Sundays are for relaxing “silent discos” in Long Beach

As the sun begins to set on Junipero Beach on an unusually hot and crowded Labor Day weekend, bewildered onlookers gather around an odd sight.

About two dozen strangers stand on the sand in an awkward, half-assed circle, avoiding eye contact while fidgeting with identical wireless headphones. But the confidence of being a public curiosity vanishes when these headphones slip over their ears and silence the sounds of the noisy beach. Screaming children in the nearby playground, whistling teenagers, a heated family argument – all this is drowned out by the soft tones of a song called up “Akal” by White Sun.

A 25-year-old woman with a microphone speaks quietly over the music and asks if it’s anyone’s first silent disco. Most in the eclectic group — which spans a wide range of ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities — raise their hands.

Two young women wave colorful streamers while dancing by the sea.

Dancers twirl streamers while listening to music at a So We Are Silent Disco event in Long Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

That So we are Silent Disco has met in Long Beach every Sunday since it began in March—almost two years to the day after Los Angeles County first implemented it Order Safer at Home COVID-19 and changed the way we could connect with each other in public.

It begins with a simple mirror exercise, with each willing participant contributing a dance move for the rest of the circle to mimic. Some freeze under the pressure of creativity, just repeating a variation of what the last dancer did. But it doesn’t matter, because nobody counts.

As embarrassed as this mishmash crew may have seemed before, everyone spends the next hour gasping softly as their limbs thrash in an uncoordinated dance to music only they can hear. When a remix of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays, Katie Neary, event organizer and guide, asks how each attendee’s body dances when it’s “feeling good,” even if it’s only possible to feel 1% better feel.

A detail image of bright blue headphones used for silent disco dances, captioned with the words "So are we."

The headphones used for silent disco dances are labeled with the words “So We Are”.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

It’s so contagious that a captivated viewer can make a big show out of it without even wearing headphones. After being handed a pair, he quickly bows and seems drawn back by the unbridled intimacy. A bunch of messy kids take his place. They stick with it to the end, although they don’t quite match the rhythm or mood of a single song.

Many of the silent disco newcomers burst into tears after being invited to speak about their experiences, and choke out surreptitious words of gratitude for something they can’t quite describe.

A returning participant dares to share first by congratulating everyone on going from strangers to community in just an hour. A teenage girl struggles to keep her voice calm; here the uncertainty of the weirdness of a silent disco has been washed away with the waves. Life can be a lot sometimes, she says, but somehow her mom still finds a way to create fond memories like these for her family, no matter how hard it gets. A young woman with a soft voice reveals that she is in a depressive phase and has almost forgotten that it is possible to feel so good or so good.

In 2020, the founder of So We Are, Neary was fresh out of college and making good money as a commercial insurance broker. “I thought that was how my life was supposed to be,” says the Cypress resident. “Then the pandemic happened, and everything stopped.”

Two people stand with their feet in the surf, holding hands and looking out at the ocean.

Nathan Hildebrandt and Adelyn Reed of Bend and McMinnville, Oregon, hold hands as they take a moment with their minds in the water during the So We Are Silent Disco.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

This hiatus resulted in a shift in priorities away from corporate success and toward more personally fulfilling interests. She discovered ecstatic dance, a popular LA spiritual practice that uses rhythmic movement to induce meditative or trance-like states. From there she moved to a Silent disco in Venice Beach called The Wave, which borrows from dance movement therapy. The principles of this creative art therapy range from the embodiment of positive feelings to the processing of trauma stored in the body. This resonated with Neary, who struggled with eating disorders and rare chronic illnesses that affected her digestive system and hospitalized her during her senior year of high school.

“My body continues to be my greatest lesson. Even though I’m healed, it’s the train that never stops,” she says. When she was younger, Neary tried to hide her illnesses to avoid being pigeonholed as a sick girl. “But the more you hide from something or try to pretend it’s not there, the more your body will burn you.” I didn’t even realize how much I was running from myself until I finally looked back around 2020.”

So Neary took part in The Wave’s five-week facilitator training course with a goal of bringing a healing-focused silent disco closer to home. However, she is careful not to misrepresent herself as a dance movement therapist. Every Silent Disco begins with a reminder that attendees can unsubscribe at any time, especially when strong emotions are present.

After quitting her corporate job for good this year, she teamed up with brother Michael Neary (who holds the title of Chief Vibe Officer at So We Are Silent Disco). You’ve struck algorithmic gold goes semiviral on TikTok in July, which causes the number of visitors to increase from around 10 to 15 to 20 to 40 people every Sunday, with tickets priced at $30.

But TikTok’s For You page isn’t the only way people are finding their way to So We Are Silent Disco.

A woman with headphones and raised arms on the beach at sunset.

Katie Neary, center, hosts the So We Are Silent Disco.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

In April, 30-year-old Jordan Alexandra Lynn felt lost after she left the evangelical church and moved from Orange County to Long Beach in search of more queer-friendly communities. As they walked down Junipero Beach, they asked the universe for a metaphorical sign in the right direction. Then there was the literal sign for So We Are on the beach, with rainbow flags proudly planted in the sand below (Neary is queer too). Like many attendees, the normally reserved Lynn was initially shocked by what they had signed up for. But the public vulnerability exercise turned out to be more fun and approachable than most other healing exercises.

“The last few years have been incredibly tough for me. But here I feel in this body. In front of all these people,” says Lynn.

For Neary, the public environment only reinforces bonding within the group, especially for those with social anxiety, because “we’re all in this together. You don’t do anything alone. If you jump, we jump.” Also for people who remain suspicious of large gatherings due to COVID: “It’s a way to get out and reconnect, to be in the community — but still feel safe.”

Silhouettes of people dancing on the sea shore at sunset.

Dancers revel in the experience of dancing by the water at sunset.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Unlike the newbies, 58-year-old Lorraine Aguilar is exactly the hippie type you’d expect when waiting for a silent disco to make its way to Long Beach. “Honestly, this is what will save us as a planet. I know that’s a big statement,” says the CEO of Working Harmony, a company that provides empathy training for businesses. “You can respond to uncertainty by navigating from a place of fear, anger, depression, reactivity — or we can fill ourselves with love, joy, creativity and freedom from judgement… So it’s much more than just dancing.”

To the sardonic skeptic, the genuine sincerity of So We Are Silent Disco might seem like little more than an embarrassing public display of dismay. But Neary hails the label, claiming, “The more you embrace your frizz, the more freedom you’ll have.” Cringe is just a judgment you make against yourself.”

In many ways, the silent disco upon entering can serve as a form of informal exposure therapy another phase of the pandemic. For the chronically exhausted, it injects a sense of hope right into the veins. For the socially anxious introvert, reliance on nonverbal communication acts as a leveler. For those who can’t shake the reassurance that we’re still safer at home, you can fellowship with the public while staying six feet apart.

That might have to suffice for the moment. We’ve spent so much time “alone together” that maybe we can just dance alone on the beach.

A sunset image of a woman wearing headphones dancing on the beach and blowing bubbles with a bubble wand.

Seal Beach’s Lorraine Aguilar spins and releases bubbles as she joins other dancers in a silent disco at sunset.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

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