Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

Dancing at Burning Man

Prior to Burning Man, here were a few of the prejudices I'd harbored about dancing to electronic music:

  1. It's for young people, and thin people, and nobody else.
  2. Clothing and appearance matter more than appreciation for the music, since the entire purpose is to hook up (or at least see and be seen) amongst the "beautiful people."
  3. All the talk about "universal peace and understanding" being experienced through dance music (i.e. the kind of talk which started during the rave heyday) had nothing to do with the music, and everything to do with the fact that the people saying this kind of thing were listening to the music while rolling on either E, or a combination of E and LSD. Under those circumstances, I imagined you could skip the music entirely and get the same result.
  4. Fandom around particular DJ's is an "emperor's new clothes" phenomenon: I mean, for crying out loud the DJ is just playing records. He could tell someone else what order to play what tracks in, or queue them up in iTunes ahead of time, and then not bother personally showing up.
  5. You actually have to know how to dance.

So, fast forward to Burning Man 2009 on Wednesday night, keeping in mind that on neither that night nor any other time during Burning Man was I intoxicated on any substance, whether legal or illegal.

I'd probably walked a good ten hours so far that day, and wanted to rest my feet. I passed by an enormous dome named "Root Society," and was intrigued: yes, a DJ was playing, and dancing wasn't my thing, but everyone seemed to be having a good time, the decor (gothic lanterns each lit with an internal green light) seemed exotic, and most importantly they had little recliner things all the way around the perimeter of the dome facing inwards. One was free. Perfect.

Someone who knows more about this kind of music than I do later told me that feeling the bass notes vibrate your body is essential to the hypnotic effect it is intended to produce. What I do know is that after an indeterminate amount of time, I'd lost all sense there was a world outside the dome: there was no world outside this dome, there was only this dome, and I'd somehow always been there.

This startled me enough to where I got up and stumbled toward what I thought was the exit. However, it turns out this wasn't the exit, but rather the entrance to the larger of two connected domes, where the Root Society's featured DJ's were scheduled to perform [Note: classic Burning Man phenomenon - just when you think things can't get any better they somehow do.]

Since this journal now has a much wider and more general audience than it used to I'll not attempt to describe what the overall environment was like, except to say that it made the "Zion" dance scene from the second Matrix movie seem tame. That aside, for me the real point is that this was the first time in my life I'd ever danced completely non-self-consciously: indeed, it would have felt awkward not to move. Also, from having the opportunity to see the featured DJ's (first the famed Christopher Lawrence, then Hatiras) close-up, I finally understood that the DJ's behavior, responses to the crowd, and cuing are all essential parts of this art form. In other words, all that stuff actually does matter.

The other odd thing, and I don't know if this was the result of having chilled out in the smaller dome for so long, was that it was no problem landing exactly on the beat regardless of what I was trying to do with my feet. I realize the following isn't a scientific description, and is at best an analogy, but it was as if the two halves of my brain were somehow in sync.

The next evening, I tried the other big dance camp at Burning Man: the "Opulent Temple." This one was outdoors, which enabled a bit more in the way of pyrotechnics. For example, when the music (which I later learned is known as "progressive trance") reached a peak, not only could the guy controlling the lights flood the crowd with a burst of white light, but he could also trigger what could probably best be described as fixed overhead flamethrowers, so that the crowd felt a burst of heat along with their light.

In any case, the lesson from both of these experiences was a powerful one: that something you thought all along wasn't for you can be as much for you as for anyone else. I suppose the obvious analogue might be my forays into outdoor adventure: although I wasn't an athlete in high school, and probably still shouldn't be considered one, that didn't stop me from walking around Mount Rainier, then riding a bicycle across Washington State, then riding a bicycle across the country.
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