Carpe Noctem

This week's WEEKEND

You can do it naked. You can do it drunk or sober. You can do it with strangers, or your closest friends. On your birthday, or someone else’s. But sooner or later, almost everyone does it. It’s in our nature. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

I refer to parties, of course. Over the recent break, I heard a friend from Columbia call us the “Party Ivy.” I perked up.

Really?

“Well … not actually. That’s Penn, for a normal party. And if by ‘party,’ you mean ‘crawl out of a frat at three in the morning,’ that’s Dartmouth.”

But who cares about our Ivy peers, as long as we’re happy with our current scene? WEEKEND surveyed over 30 students to hear their thoughts, and satisfaction was mixed. Many told us they thought the scene was diverse and welcoming, but others bemoaned the lack of dance parties or the smell of certain fraternities. Boyd Jackson ’13 delivered another common indictment: “Too many bodies, too little space. You go to a party in a tiny room and there are a hundred people there. Something is wrong with that.”

The consensus: Yalies are great, and our parties a cut above those of certain schools — ”People here are pretty neat drunks,” noted Hal Libby ’15 — but a significant subset of the student body yearns for something more. Something beyond Toad’s Place and the Greeks and the crowded suites. Something to integrate the “insular” social culture many believe keeps us boxed in after-hours.

So I set out on a mission: to improve our parties, through the application of my wisdom and experience. But a few problems cropped up. I don’t go out much, and I don’t drink. I can count my Toad’s nights on one hand, and my frat parties on zero hands. Thus, I required surrogate wisdom and experience. But from where?

Science, of course! Parties, it turns out, are a fixture of modern academia. The human brain evolved largely to accommodate our skills as a social animal, and every discipline from biology to sociology is incomplete without the study of nightlife.

Even Yale acknowledges this: Madison Moore GRD ’12, a doctoral candidate in the American Studies program, taught “Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City,” a seminar through which students heard lectures from DJs and took a field trip to the Boom Boom Room, one of the city’s hottest clubs. The class, though frowned upon by everyone from Fox News to the New York Post, was wildly popular, and its unique professor was my first step on the road to party perfection.

Before we meet him, however, a statement of purpose. My research took me places I’d never expected — through rave culture and party history and the science of attraction — and the following lessons mark my attempt to pass on what I’ve learned. Enter if you’d like: all ages are free, with or without your Yale ID.

— Lesson One: The Work —

“A scholar of any genre, scene or culture will invariably be a participant, either as a musician, dancer or in some other capacity.”

— Graham St. Thomas, editor in chief of Dancecult, a journal of electronic dance music

Moore is still hot on the party trail, even as he finishes his dissertation, “Fierce: Performance, Creativity and the Theory of the Fabulous Class.” One cannot study nightlife, Moore believes, without going all-in for a firsthand experience.

“There are two options for the kind of work I do,” he told me. “You can study it like a scientist dissecting something.” Or, he added, you can be part of the party.

Though he doesn’t disparage the former option, Moore prefers the latter, owning the dance floor and getting potential subjects’ numbers when he can, so he can interview them in some later daylight. When the party ends, “I rush home and write everything down,” says Moore, but he refuses to enter “dissecting mode” in the heat of the moment. In one sense, though, his mental state is different from that of the average dancer; Moore doesn’t drink or do drugs. This, he says, is a matter of personal preference rather than any standard of academia. And besides, the best parties are “visually and aurally stunning spaces” that function without the “artificial interest” inspired by alcohol.

Moore’s methods, however, aren’t universal among those who study parties. Simon Morrison is a current Ph.D. student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom, but he came to academia relatively late in life. His previous gig was a column for a DJ Mag entitled “Around the World in 80 Clubs,” whose contents have been read aloud to the tourism-hungry Albanian parliament, and whose writer has been warmly welcomed everywhere from Singapore to post-war Kosovo. “They were so happy to see me!” Morrison recalled.

