This past weekend, spurred by an enticing panlist invite, I went dancing. Overcoming my matzoh-induced weakness, I cavorted down the streets of New Haven with an impromptu gang of fellow revelers, a rollicking mix roaring from my headphones, dancing my proverbial heart out. United by the songs cued on our iPods, we waltzed across plazas and silently stormed courtyards. We felt like revolutionaries.
Indeed, part of the appeal of Floating Dance Parties is their inherently anti-authoritarian nature. Though organized and deejayed by intrepid juniors Max Hendrickson and Tully McLoughlin, the dances move across the campus on itineraries guided by the spontaneous inspirations of the hive mind. “We don’t see ourselves as leaders at all … I would say facilitators. We just like to dance a lot and like other people to dance with us,” Hendrickson explains. Floating Dance Parties defy the tyranny of spaces, the social conventions that rule dorm parties, the need for expression beyond pure movement. Silent and alcohol-less (if potentially alcohol-fueled), they challenge authority with their sheer legality — participants even navigate crosswalks with care that would make their class-going selves blush.
This hasn’t made the events immune to legal intervention — the school year’s first had a tense stand-off with the police, who worried there was a riot in the making. “You think you can control hundreds of people?” one officer reportedly warned. “You’re crazy.” The authorities were placated with Hendrickson and McLoughlin’s phone numbers and a promise of complete, orderly silence — with which the partygoers complied. But the encounter bred a certain wariness on the organizers’ part. Reporting the projected date of the next party in the News, I was told, might allow “authority figures … to undermine it by knowing what day it is.”
Their fears might be justified. When a crowd of students takes to the street and enacts something new and startling, the very leaderlessness and capriciousness of the gathering lends itself to hugely varied responses. Floating Dance Parties seem like peaceful gatherings to students and potential riots to Yale police; Bladderball was both loved and condemned; Iranian students and other young people became simultaneously heroes to the world and “dirt and dust” to their country’s leaders when they rebelled against a fraudulent election last summer.
The New York Times recently reported on the rise of flash mobs (“Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message,” March 25), the unruly offspring of a social experiment by Harper’s editor Bill Wasik. Wasik originally conceived the gatherings as Improv Everywhere — like explosions of spontaneous silliness — synchronized applause on the mezzanine of the New York Hyatt, for instance.
But the mobs reported in the Times article were significantly less whimsical. Notified by text and social-networking sites, vast crowds of teens assemble in city downtowns to wreak improvised havoc, injuring onlookers and vandalizing storefronts. Philadelphia has been especially hard hit, but other cities — concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic — have also been affected. Police have made arrests and enforced curfews, but face many of the same problems that the Basij Militia faced on the streets of Tehran after the election. In both cases, the crowd’s technological arsenal makes it a powerfully versatile organism, able to assemble, act, disperse and reform swiftly, without hierarchical organization that can be headed off or coerced.
And like their Iranian counterparts, the Philadelphia mobs may also be politically motivated — they consist largely of poor, black youths gathering in white business districts. Uhuru, a black power movement with a strong Philadelphia presence, has claimed that, “In reality they are gatherings of young African people, male and female, who have come together to demonstrate their rejection of neocolonialist authority and rule.”
Or at least, it’s nice to think they are. Ascribing political agency to our generation’s agitations makes us feel that we are worthy successors of past youthful discontent — indeed, that our rebellions, equipped with the powers of technology and social networking, have unprecedented potential. But this is grasping at straws. We seize on our brief bursts of mass insubordination as iconic moments, but overall we are both complacent and dissipated. The young people of Philadelphia may be engaged in progressive radicalism, but T3he Times article reported merely that they were bored and needed better after-school programs. At Yale, we love the feel of Floating Dance Parties and Bladderball because they imitate the anti-authoritarianism of less apathetic and fragmented times. Skipping past cops while rocking out to Kanye, we convince ourselves that in transcending the law, we are defying it.
Floating Dance Parties are undoubtedly powerful, expressive acts. They generate a thrilling force, an ecstatic feeling of being “simultaneously alone and together” (Hendrickson again). I just wonder if that energy could be channeled — should necessity arise — into the sacrifice that people our age demonstrated in Iran last summer. Or would we just turn off our iPods and head home?
Sam Lasman is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.