Decentralized Dance Party: A Case Study in Radical Rituals

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

Editor’s Note:  Decentralized Dance Parties (DDPs) are brilliant in their simplicity.  One person carries a low-power FM transmitter on his back.  A bunch of other people carry portable radios tuned to that station.  The transmitter broadcasts music to the radios, and everyone goes through public spaces, often in colorful costumes, dancing to that music – and inviting anyone they find to join them. There’s no fees, no marketing, no exchange of any kind:  just an event that takes dance parties into public spaces, and has turned dozens of participants into hundreds, and hundreds into thousands, at DDPs around the world.  The resulting experience is often ecstatic.  I invited Michael Ryan Garcia (Admiral Fiesta), who runs the San Francisco node of the Decentralized Dance Party movement, to write up his thoughts on DDPs as Radical Rituals.  His response is below. – Caveat


This is what a recent attendee had to say in a message about their first experience at a Decentralized Dance Party in San Francisco — a report from the front lines in the war against fear, alienation, and social control:

“I have partied all over Europe and the US east coast. London, Barcelona, Berlin, NYC from posh events to raves until 3pm the next day. Yesterday was my first Decentralized [Dance] Party and I must say this event was truly exceptional. I have never experienced a party that brought me so much joy, so much that at some points I literally felt high while I did not take anything. I have never felt like this sober. Everything was great, the music, the fact that people had costumes and lights, but the magic was to bring smiles to the people around us, [to] see them dancing and coming with us. We brought joy to everyone around us, we had all sorts of people join in, dance and smile. Dancing is truly love and your party was beautiful on so many levels…”

The Decentralized Dance Party, like most transcendent events, provides no adequate elevator pitch. When trying to describe it to someone I’ve just met, I sometimes use phrases like “pirate radio mobile dance Party” or “neon-colored boombox-powered exploration of public space.” These get at the technical underpinnings of the DDP: a mobile low-power FM transmitter, a fleet of synchronized boomboxes, an arsenal of accessible dance and pop hits from the last 70 years, and a squadron of excited people in their best Party clothes, all assembled to dance in a series of public spaces.

To those I know a little better, or who are more familiar with the event, the description I use most often is “an alchemical formula for turning anxiety in myself into transcendence in others.” This is a more complete description of the project, as we’ve found that when the elements listed above are artfully combined, when we undertake this modern ecstatic ritual, the result is a sequence of transcendent moments created in public, for the public.

A Party Manifesto Formed Around a Simple Ritual

The DDP started around 10 years ago in Vancouver BC, brainchild of Gary Lachance. What started out as a few friends riding bicycles with FM-synchronized boomboxes soon developed into a series of large street parties in Vancouver, then tours across Canada, the US, and Europe, then finally an open-source manual for others to create these events on their own. Today, there are independent and variously active DDP nodes in Vancouver, Austin, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New York City, and Melbourne with new nodes under development in Oakland, Toronto, and Chile. I operate the San Francisco node.

We believe that effective large-scale change is possible through strategically coordinated “radical rituals” that awaken a sense of community, freedom, and even ecstasy.

Over the years, as the size of the events grew, Lachance honed the technical skills to throw them, the tactical maneuvers that allowed them to work in public spaces, and the underlying philosophy of what would become known as “Capital-P Partying.” This philosophy, outlined in further detail in the excellent Party Manifesto, essentially states that by creating a fun and free environment where people are encouraged to freak out in public, something primal, transcendent, and utterly human is unleashed.

In the development of Capital-P Partying, it became clear to Lachance that this was a powerful force for good, and an infectious one. The stated goal of the Decentralized Dance Party slowly morphed and expanded until it became clear that only one goal was worth pursuing: to save the world. To this end, the DDP will soon be funded by the sale of Peace Bonds, a blockchain-based security, which are backed by prize money from the Nobel Prize for Partying which we expect to win (once the category is created). We believe that effective large-scale change is possible through strategically coordinated “radical rituals” that awaken a sense of community, freedom, and even ecstasy. When we perform this particular ritual, we see that people crave these experiences, and in its open-source documentation, the DDP provides a literal manual for how to create them.

The thread of ecstatic ritual masquerading as entertainment is tightly interwoven with the tapestry of Western civilization, and is examined at length by Rogan P. Taylor in his delightfully esoteric The Death And Resurrection Show. Even to the casual observer, however, the superficial similarities between an ancient shamanic trance party and a modern warehouse trance party are evident, despite the improvements in tools for making music, light, and costumes. In fact, Taylor argues, the initial division of the sacred and profane, and subsequent relegation of the ecstatic to the realm of “mere entertainment” perhaps ten thousand years ago, were maneuvers aimed at concentration of power and subjugation of the populace. When those in control could not stamp out the ecstatic, they first persecuted it as deviant and later rebranded it as comedic, as seen in the Harlequin character of the Italian Comedy style, for example. Today, among other places, the ecstatic can be found at music festivals, and a variety of shaman types can be found onstage. In this way, a great Party has its roots in shamanism, and I have come to see the DDP as the latest in an extensive lineage of ecstatic rituals.

There’s a Very Good Reason We’re Dressed in Banana Costumes

This ritual, like most, has several components and two distinct audiences. The components of the ritual include equipment prep, event promotion, route planning, and of course execution, which has come to include a variety of traditions around various songs that have organically grown as we’ve hosted more and more events. These tasks rely on various communities of volunteers (frequently in banana costumes which, due to their height and color, provide for high visibility in a crowd) that have sprung up around the event.

When we perform this particular ritual, we see that people crave these experiences, and in its open-source documentation, the DDP provides a literal manual for how to create them.

