Last night at 8pm I sat on a stage in a church basement in Greenpoint with Laura O’Neill, co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream and the delicious and handsome Balinese-inspired restaurant, Selamat Pagi; but, more importantly for those of us who spend Tuesday nights inside the Park Church Co-Op across the street from McGolrick Park, O’Neill is also known as the founder of a very different movement—No Lights No Lycra. And last night, this weekly gathering of people in their 20s and 30s who show up not to get drunk or to see and be seen, but only to utterly lose themselves to music in complete darkness, celebrated its sixth birthday.
As O’Neill and I sat and talked in a quiet basement cast in an unfortunate glow of overhead fluorescents, it was a little difficult to imagine how and why a dance gathering there would be such a success. “In the early days there were just a few of us,” says O’Neill, “but those were kind of the best of times; because of the nature of the event, it doesn’t really matter who else is here, just that it’s happening.” Because I had never attended one of these parties—and even though I personally love a dance floor—I still couldn’t quite understand what that meant; how the success of a social gathering might not be dependent on people actually attending. But then O’Neill told me about her first experience at a No Lights No Lycra gathering, and I understood it a little better.
It was six years ago in Melbourne, Australia, where O’Neill is from, and where the NLNL movement was started by her friends Alice Glenn and Heidi Barrett, both of whom are dancers. “They had been to a lot of classes and things, but never found anywhere where you could get pure release,” O’Neill tells me. “The first one I did was not even dark at all”—daylight savings had taken effect, and it was not in a basement—“but everyone was so used to it that they were dancing as though it were dark,” O’Neill explains. “And maybe like seven minutes in, I totally lost myself. After that, I thought I would really love this to be a part of my life back in Brooklyn.”
Today, in Melbourne, NLNL dance parties happen five days a week; in Sydney gatherings attract over 100 people. It’s spread to Europe, too, and now the weekly Greenpoint parties attract not just four people, but more like 40. And after hearing those magic words—pure release—I understood why it might hold such great appeal. Still, as O’Neill points out, the number one thing you might fear about a no-lights, booze- and drug-free dance party, done in the wrong spirit, is that it would manifest as a “dorky wedding.” I agreed.
So in order to find out why O’Neill’s NLNL parties were not dorky weddings but instead devoted gatherings of normal people who just wanna dance, I stayed and danced.
I wanted my first impression of the party to be in its fully and organically operating form, so I left and returned about three songs in. Sometimes I like to think about the world like I’m an alien, visiting humans for the first time. That was the mindset I’d turned to when I walked back inside. What I saw was fascinating.
It was, indeed, very dark, save for tiny green dots that emitted from one of those party light makers meant more to give a party-time effect than to illuminate anything. Spread throughout the floor there were some clusters of two or three people, and others who had obviously come alone. But even those with buddies weren’t dancing with each other so much as by them. Most were looking straight ahead, as if at a wall, but actually at nothing, because there was nothing to really look at; they were vibrating, or gyrating, or swerving hips and squiggling arms in an irregular fashion. These were not dance moves typically made in public. These were moves of the unselfconscious zone.
As mentioned, I like to dance. But I was tired from a day filled with things. So even though under normal circumstance I am fine being the first person on a dance floor—and even though I knew everyone else getting down to George Harrison’s “What Is Life?” didn’t care I was there, because they could not really see me—I was far from a state of pure release. I looked to the front of the room though and spotted O’Neill. She had changed into gym shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers. Her moves were spunky, athletic, crazy. It was full-on abandon. Pure-releasing. It looked incredible.
Then, came TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Admittedly, I don’t like this song. I think the beat is strange and awkward. But all of the sudden, I didn’t hate that song. During “What Is Life?” I had been forcing myself to move, and had a little momentum going. So when TLC’s first down-beat dropped, I dropped with it. I forgot that others were near me, because they already had forgotten about me, and the sound of something I usually find annoying became joyous. Like a celebration of the weird melody itself and the time in history—1999—when it was made. The sound, the darkness, and a room filled with people who were there to do absolutely nothing but let loose, in short, created a worm hole to a magical and illusive place known as the present. Of being in the moment. Just like that, I was also pure-releasing, and very happy.
This just kept happening. With weird random song, after weird random song—Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird,” George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You,” Green Day’s “Basket Case,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,”—I kept feeling it, nothing but the beat and the moment. By the time Grimes’s “Genesis” played, I gave into it on a whole new level. I’ve never done MDMA, but I think it might feel like that. And maybe it felt better, because I was wholly with myself, and thoroughly lucid.
Just after 9:30, O’Neill put on some warm-down songs. The first was Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” I kind of swayed to it, and definitely did not regret a thing.
When we sat on the stage I had said to O’Neill: You are a busy and successful entrepreneur; and in addition to her businesses, I was surprised to learn, she also has a band, Laura and Greg. How on earth does she find the energy and time to do this every single week? “You put time into the things that are important to you,” she said. “Having a stressful lifestyle and being a business owner, it’s often the nights I don’t feel like it that are kind of the most important to come here, and have that release.” She went so far as to say, “I can’t imagine life without it.”
Which, of course, I now understand. Living here is hard. Relaxing here is hard. A weekly way into doing that is priceless. One time, she said, she got a card from a guy who had come to a number of NLNL parties. He told her, “I discovered this at a time in my life when I really needed it, and I wanted to let you know what it means to me.” O’Neill recalled. “Hopefully, wherever he ended up, he was able to start a No Lights No Lycra community over there.”
And what if O’Neill leaves town? Will the party go on? “I think if I ever left the city, someone would probably take it over,” she said. But for the time being, it is not going anywhere. O’Neill lives really close to the church, and, as mentioned, it’s important to her. “It’s actually just so easy for me to do it—it’s easier for me to do it, than not to,” she says.
This made me happy, and it also made me imagine that in six more years from now I might still have the chance to be pure-releasing, with O’Neill, in a dark church basement in Greenpoint.