The author “took it upon [himself] to get more twisted than anybody else,” lest his temperance leave him “geographically and chemically removed from the action.” While this might have interfered with his memories, he took on-site notes and was always followed by a professional, un-twisted photographer (“my Sancho Panza.”) The resulting work, collected in his new book “Discombobulated: Dispatches from the Wrong Side,” is light and breezy, the work of a younger, friendlier Hunter S. Thompson. There are, however, two downsides to his wayward style of scholarship. First, he needs to keep the book hidden from his four children until they turn 18. Second, he’s been forced to scale back his activities: Once you’ve hit 40, “you can’t be ‘that guy’ anymore.”

But while you can take the scholar out of the party, you can’t take the party out of the scholar. “I do still dip my toes back in those waters from time to time,” Morrison said. You can leave, but the spaces pull you back in.

— Lesson Two: The Space — 

“Nightlife design is set design for plays that haven’t been written yet.”

—New York restaurateur and club owner Serge Becker

First, you’ll need variety. Sources emphasized the importance of balance: giving partygoers dark and bright spaces, loud rooms for dancing and quiet ones for talking, neutral areas for comfort and rooms rewired to grab your attention. The Yerkes-Dodson effect plays a role here. At a certain level of stimulation, your senses cease to process anything further.

Kadeem Yearwood ’15, the Sigma Chi brother responsible for most of my Facebook party invites, likes the concept. “I prefer parties where there are different areas of the party. Some for dancing and others where it is a little more casual,” he said. The takeaway: Separate! If you’re hosting 30 people in a house, that might mean placing your speakers a couple of rooms away from the beverage table to keep conversation possible. On a grander scale, if you’re hosting Freshman Screw in Commons, you could put snacks, thematic décor and icebreakers in the Woolsey Rotunda.

Next lesson: If you’re looking to make the night memorable, wow your audience with something unexpected. “The party starts the moment you walk up,” noted Jane’s Ballroom owner Carlos Quirarte in Vice Magazine’s “Discotecture” video series. Once you’ve given guests a fun first impression — a unique invitation, or maybe a ridiculous welcome playlist — Moore emphasized the importance of continued interest, rather than the energy drain that undermines many parties: “People have to have a reason to want to be in your space for hours and hours and hours.”

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a massive venue, dancers won’t feel crushed and are likely to last longer, but even a small space can feel magnetic if you occupy guests’ attention on multiple levels. Borrow a strobe light and give them visual stimulation or set up something tactile (art! ping-pong! darts!) in a side room.

Better yet, avoid the limits of space altogether, as have the students behind Yale’s floating dance parties — occasional adventures in which participants dance around the city sidewalks to the beat of synchronized MP3 playlists. Susannah Shattuck ’13, one of the current organizers, loves taking floaters to Becton Plaza and other spaces we associate with school: “You’re dancing on the chairs where you’d normally be sitting and taking notes!” Outdoor festivities also allow for freer dancing; curious passersby often join in on the fun for a few moments. If you like your parties public and are willing to alert Yale Security in advance (or else be surveilled all night), making them float is a low-budget, high-energy solution.

With a little more time and effort, however, many forms of space can be successful. One of Morrison’s all-time favorites is the Warumg Beach House: a club on stilts, playing Latin-flavored techno on the edge of the Brazilian rainforest. If you don’t have access to a rainforest, Moore offers hope for your suite, explaining that any location can become thrilling if sufficiently transformed. Put mirrors up on the walls, disguise the room as another place or defy expectations in some non-spatial dimension: “A good party isn’t always about a set space — it’s about the things and people you pour into the space.”

—Lesson Three: The Dance Floor—

“On the dance floor

Gonna lose it in the music 

On the dance floor 

Got my body gonna use it”

—Kylie Minogue, “Dancefloor”

While deep experience gives certain academics cultural authority in the party realm, others target minor elements of nightlife — on occasion, accidentally.

Dr. Peter Lovatt, a lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, was a full-time dancer and actor until the age of 26, when he re-entered school to study dance therapy, winding up in the rarer field of dance psychology. Though much of his work deals with improvisation and rhythmic movement as tools to sharpen cognition, he’s also done research in the field of self-expression through dance, which could include most of a partygoer’s typical night.

