At HUSHfest, deejays broadcast through wireless headsets for dance parties no one else can hear
By Stephanie Case
A lifelong Angeleno, Roman Shea is no stranger to the sounds of the Santa Monica Pier: the tinny melody of the Looff Hippodrome carousel, the blips and dings of arcade games, laughs drifting down from the top of the Pacific Park Ferris Wheel.
But at the far end of the pier on a recent Saturday night in May, it was silence that struck him.
There, in silent tandem, hundreds of revelers danced to an invisible beat. Hips shaking, arms twisting towards the sky, the sea of strangers twirled and cavorted to music only they could hear.
“It felt like a Charlie Chaplin movie,” Shea marveled. “It was like I walked into a silent film.”
The quiet partiers came for HUSHfest, the first in a series of five silent discos this summer on Santa Monica Pier. The next one happens Saturday, June 18.
Behind Shea, a long line of attendees snake down the boardwalk, waiting for their turn to hear the music. At the front, HUSHconcerts organizers busily hand out wireless headsets. Slip them over your ears, and suddenly the night has a soundtrack.
By the pier’s edge, two DJs play dueling sets only audible through the headphones. Dancers can flip between the two channels with the push of a button; depending on which DJ you’re listening to, your headphones will pulse with
a green or blue light.
“As the DJ, it’s this immediate gratification,” says a partygoer with a colorful name: Ruby Tuesdae. “You know that if you’re doing really, really well, more of the headsets will be your color.”
“[I’m] super into the blue,” says Kevin Nguyen, bobbing his head, his blue-lit headset glowing in the darkness. The set started with roots and hip-hop, mixed with some familiar pop samples. “Now, it’s more trap-y, grimy, electro music,” he says – perfect for quick, jubilant moves on the dance floor.
Green, on the other hand, is groovier, and goes down smooth.
Within the high-octane crowd of blue, Michael Jenkins swings his body to a more deliberate beat, immersed in the groove of green.
“The headphones isolate you, make you feel a little more protected,” he says. “They make it a little safer to be yourself and let go.”
Jenkins, a Santa Monica resident, came to HUSHfest alone — something he’d never have dared to do before.
“For a long time, I wouldn’t go dancing because I thought people would judge me,” he says. “Then, I realized that was silly. If people are judging me, what difference does that make?”
Blond hair strewn across his face, he basks in a mid-groove glow and unabashedly dances like no one’s listening.
“Here, you can connect much more through body language,” Jenkins says. “It’s a lost art.”
With their headphones on, partiers feel free to stretch the boundaries of bodily expression. Dancing breaks out sporadically at Mariasol, the Mexican restaurant a stone’s throw from the dance floor. As some partygoers take a break to eat, one shimmies between two rows of tables. She struts out the other end with a funky slide, choreographed to the green DJ’s current jam: George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.”
While regular diners look on with confusion, every headphone-clad HUSHfest-er tuned to her channel cheers or shoots her a knowing smile.
Across the restaurant, Ruby Tuesdae and her friends are tucked into a corner table, munching on tortilla chips. They chat with their headsets askew: one ear covered, tuned into the music; one open, focused on their discussion.
“I have a hard time talking to people in clubs,” says Tuesdae. “At [silent discos], I can have lovely, deep, connecting conversations with folks, instead of asking ‘What? What did you say?’ over and over,” she mocks, cupping a hand to her ear.
On a flight of stairs high above the restaurant, Kevin Nguyen and a friend catch their breath and steal a moment — though they keep their headphones with them.
“You’re in your own little world, but at the same time you’re connected to everybody else,” Nguyen says. “I think it’s a cool idea: that separation, but at the same time, that connectedness. It’s kind of a weird feeling.”
Beneath them, the motions of frenzied dancers ebb and flow as midnight waves crash with a rhythm of their own.Separate and connected, the crowd and the ocean move to music that only they can hear.
HUSHfest silent dance parties continue for four more Saturdays: June 18, July 16, Aug. 20 and Sept. 17. Tickets start at $10. Visit hushconcerts.com for more information.