The two audiences are very different but equally important. First, there are those who show up to the start location: the initiates. These people knew about the Party beforehand, have probably been to one before, and often contribute in extremely elaborate fashion, arriving in stunning themed costume and makeup, bringing large portable sound systems, or building purpose-made props. At the start of the event, this core group, simply by having a good time, demonstrates to the second audience what the event is about, and that the event is “for them,” a 100% inclusive space designed to be inviting to everyone who happens across it.

The second audience are the neophytes: members of the general public who were not expecting a Party to happen that evening. This includes folks heading home from work, homeless people, couples out to dinner, drunk teenagers up to no good, tourists, street musicians, etc. The ultimate goal of the DDP is to engage with these people, all of them, to bring them along with us, to Party with them. These neophytes will invariably become our most ardent fans and the next generation of initiates, and the Parties are created more for them than for anyone. In this way, the initiates are actually also performative — they demonstrate the ethos of the event without making any statements about it. This is another ritual aspect of the DDP — it is demonstrative, and simply from the demonstration, outsiders want to join in.

In this way, the initiates are actually also performative — they demonstrate the ethos of the event without making any statements about it. This is another ritual aspect of the DDP — it is demonstrative, and simply from the demonstration, outsiders want to join in.

Rituals encode our values as performative expressions of that which we find meaningful. This tends to serve a few functions in a community, including solidifying intellectual or moral priorities through action, building strong community bonds, and demonstrating to outsiders what values are encoded within the ritual, and why these are attractive in the first place, without resorting to lengthy debate about the topic. Public rituals are often a conversation between those performing the action and those observing it, and the DDP is no different in this respect. The aim is to demonstrate through action an entire philosophy, and a way to put that philosophy into practical use.

I used to say that the bar for a successful DDP was whether the event left folks in tears of joy at the end (which happens frequently), but I now look for a more subtle indicator. When we succeed, when we communicate clearly through action and atmosphere, we get responses like the one that opened this essay: nobody ever told that person about the Party Manifesto, or about any of the high-concept thinking behind this event. They simply showed up, participated, and understood intuitively. To me, that’s a major sign we’re Doing It (or at least Something) Right.

Building an Army to Wage Peace

The DDP also purposefully co-opts and subverts some of the most ritualistic language and behavior known to the West — that of the military. In the tactical nature of broadcasting voice commands to maneuver a crowd through a city, in the deployment of oversized props and absurd musical cues at various times for maximum effect, and also in its larger philosophy, the DDP is modeled after a military effort.

This is intuitive perhaps in the sense that many post-industrial humans feel they are fighting a personal war against alienation, but may also take some cues from the very earliest times when humans synchronized their movements — as a sign to large animals or other groups of people “don’t mess with us, we are very powerful when we move together.” As Barbara Ehrenreich posits (admittedly as conjecture) in her wonderful Dancing In The Streets: A History of Collective Joy, these very early rituals of synchronized movement to a rhythm of shouts or claps may have served significant purposes in both the ability of humans as a species to survive predation, and the formation of societies in general. Why Do People Sing?: Music in Human Evolution by Joseph Jordania explores a similar idea, coining the term Audio-Visual Intimidation Display, of which echoes can be seen in the kailao war dance of the Wallisian people, the Samoan cibi, and the more familiar haka of the New Zealand Māori — all extraordinary displays of collective, synchronized, rhythmic physical intimidation.

Rituals encode our values as performative expressions of that which we find meaningful. This tends to serve a few functions in a community, including solidifying intellectual or moral priorities through action, building strong community bonds, and demonstrating to outsiders what values are encoded within the ritual, and why these are attractive in the first place, without resorting to lengthy debate about the topic. Public rituals are often a conversation between those performing the action and those observing it, and the DDP is no different in this respect. The aim is to demonstrate through action an entire philosophy, and a way to put that philosophy into practical use.

In this context, it does not seem inappropriate to use the language of war to describe ecstatic ritual events: we are coming together to wage peace, to move in synchrony, to demonstrate to those who would oppress us at any scale, “we are strong, we are free, we cannot be defeated.” The Decentralized Dance Party attempts to create this experience for everyone in attendance. As Lachance puts it, “Partying is forgetting who you are, while remembering what you are.”

Lessons Learned

Gary first attended Black Rock City about five years after creating the DDP, and immediately recognized Burning Man as part of the same cultural milieu.  He believes that Burning Man is “at the vanguard of modern cultural evolution.”  But what, in turn, can the Burning Man community learn from this particular radical ritual? There are a few key elements in play:

  • Creative reuse of familiar and highly accessible spaces
  • Creative reuse of familiar and highly accessible technology
  • Creative reuse of familiar and highly accessible music
  • Excited participants in outlandish clothes, comporting themselves with infectious outrageousness

All of these combine to create a compelling visual, auditory, and kinetic iconography with a sense of shared history, both in the short-term (the use of retro technology and music) and long-term (connection to eons of ecstatic shamanic rituals). None of these elements are new in any way, and all have analogues in ecstatic rituals across the globe. I wouldn’t prescribe this as a sufficient formula to creating successful urban rituals, but I will posit that the DDP shows that with the proper formula, it is possible to create consistently impactful ecstatic rituals for an unsuspecting general public in an urban environment.

Would you like to start a DDP in your city? Please contact me (michael.ryan.garcia@gmail.com) for a copy of our open-source documentation on how to do so.

Admiral Fiesta (Michael Ryan Garcia) is a back-alley magic peddler producing conceptual art and experimental immersive theater experiences in San Francisco. He was the co-creator of 2013’s “Peruse it or Lose it Library.”

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education program on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man, and the novel The Deeds of Pounce, which is about goblins. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

5 Comments on “Decentralized Dance Party: A Case Study in Radical Rituals