Some of his work happens in an academic setting, but Lovatt is keen on field experimentation. “[Other scientists] fail to realize that the kind of dancing you’ll do in a laboratory is different from what you’ll do in a club,” he said. Lovatt knows of an eye-tracking study carried out largely in strip clubs. The result: Men look at a woman’s entire body unless she’s menstruating, at which point they zoom in on her hips. Dance and pheromones share an intimate connection.

One of Lovatt’s best-known studies involves “dance confidence” — how willing we are to dance, and how highly we rate our moves, at every stage of life. At most ages, women dominate men in both categories, with the notable exception of self-conscious teenage girls. In our early 20s, however, both genders experience a surge of confidence. In men, this rise flattens out in middle age but spikes again around 65; meanwhile, women gain confidence until 35, but lose it after menopause, demonstrating fertility’s role in how they handle the dance floor. Either way, the message is clear: College students have no excuse to be timid.

But it’s hard to get those hips going when you barely have room to move — or when the room you’re looking for doesn’t exist. Carolina Trombetta ’15 complained that Yale “definitely doesn’t have a big dancing scene. They need better spaces if they’re going to try to have dances.” While she vowed never to set foot in Toad’s “just to dance,” most students called it their primary dance destination, and therein lies the rub. Nobody mentioned Alchemy, Empire, Karma — the clubs are there, but they aren’t attracting Yalies. When even the pros can’t lure us into their spacious lairs, how can we put Lovatt’s advice to good use?

Even if we aren’t leaving the Yale bubble to party, we can still add club psychology to our own events. For Frank Patrick, owner of New Haven nightclub BAR, keeping dancers happy is Rule No. 1. In practice, this can mean leaving his own taste at the door and catering to the audience (his in-house DJs play mostly mainstream pop). This doesn’t mean the audience has to be the same every night; BAR hosts bands ranging from freak-folk to indie-pop. You’ll find Patrick prowling the crowd on a typical night, keeping an eye on the collective energy level.

So feel free to switch up the playlists at your next party — just advertise the tunes in advance, and listen to your guests. David Rudnick ’09, a London club enthusiast who founded the popular but short-lived party series “Modern Love” in his junior year, gave me similar advice.

“Larry Levan, who made the Paradise Garage the greatest club of its time, was a terrible DJ!” he said. Though Levan was never much of a mixer, he knew how to please a crowd, throwing genres around with wild abandon as long as the next song kept the groove going.

Rudnick feels that one strength of “Modern Love,” which gave any attendee the chance to DJ, was that the parties created a new space for an audience hungry for variety and bored with Yale’s existing options. “There might be 3,000 people at Spring Fling, of whom 2,000 are really enjoying themselves, and that’s great — but you need to have something for the other thousand.” To Rudnick, this meant venues as large as he could find, open for dancing until sunrise, which overflowed with Yalies of every stripe looking for an unusual night out. For their host, these parties’ most rewarding moments came in their final hours, when Rudnick would reward himself for hypnotizing the final few guests by plugging in his iPod and playing whatever the hell he wanted — Mariah Carey, in particular. And the crowd, hooked on their own good vibes, ate it up.

 

— Lesson Four: The People In the Space, and On the Floor —

“You want to encourage outrageous people to be there — that makes it more interesting for everyone else.” 

—David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads

If a party space is the set for an unwritten play, you’ll need actors; everyone I spoke to was adamant as to the importance of inviting the right people. This does not, however, have to mean exclusivity.

Moore calls openness the key to some of his favorite parties ever: “I like when unexpected things can happen because people are from completely different backgrounds.” The beauty of nightlife is that it opens us up to new experiences. If you’ve grown up in suburban New Jersey, without ever setting foot in a club, and stumble upon Toad’s your first weekend at Yale — “for you,” Moore argues, “that can be the world.”

Rudnick also advocates for diversity in social spaces, and in this sense, Yale let him down. “Everything else at Yale had been so high-level,” he explained, but compared to our intellectual fearlessness in the light of day, our parties were watered-down affairs, as the same groups of people crammed into the same houses week after week to dance to pre-set playlists and relive high school.

