These are the things where people dance with headphones on in a silent room. In the United States, the idea apparently originated with The Flaming Lips, who gave FM radio receivers and headphones to their audience at a concert in Texas in 1999. By 2005, The New York Times was on it, explaining that at that year’s Glastonbury Festival in England, “neighbors may well wonder if they have lost their hearing” because “plans call for a ‘silent’ disco, where the dancers will be equipped with headphones through which the music will be piped.” The trend came to Washington a few years later with pop-up silent discos at various events. (“People dancing with headphones on? Wacky,” The Washington Post noted in 2010.)
To be sure, it was cheaper than other plug-and-play New Year’s options in Washington. Novelty seeking is one of the few natural “highs” that works on me (yes, I know about running; no, that doesn’t work either). I had, of course, failed to make other plans, and as December wore on, I started feeling guilty about it.
New Year’s Eve is the day Soviet Russians celebrated fake Christmas, complete with a Santa proxy (Father Cold) and his child associate (Snow Girl). I forced my Russian family to move our Christmas to December 25 sometime in the early 1990s, but it’s clear the 31st is still the real deal to them. Not long after we wrapped up our Christmas dinner, full of American holiday recipes my mom had dutifully Googled, she asked me what my plans were for New Year’s.
“Silent disco,” I said. “It’s where you dance to no music with headphones on.”
“Oh,” she said. “Why?”
Her question echoed in my mind as I found myself suctioned into my “tummy control” panty hose and clomping up the steps of the Embassy Row Hotel. Why? Why? Why?
We walked past banners advertising the “Silent Dance Society”—the cult-sounding organizers of the event—and found ... a woman pushing her wheelchair through a mostly empty hotel lobby.
It was 10, and the place had not quite filled up yet. We were handed light-up headphones by a very stressed man in a red sequin blazer. “Last song is at 1,” he said. “TRUST ME, and I’ve been doing this for five years, you’re gonna wanna turn these in a few minutes before 1 to avoid the crowd.”
The disco was staged in the part of the hotel where continental breakfast is normally served, which is perhaps why the “bartender” poured me a full pint of Chardonnay when I ordered a white wine. Next to me, a sweaty guy in running shorts ordered a coffee to go, eyed us warily, then returned to his room.
Soon, though, the wine pint began to do its job, and we warmed to the dorky vibe. Plus, this being Washington, there simply are way more people than things to do, so gradually a respectable throng trickled in, and the dance floor grew downright packed.
The headphones had three channels, each controlled by one of three MacBook-wielding DJs in the corner. The red channel was what one might call wedding music. Another tended toward hip-hop, and another toward Avicii-style EDM.