves. John’s take on the dancefloor highlights its inclusive nature:
I’ve always found it to be a very safe and welcoming space. I’m obviously quite overweight, but I’ve always felt welcomed like when I’m throwing shapes, very badly and uncoordinatedly. I don’t look good when I’m doing it obviously, but no one has ever come up and judged me for that, and if I have been like in a corner, sort of not doing anything, people have actually come over and asked me to dance with them.
Although unique to John, this experience also resonates with other participants who may have struggled to ‘fit in’ by nature of their personal characteristics, like Cavan, who describes his early youth experience of the dancefloor as a cathartic moment, allowing him to let himself go without being afraid of judgement.
I was actually a really shy and retiring kind of person, but then I kind of discovered through dancefloors actually that… it’s like the throwing yourself into the abyss and finding there’s a feather bed at the bottom, I actually found out that when you do cross over that invisible boundary and let yourself go on a dancefloor, that there is literally no judgement and that is a place where you have total freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is something people seek on the dancefloor. But people also seek community and connection. On the surface, there might be a tension between individual self-expression and connection – because social behaviours are inevitably shaped by cultural norms which limit self-expression. For Russ, the dancefloor provides a space of communal release, and drug-taking is identified as a vehicle that aids the release process in order to ‘remove some of the social constraints’.
From these perspectives, the ideal dancefloor is understood as an inclusive, caring space, where people seek freedom of expression, bonding and connection. The dancefloor should be a space to be free, but often it is not. Dancefloors are shaped by social structures, including gender, race, class, among others, and institutionalised control mechanisms which limit people’s freedom. There are instances where structural inequalities are played out on dancefloors, turning them into spaces of unwanted sexual attention, violence, abuse, and discomfort.
Dancefloors are dynamic, changeable, and porous. They can be safe spaces and, indeed, historically they have acted as a shelter for marginalised ethnicities and sexualities. The rising popularity and commercialisation of electronic dance music have made the dancefloor an increasingly global, consumption focused, mainstream, and heteronormative space. This has real consequences on dancefloors’ ability to maintain their inclusive and caring nature. And yet, people continue to be active in developing strategies to resist the mainstreaming of dancefloor spaces.
Overall, dancefloors on drugs seem to act as a vehicle to challenge control – on bodies, on health, on interactions – moulding and speeding people’s bonding process and facilitating connection and community-building. John’s account here is not unique: ‘I’ve met a lot of people that I’m friends with now because of my use of drugs.’ This resonates with Lyndsay’s story below, and indeed others’ stories:
Me and my mates would stock up on ecstasy and go and dance our arses off all night to screamo heavy metal. I think that doing drugs together was a massive bonding experience. Your inhibitions are lowered, your empathy is through the roof, everybody is a friend […] The friends I made were like my surrogate family.
People and Dancefloors seeks to re-think the dancefloor, the community it sustains, the unique social interactions it creates and the care it brings to those that step inside. The dancefloor is shaping young people’s experiences of community, helping them negotiate social and cultural norms, challenge social control mechanisms, and create new belongings.
(1) This was apparent when the London club Fabric was threatened with closure, and a large community of revellers came together in protest using the tagline: ‘Save our Culture’. Calling all dancers, ravers and festival fiends, join us to explore voices from the dancefloor. We are a participatory network, open to any and all with an interest in dancefloors, music and the communities that they create. Whether you use drugs or not, we would love to hear from you.
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Giulia Zampini is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich interested in morality, evidence and change in drug and prostitution policy. She tweets at @GFZampini. Eveleigh Buck-Matthews is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich. Critical geographer and activist, she is interested in participatory methods, liminality and young people.
Image: A still from People and Dancefloors.
The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.