Though Rudnick called most Yalies “supernaturally nice” — nice people being the first ingredient of any successful party — he felt as though the weekend routine alienated students who hadn’t partied much before college, even as they flourished in the classroom.

It isn’t like parties are restrictive. Renita Heng ’16 expressed a common sentiment in referring to nightlife as “available, if you’re looking for it.” But what about those whose perception of the current scene as boozy and crowded stops them from looking at all? Rudnick’s favored solution involves establishing a spacious, clean and accessible party space in one of the new colleges, hosting diverse and semiregular events with moderate University oversight. But there’s a problem. “What donor’s going to put his name on a student nightclub?” he asked.

For now, that’s a question I can’t answer. There seems to be a middle ground, however: Find what keeps people away from Yale parties and remove those obstacles. Many students tired of pop expressed a desire for “good music”: that’s too subjective to be a solution, but what harm is there in peppering your playlist with some acid house or folk rock? Dor Mizrahi ’16, of Tel Aviv, noted that the scene feels “repetitive and boring at times” to those with urban experience. If you’re feeling uninspired on a Friday afternoon, make next week’s bash a mini-Screw or something out of left field (Rudnick’s most recent outing was a “darkroom” party — as few light sources as possible). A few tweaks can expand your potential audience, which, according to Moore’s theory, ought to make things more interesting.

A larger guest list isn’t always optimal, however. When you’re working with limited funds and a room smaller than, say, an aircraft hangar, you’d be advised to keep the party small-scale. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, is known for his proposal of “Dunbar’s Number” — a figure between 100 and 220, normally approximated at 150, that seems to be the optimal size for most peoples’ network of active acquaintances (as found in Neolithic villages and Amish towns). For networking events, Dunbar advised 150 invites, but his discussion of longer parties (like a weeklong cruise) was more complex: “What would happen, I guess, if you put a bunch of people on a cruise is that they would sort out into sets of four to six, who would split up into 15s, which would link into 50s, etc. — each link being weaker.” Unless you’re looking for an all-out anonymous dancefest, 150 is a solid upper bound to what works for mingling, though this might change if you provide rooms where smaller sets can split off and socialize.

Attendance is unpredictable, of course, and when hosting a smallish event, it’s best to be conservative in limiting the scope of the news you spread. If you’re confident you can control who enters your party suite, however, look out — Eamon Ronan ’15 learned otherwise his freshman year, when he lived with nine other students. At first, they figured they’d get fewer guests than they formally invited. Then, as the year progressed, their estimated guest-to-invite ratio rose to ridiculous heights. Bottles were quickly drained and attempts to collect booze money failed miserably — nobody likes a bouncer, especially on Old Campus. Instead, they settled on the cheapest-available alcohol. As you might have realized by now, this bare-minimum strategy is a common practice, and one of those which dismayed Rudnick when he recalled Yale’s social scene. Ronan noted that the suite’s Christmas party was the year’s best: “Everybody dressed a little nicer, we played Christmas music … it was something different.”

Again: “something different.” When we plan parties, we might just be looking to relax for a few hours — but on occasion, we should seek to rise above beer pong and Calvin Harris. “A nice scene isn’t that hard,” said Nick Taki ’16. “Just requires a little bit more time, a little bit more effort, better taste in music and more money.”

Or, perhaps, more creativity. Unusual happenings are what we remember when the night is over, and a few minutes of brainstorming can add hours of entertainment to the life of anyone who steps through your door. Moore and Morrison weren’t born experts on fun. The former stumbled into his area of study, and the latter told me: “Basically, I went out so often I got a job.” There’s a party scholar inside every one of us, screaming to be let out, but it will take more than liquor to set him or her free. Instead, we must screw our courage to the sticking place and call for something crazy. Costumes! Board games! Dancing in the streets! (On the sidewalks, that is.) We are 5,000 young people and change, and in my now-less-inexpert opinion, it’s time we seized the night and wrote new scripts for plays yet unacted and parties unenacted.

Yuval Ben-David and Issac Stanley-Becker contributed reporting.

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