Silent disco

The woman in the stripy T-shirt is midway through the chorus of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. It’s a singing in the shower-style rendition, delivered at the top of her lungs, full of gusto, and with the kind of abandon usually reserved for those times when there’s no one else around. The only thing is that other people are around and their bodies are moving to a different rhythm. The music they are dancing to seems faster, more repetitive and trancelike. Every now and again they raise their hands in the air and cheer. Seeing these two different dances on the same floor makes for a strange contrast. The fact that you can’t hear any music is even stranger.

Welcome to the country’s first silent disco. The organisers decided to try out the idea at Sho Cho, a stylish Japanese restaurant and lounge in Dubai’s Marine Beach Resort and Spa, last week. They did not advertise the event, preferring to see how the regulars would react. The results are encouraging. The wooden deck overlooking the sea is packed with people wearing big, black, wireless headphones and going completely crazy. No music is audible, but the venue is far from noiseless. The ambient sounds of people skipping, stamping, jumping up and down, chatting and singing drown out the waves.

The oddness of the scene highlights the strangeness of dancing itself. Dancing is a powerful impulse, a primal ritual and a refined art. But without the accompanying music, there is little to key you in as a spectator. At a silent disco, headphones are the conductors - in the scientific rather than musical sense - allowing the music to flow to the participants. Without them, you are an outsider looking in. You are not part of the party.

I head over to the desk in the corner where two women are handing out headphones in exchange for a deposit. They are very simple to use. There is a volume control and a switch with three settings: off, A and B. Channel A is a DJ playing a Balearic mix of cheesy rock, party songs and 1980s classics. Channel B is a DJ playing deep house. I flick the switch to channel B and turn up the music sound-system loud. Almost immediately, the movements of different people dotted around start to make sense. Pretty quickly I find myself starting to dance.

Silent disco first emerged in the 1990s when ecological activists started using wireless headphones to broadcast music at outdoor events. In 2002, two DJs from the Netherlands, Nico Okkerse and Michael Minton, picked up on the idea and started using wireless headphones at parties in Holland, Belgium and France. In the legend of silent disco, they are the pioneers. Their parties were successful, but remained underground, word-of-mouth, unheard of by all but the most tuned-in people.

It was not until the Glastonbury Festival in 2005 that the concept really took off. After complaints from residents of surrounding villages, the local council imposed noise restrictions which threatened to cut short the festival’s early-hours dance-music parties. When someone suggested using wireless headphones at the parties, Glastonbury’s first silent disco was born. It was a resounding success. The novelty of the set-up and the sight of dancers quietly grooving - clips of which quickly became popular on YouTube - helped restore the festival’s quirky reputation, as well as boost the international profile of the silent disco concept.

Since then, parties and festivals around the world, from the Download rock festival in the UK to the Pohoda festival in Slovakia, have put the idea into practice. On the basis of tonight’s audition it now looks set to take off in the UAE. Part of the reason that silent discos have proven so popular is that they are so easy to hold. Wireless headphones are cheap, easy to obtain and straightforward to set up. Beyond the simplicity, silent discos also have a number of other advantages over their noisier counterparts.

Headphones markedly improve how the music sounds. Anyone who has attended an outdoor music event will know that the quality of the sound can range from tolerable to muddy to unbearable. Unlike the traditional booming speaker stacks, wireless headphones provide better and more uniform sound quality. Even indoors, the shape of the room, the height of the ceiling, and the composition of the surfaces, all affect acoustics. While venues such as Fabric in London invest heavily in state-of-the-art sound systems and hi-tech dance floors in their quest for immediacy and clarity, silent discos render such financial outlay unnecessary.

Perhaps more importantly, the noiselessness of the event reduces its impact on the environment. With no repetitive beats to aggravate wildlife or residents, previously sensitive venues and traditionally antisocial hours are much less of a problem. Back on the deck at Sho Cho, people are leaping up and down to Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit playing on channel A. Far from being uncomfortable or odd, something about wearing the headphones also obliterates self-consciousness and encourages weirdness.

“Do they mess up my hair?” asks Melissa from the UK as she puts on the headphones for the first time. She quickly forgets her question when Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams comes on channel A and rushes on to the dance floor. “It’s really strange,” says Jonathan from Germany. “But it’s strangely fun. I love it.” Behind him the crowd has started bouncing up and down to La Bamba. Or at least some of them have. The rest are dancing to a different tune on channel B.

The transcendent power of headphones is well known. Every day, millions of people on the streets, on buses and on trains around the world use them to blot out the din of the city. Silent discos tap in to the habits of the iPod generation - a whole group of people who use music to create their own self-contained worlds. They also offer the choice that many young people now demand. The option of dancing to a different tune may have begun with clashes between reggae sound systems in Jamaica and filtered into the genre-segregated rooms of clubs but it has reached its logical end with silent disco, where decisions are made with the flick of a switch.

The random juxtapositions created when you switch between the headphones make for good entertainment are entertaining in and of themselves. On channel A David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and on channel B a swirling, spacey house tune. Even more fun, perhaps, is guessing who is dancing to which channel. This seems to be Jonathan’s main concern. Every few seconds he interrupts his friends to ask them what channel they are listening to - as if it is not obvious from the way they are moving.

Silent entertainment is not just confined to music, either. Silent cinema is also taking off. In the 21st century this refers not to black and white movies accompanied by a live piano, but screenings of films where viewers watch films in the normal way but wear wireless headphones to listen to the audio track. It’s an interesting idea. Watching a film is still a shared experience, but the isolation helps the viewer to become more immersed in the experience, immune to the chatter of fellow viewers, their crunching popcorn or their beeping mobile phones.

It’s not all about insulating yourself from the outside world, though. While technology is often accused of fragmenting society, dismantling the traditional bonds of family and friendship and limiting face-to-face communication, the silent disco concept and its offshoots help to bring people together in new ways. Take the group of besuited middle-aged men who I saw walking past the deck at Sho Cho, for example. At first they stopped and stared at the silent disco’s patrons like they were observing some strange, exotic species in a zoo.

For a moment I watched them looking in, then turned back to the dance floor. A few minutes later, that same group of men had donned their headphones, joined the crowds and started to shake their stuff. Maybe a quiet revolution really is under way. Few, it seems, are able to resist its muted call.

Published in The National on 19 November 2008.