Sit down… And rave on!
It is 12:00 o’clock on Sunday and I, probably along with many other Brits and fellow European ravers, am getting ready to head to a sit-down rave. That’s right, you read it correctly, a sit-down rave. My Twitter feed has been populated by people posting about their sit-down rave experiences during Covid. I was struck because many of these tweets and social media posts have come from older people, well older than your average crowd in a nightclub, people who would probably not post pictures of the dance floor while under the influence in pre-Covid times, or indeed people who have mostly stopped clubbing. I do wonder whether sit down raves will become a new, more socially acceptable, public health conscious, un-drugged dance floor experience (or at least only made slightly warmer through boozing).
I called it a rave, but really, I should have said licensed venue with distanced tables and a DJ playing bangers for five hours straight. Nothing illegal or illicit about it on appearance.
I arrived around 12:30 and met with my five friends – rule of six applies – and we ventured into the venue. They took our temperature before entry. Tables were distanced, the place was airy, and people wore masks when walking around. We had table service, and everything was perfectly civilised and subdued. I noticed how the average age was around 45, rather than the 29 or thereabouts I was used to in nightclub environments pre-Covid. I began to wonder whether this new world of raving would be more open and accommodating to older generations, and immediately wanted to know the demographics of people attending sit-down raves across the country.
I had been to a sit-down rave once before, and while the crowd was slightly younger, I found it overall a rather boring experience. Perhaps the age of the DJ is indicative of the age of the crowd, and yet at my previous, younger rave, I lost count of the number of times we were told to sit down, not to dance, not to gather close to strangers, all of which are the antithesis of dance floor instincts and behaviours.
At this older sit-down rave, everything started off as this new normal. We were having very civilised conversations at our table, about lockdown, our respective experiences of it, how much we missed dancing, and what the pandemic meant in terms of our expressions of freedom, the boundaries of freedom, freedom of choice. We talked about healing musical experiences, our energy levels, our daily monotonies and our aching skeletons. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while our experiences intersected somewhat, others had made different choices about how they were reacting to our current shared condition, with varying levels of risk-taking and rule-breaking in the group. I was left wondering whether, if my responsibilities weren’t quite so structured and my time wasn’t taken up by work, I would have also engaged in more risky behaviours during the pandemic, which led me back to thinking about how the boundaries between personal freedom and responsibility towards public health are negotiated by different sorts of people at different stages in their lives (also not all ravers are individualist libertarians etc.)
We gonna dance?
Suddenly I noticed that people closer to the DJ booth had started dancing. We stared from our table. Then we began talking about how it was only a matter of time before somebody would go there and tell them to stop, but nobody did. More and more people got up on their feet and started dancing at their tables. I was incredulous, but also happy. A part of me kept expecting to be told off, and for a time, it was hard to let go of the self-policing, so my dancing was very tentative.
The telling off didn’t happen for about an hour. This was the longest I’d been dancing in at least two months (with an achy shoulder and a broken little toe, outcomes of too sedentary an existence I am sure). Then, the venue patrons told us to sit down, and for about 5 minutes everything went back to being subdued. But then it all started again, and people were dancing till close. This time, people were moving away from their tables to reach closer to the dance floor below the DJ booth.
It all felt so… normal. For a short while, I’d forgotten everything: the pandemic, my body aches, the sadness at the state of the world. By 5pm, it was over. Very civilised. On my way home, I kept thinking that this experience felt safe. Small numbers, no crowding, people being considerate. I honestly do not miss being packed into a club like a battery chicken, with people pouring their drinks on me or stepping on my toes by accident just so the venue can sell more tickets. But neither do I miss being told to sit still and not move every time I feel like the music moves me.
Surely, we can find a middle ground.
Finding a compromise
Days ago, the night time industries association announced that sector was left with no other option but to take legal action against the government’s arbitrary position on pubs and other venues’ curfews and closures in areas defined as high-risk, such as Liverpool. The three-tier system was supposedly designed to simplify a patchwork of different lockdown measures in different areas, but actually, it amounts to no more than blanket measures being differentially introduced. It is another way of kicking the can down the road while not investing in sorting out track and trace, or in a long-term economic plan to support businesses in crisis.
There is no evidence to suggest that music and social venues, if operated responsibly, are vectors of the disease. Conversely, there is evidence to indicate that the fallout from lockdowns is severe, with collateral harms including suicides and worsening mental health, reduced child immunisation, and domestic violence to name some. This is why a group of thousands of experts is calling for a different approach, based on ‘focused protection’, as an alternative to lockdowns. This call is not without controversy – the scientific community is divided at the best of times. However, what is clear by now is that while lockdowns work in slowing the spread of the virus, their impact on people’s wellbeing is grave and multi-faceted.
We need a more imaginative, visionary and scientific political approach to this crisis that is based on openness to collaboration with stakeholders, experimentation and learning from best practices abroad. Ultimately, if we had a working track and trace system, more widespread testing available, a well-funded health service, and a long term economic plan, we would not be in this mess, and maybe we would be allowed to do some physically distanced, small group dancing every once in a while.