I Went to a Silent Disco as an Old

My night dancing with wild abandon in a silent hotel lobby

People dance while wearing glowing headphones
Matej Leskovsek / Reuters

I’m an Old.

To be clear, I’m not that physically old—it’s more that I’m old at heart, and, for the most part, always have been.

From the ages of 14 to 18, I was terrified of crowds, dancing, and alcohol. Then, for the next four years, I inexplicably couldn’t get enough of them. I didn’t go to prom, then I devoted an entire dresser drawer to going-out tops.

The last time I went out dancing was at a mustache party in Washington, D.C., in the winter of 2009. I was too vain to actually don a fake mustache, so I drew one on my finger and subsequently spent the whole night looking like I was smelling it. Still, I had a blast, to the point that when we left and rode back, hazardously, on our bikes, I remember not realizing it was 30 degrees out.

But my desire to “go out” plummeted in my late 20s. I got busy as hell. Getting hammered is no longer feasible: The thing they say about alcohol and aging is true, and anything more than two beers has me “quitting drinking” the following day.

So in recent years, I’ve reverted back to my 14-year-old interests. I stay home to watch TV and construct elaborate fantasy worlds, such as the one where I can afford a condo in Dupont Circle.

So why, then, did I respond affirmatively to an email from my friend suggesting, for the first time in years, that we go out dancing? And not just on any eve but on New Year’s Eve? And not just to any place but to a silent disco?

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.

For people like me, who have between zero and one dance moves anyway, the most fun was had by switching among the channels rapidly. Other people all switched to the same station, then formed tight circles to gyrate together. One woman grabbed onto the edge of a table and commenced twerking her heart out. The world, in other words, was your disco oyster, and as the night wore on it became clear we would be leaving our dignity on the dance floor. During “Shout,” I took off my headphones to hear a chorus of off-key “hey-ey-ey-ey”s from around the room.

We bungled the countdown—two crowds of people were looking at two different timers or feeds or something—but everyone promptly resumed dancing anyway. Toward the end, it was lit, as the youths say: A guy in a tuxedo T-shirt joined a group of hot women in the electric slide. A woman in gold muttered, “It’s. About. To go. Down,” as she walked by me, headphones on and drink in hand. Couples tuned their headsets to the same station, clutched each other lovingly, and swayed.

I felt—could it be?—mirth. The “Despacito,” the Backstreet Boys, the chasing “Waterfalls.” ​It reminded me of a foam party I went to in London once, where I danced with a boy I loved, but also everyone else, and also the FOAM, and when the sugary-sweet S Club 7 number “Reach” played, it seemed both cheesy and perfect. Sometimes things can be both.

It was around this time that we took the anxious man’s advice to leave a few minutes early. He rubbed our headphones down with disinfecting wipes as we waited for our Uber. Nearby, a crowd of balding men who looked like lawyers had crept out from the darkness of the dance-floor area and were, with headphones flashing, doing a gregarious YMCA under the lobby’s bright lights, in full view of any and all hotel guests. Which is good, because everyone deserves to have some fun now and then.