It's about midnight when I finally make it to the dance floor with my friends. The nonstop, thumping beats, whether they're considered house, progressive house, jungle, gabber, breakbeat or drum and bass--it's hard for me to keep up with all the sub-genres in electronic music these days--induce a meditative, trance-like state.
This is my fourth pilgrimage to the annual Saint A's Halloween rave. Affectionately called Uncle Tony by its brothers and sisters, Saint Anthony's Hall is a coed Greek society affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill, but you won't confuse it with the other frats nearby. The nondescript brick building near the Carolina Inn is home to the unconventional, including but not exclusive to goths, bisexuals and gays, ravers, and artsy and nerdy types.
Points of light from a revolving disco ball circle the walls upstairs in the chill-out room where dancers rest on couches. Party organizer Jason Moore invited 16 DJs to perform from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. for this year's event. It's relatively crowded, which is amazing for a party that had little or no direct promotion; everyone I ask says they learned about the event through word-of-mouth.
My dancing entails moving my arms in a fluid motion--like rapid Tai Chi--and freezing just on the beat. I hop and bounce a lot as well. I may just look like a fool. But the beauty of a rave is that there is no standard way of dancing. Each person is his own planet and orbit, expressing his own unique reaction to the music.
DJ Chip McClure from Burlington helps clarify why music composed solely of beats attracts a large following.
"[The music] is open for your own interpretation without the help of lyrics," says McClure, who's been DJing for nine years.
The atmosphere at the party is far friendlier than any other dancing environment I've been in--I look around several times during songs and am always met with a smile from my neighbors. When I decide to check out the jungle-music room downstairs, beats pulsate fiercely, inciting seizure-like thrashing among the dancers.
DJ T.J. Ward concentrates on the turntables. Later on, he teaches me the principles of DJing. The first priority is to match up the beats seamlessly when switching from one song to another, says Ward, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who has DJed for a couple of years. He also finds it important to put a mood together, that is, finding tracks with a similar tone and feeling. In addition, Ward watches the crowd to see in which direction the dancers want to go, what affects them the most.
"When you hit it just right, the dancers go nuts, and people just start yelling," says Ward.
He sees a change in rave culture over the years.
"It used to be that people were super-friendly and there wasn't any violence. But slowly, over time, [the incorporation of] hip-hop and jungle has brought in a different element, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad."
Also responsible for the move away from the kinder, gentler rave is the changing drug preference, says Ward. Once the staple drug of the scene, mellowing Ecstasy is being replaced with crystal methamphetamine, or crystal meth, which often makes people aggressive. A look around in each room tonight offers no obvious evidence of crystal meth use, or of any drug use, and hardly a soul holds a beer bottle. Yet I notice numerous people with squinty eyes and sheepish grins on their faces. Some kind of happy pill is working its magic.
In the chill-out room, several ravers talk quietly on the dusty couches, while others sit Indian-style on the floor. Daniel, from Fayetteville, offers to facilitate a "gravity drop" for me and says it works regardless of whether you are "ecstatic" or sober. I'm game, and according to instructions, I lie down on my stomach, arms and head raised, eyes closed. He takes my arms and gradually lowers them to the ground. I feel as if my arms have sunk under the floors. Alongside me, there are others that are doing ecstasy-sensory-enhancing movements. Two men stand back-to-back with locked arms. One lifts the other one, balancing him on his back. Another man with two glow sticks in his mouth massages the back of his friend's head. It may sound orgiastic, but in fact, it's very nonsexual--like a yoga group and spa operating nonchalantly in one room.
There's also kiddie stuff everywhere. A woman in the trademark big-pant-leg jeans is passed out with a pacifier in her mouth. A dancer on the floor approaches me with a stuffed Scooby-Doo in his arms. Back in the "yoga" room, Daniel also has a bag of cool toys that have spinning lights.
Adaam Hukins, an electronic music enthusiast and beginning DJ (who hugs a brown corduroy teddy bear), admits that all of the aforementioned gear signals the commercialization of rave culture.
"There are toys and clothing lines directed for the rave scene," Hukins says. "Electronic music's now in commercials, and the music's on MTV."
Is this phenomenon equivalent to the mainstreaming of heavy metal, leading to its death in the late '80s, a dark period rampant with Wingers and Cinderellas? Is rave culture going to die soon?
Not likely says McClure, the first DJ to play at a Saint A's Halloween seven years ago.
"[Rave culture] is just getting stronger, snowballing," says McClure, who majored in music education and has formal training in piano and organ. "It's good in that it gives way to new types of music, a new underground style."
Often songs at a rave begin with a solid beat, then trail off with gaps of silence. They then slowly build and build, leading to fast, pounding beats. After the crescendo, dancers euphorically throw down with full force, vibrating the entire building structure. Rave culture, by all accounts, is far from dying out, but rather, approaching a crescendo. It'll be a glorious, thundering descent.