What does it accomplish to dance in the streets?

On March 16, 2013, Tom and Gary brought their Decentralized Dance Party back to Austin, Texas for a third time. The “DDP” is a roving dance party created by boomboxes carried in the crowd. The boomboxes are all tuned to the same micro-radio station powered by a backpack mounted FM transmitter. Playing popular hits that are easy to dance and sing with, mixed with bass-heavy newer tunes, the party begins at a designated meeting place leaked through social media and then roves all through an urban area.

Partying is misunderestimated by 99% of the populace.

Accordingly, it is rarely done properly and has never received the respect it deserves.

Partying is: “forgetting who you are while remembering what you are.”

It is the complete loss of the social conditioning that makes adult life monotonous and depressing and has the power to be a transformational spiritual experience. — from the Decentralized Dance Party manifesto

The Bill & Ted’s-esque mythology of the DDP is that two best friends travel back from the future to teach humanity how to party. The real story begins in Vancouver in 2009, which Gary Lachance calls “no fun city” for its lack of acceptable night life. To liven up the experience, Gary and his friends would rove with a pair of bicycle-mounted sound systems connected to iPods. One night around midnight, an iPod ran out of batteries so they tuned both sound systems to the same radio station while they rode and the idea was born. In 2010 the DDP began traveling North America, and within six months they say 20,000 people had experienced this street party. It’s only grown from there.

Tom at the DDP, wearing a power glove & a fuzzy future outfit.

Tom is here from the future to teach us to party.

“Tom” is a role that several have played, but Gary says the current Tom is a keeper. A military veteran who served two tours in Iraq, he began traveling cross-country and sleeping in his van in order to follow the Decentralized Dance Party from location to location. After he constructed a powerful sound system out of a baby carriage (they call it “The Baby Boomer”), the DDP team knew they’d found their perfect Tom. He sees it as a healthy transition from being part of the machinery of war to bringing humanity together through the joy of dancing. “This is my passion,” Tom told me as thousands danced under Congress bridge in the heart of downtown Austin. ”I will do this for the rest of my life.” Now Tom leads the Decentralized Dance Parties by the light of his glowing “Disco Trident.”

Dance parties in public spaces were — and still are — a frequent part of the Occupy movement and modern global activism. The Portland eviction made headlines for including a dance party, and Occupy Austin has a huge and very loud “Party Wagon” that frequently appears on marches — including this most recent DDP — when it’s not simulating earthquakes. Yet it’s instructive to contrast police response to Occupy with their response to the Dance Party.

Anonymous

Anonymous guides the Occupy Austin Party Wagon at the SXSW 2013 Decentralized Dance Party.

During this recent Austin event, the march had traveled from south of Austin’s Town Lake onto Congress on its way up to the State Capitol when it encountered Austin police investigating an accident or vehicular crime scene. After a brief pause, we found we had police escort for the rest of the journey and every cop was smiling. At the Texas State Capitol, the notoriously humorless State Troopers (who even arrested Santa Claus) briefly detained Tom, but can be seen posing with dancers in later photos.

Part of this treatment may be because the DDP team are scrupulous about asking participants to follow traffic laws, but this is still a massive unpermitted gathering that inevitably spills across red lights and into streets. The bigger difference is that Occupy and other movements are a deliberate and overt challenge to the status quo. The DDP meanwhile is “just” about bringing people together to party, yet both involve thousands of people taking back public spaces for public use in ways which are now considered unorthodox at best and illegal at worst.

Ask any street activist about the empowering, addictive experience of taking the streets for the first time, no matter what the cause. Their eyes light up and their voices get louder, and they tend to gesture with excitement as they remember this pivotal moment in their lives. Like the Occupy encampments, the DDP brings people together across racial and class boundaries. That Saturday night, rich SXSW dilettantes danced happily next to people without homes they might rudely cross the street to avoid at other times. Once you reframe a person’s interaction with a city, with the streets, with humanity, there’s rarely any turning back.

And the DDP is about to become even more political, if Tom & Gary have their way.

Plotting Global Takeover

Boomboxes held aloft at the DDP at the Texas Capitol

Participants in the Decentralized Dance Party hold their boomboxes aloft as they claim public space at the Texas State Capitol.

From time immemorial, human beings have gathered at night to sing and dance and celebrate life; to share music and laughter and set their spirits free.

But with the encroachment of modern civilization came the regulation and commodification of all public life. The traditions were lost, and the soul of Partying faded further and further from memory…

But we have a plan.

They call the next stage of the DDP the Global Party Pandemic of 2014. The DDP team hope to travel to at least 50 countries, creating satellite Dance Party teams with their own FM transmitters, the cheesy yet undeniably danceable playlist, and a pile of boomboxes. On an appointed day, simultaneous Decentralized Dance Parties will take the streets worldwide.

A Kickstarter, with just about two weeks remaining, will fund Another Night, Another Dream, a documentary about the DDP. They hope the release and publicity tour for the documentary will begin the worldwide push toward a worldwide party. Tom & Gary promise to bring the DDP not just to rich Western countries but to locations worldwide, all crowd-funded by a global Internet who they hope will donate not just to their hometown but also to see parties brought to places where dancing in the streets might be even more controversial than it is in North America. As of this writing, the Kickstarter has raised about $7,500 of its $25,000 goal.

Does any of this matter?

Maybe not. I am sure some of you are frowning as you read, if you’ve even made it this far before jumping to the bottom with derisive comments. The Decentralized Dance Party is not going to solve the environmental crisis, or stop banks from despoiling the earth and the livelihoods of the 99% (for all that the DDP loves to dance in bank courtyards and parking garages). Even during marches, there are a handful of people who cross their arms and scowl as the party goes past.

Yet I personally believe there’s something not just liberating but essential about taking public spaces together. I believe humans have a deep need to gather and celebrate being alive, to revel in human existence without a computer screen, telephone, or television coming in between.

I think our right to assemble is so endangered that even dancing together is a radical political act.

If you haven’t yet, you should try it too.

The DDP passes a tall tower in downtown Austin

The SXSW 2013 Decentralized Dance Party passes Buford Firetower in downtown Austin, Texas.

More information can be found at the Official DDP Website.

All photos by Kit O’Connell, released under a Creative Commons license.