When T.J.* put on a pair of headphones at his very first silent dance party in New York City this summer, he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. “I never saw myself doing this,” the 25-year-old says. But after a few moments of moving to the music pounding in his ears, T.J. found himself in the midst of an epiphany. “It was unlike anything I’ve done in my life before,” he says. “I was able to totally let go.”
Despite being a performer who’s used to being in the spotlight, T.J. still didn’t know if an event like this was right for him. After all, the idea of busting out solo dance moves in public might be daunting for anyone who hasn’t experienced a silent disco before. “I wasn't sure how people danced at events like this so I'm sure I was quite shy during the first playlist,” he says, adding quickly that he realized it was a “judgment-free zone.”
T.J. recalls dancing outside in his Harlem neighborhood, despite the fact that it was pouring rain. “Some people wore ponchos, but I was already wet from the walk so I just decided to deal with it,” he says. As he danced to Hoku’s “Perfect Day” in the downpour, he recalls feeling “silly and magical.” He continues, “Everyone was having such a good time, it didn’t matter that we were soaked.”
T.J. isn’t alone. Silent dance parties, or silent disco, have a reputation for being extremely liberating as they allow participants to connect with each other — and with themselves — in a way that’s entirely different from the typical bar or club. Despite its name, nothing is “silent” for the partygoers; attendees at these events wear headphones and dance to music only they can hear. And for some, a silent disco isn’t just a fun experiment — an alternative to regular weekend plans — it’s a creative and fun way to help manage social anxiety.
Ava, 29, who was diagnosed with social anxiety in 2014, went to her first silent dance party at a Los Angeles bar in 2016. Afterwards, she told her therapist, “You’re not going to believe this, but I went out this weekend. I actually kind of loved it. And I’m going to do it again.’” She says that silent disco is just as beneficial as some of the concrete strategies she’d been working on in therapy, such as meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy. “I’m able to be myself [at silent disco], relax and actually enjoy being around others. And, to feel like others enjoy being around me.”
Ava is one of 15 million people in the United States who struggle with social anxiety. It’s a disorder characterized, in part, by the inability to be fully present in the moment, especially in large group settings. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with social anxiety experience an overwhelming fear of being judged, rejected, or negatively viewed within a social environment. Because silent disco is not a traditional party environment, it provides a comfortable alternative for some people who experience this condition. But by being able to focus on the music in your ears, instead of the people around you, those suffering from anxiety disorders can find refuge at these events. “Anxiety often keeps people in their heads,” explains Maya Benattar, a licensed creative arts therapist with a practice in New York City. “Music is a multi-sensory experience that invites a connection between mind and body.”
Music as a form of therapy in medicine is not new. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, according to the American Music Therapy Association, where essays on the “therapeutic value of music” began to appear in various medical journals. Throughout the following century, interest in music therapy grew, although it didn’t turn into an organized medical profession until the 1940s. Today, music therapy helps people of all ages with a variety of medical issues, ranging from autism to Alzheimer's, and sessions are often uniquely individual, consisting of improvising, listening to music, singing, writing, or playing instruments. Studies have shown that music therapy is effective in reducing anxiety, as the process of listening to music can activate a person’s entire brain, creating a multi-sensory experience. From there, music can effectively impact a person’s emotion, mood, and cognitive functioning.
The origins of silent disco, however, are notoriously trickier to nail down; the trend has been linked to a 1969 Finnish science-fiction film called Ruusujen aika (A Time of Roses). It made headlines decades later in the late 1990s when The Flaming Lips promoted a headphones-only concert, and in 2005, when England’s Glastonbury Festival equipped guests with headphones and encouraged them to dance. In recent years, silent dance parties have spread to cities throughout the U.S., allowing partygoers to lower their inhibitions and become one with the music.
For Nicko Libowitz, the emotional rush of participating in silent disco was too good to keep to himself. The 31-year-old is the co-founder of What The Float (WTF), a silent dance party that travels through outdoor public spaces, rather than taking place inside a club or indoor event space. During any given “float,” partygoers dance through the streets via a carefully chosen route, listening to a predetermined playlist on glowing headphones, just as T.J. did that rainy night in Harlem.
We just like to dance a lot and like other people to dance with us.
Floating silent parties can be traced back to Yale University in the 2000s, according to Libowitz, where students danced across the New Haven, Connecticut campus listening to music through their earbuds. In 2010, The Yale Daily News reported on the phenomenon, attributing such events to then-juniors Max Hendrickson and Tully McLoughlin, who organized the occasions. However, as Hendrickson told the paper, he didn’t really see himself or McLoughlin as leaders of a movement; rather, they were facilitators. “We just like to dance a lot and like other people to dance with us,” he explained at the time.
When Libowitz attended the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2009, he met some Yale students who brought the idea with them — and was instantly hooked. Party organizers at the festival in The Berkshires of western Massachusetts created “secret” playlists for attendees to listen to on headphones, and everyone danced “across the campus, through a dorm, over a sculpture garden, into the woods, and back.” With the help of a friend, Libowitz brought his experience to New York. Today, What The Float has silent dance parties every (warm) month in New York and Los Angeles, and even hosts the events overseas sometimes in places like Beijing.
Caity, a 29-year-old New Yorker who deals with anxiety, says that silent disco helps her “feel a lift in daily pressures.” Caity notes that she’s able to “truly shut out the world” when she puts on those headphones — and wishes she could translate that experience to the rest of her life to help. Sam, another partygoer, attended his first floating silent dance party with WTF in September 2018, and says it was a total game-changer. After being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety earlier in life, the 22 year old turned to music as a form of self care. He later noticed parallels between his own professional treatment and the experience of silent disco. “The unique environment allowed me to transcend my anxieties,” Sam says. “It’s as though the headphones boxed up my anxiety and kept it from coming out.”
Given that music can be used as therapy in a variety of ways, Caity and Sam’s takeaways make a lot of sense. According to Kara Kulpa, a board certified music therapist, listening to music through headphones can be a way to “shut off” the outside world, just as Caity describes. “When people experience a state of anxiety, their perception can be altered and normal external stimuli can seem like too much to handle,” she explains. Kulpa, who is the enrichment program manager at Jammin' With You!, a Boston-based organization that provides a variety of programs for children and adults, including music therapy, adds: “By listening to recorded music, it gives their brain something to focus on and thus, lessens the intrusion of problematic stimuli.”
However, there is a difference between the therapeutic use of music and music therapy — and that distinction is crucial, as Ariel Weissberger, board certified music therapist and licensed creative arts therapist, points out. Weissberger, who is the founder and primary therapist at Berko Music Therapy in New York, explains that “music therapy is the clinical use of music to achieve individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed music therapist.” The therapeutic use of music, like silent disco, isn’t a replacement for music therapy or even traditional therapy, but the elements of these events certainly carry therapeutic effects, he says.
Weissberger explains that putting on headphones doesn’t automatically make someone fully engaged with themselves, but “music can absolutely help us connect with ourselves and be in the moment when listening actively and with intention.” He adds that “music has a big impact on our emotions and mood,” and by actively engaging with music, people have the ability to “release feelings of anxiety and….anxious thoughts by experiencing a sense of flow and being fully present in the moment.”
Darius, 29, found that silent disco helped him embrace his identity, and allowed him to flourish. He had come out as gender non-binary the month before attending his very first silent dance party with WTF in New York. “In that moment, I realized...I’d been kind of holding my breath and suffocating myself,” he says, adding that the liberating nature of Float also helped him develop his drag persona, named SOL. “It felt like a weight was lifted off of my heart and...I was living 100% authentically.”
Libowitz says there’s nothing more fulfilling than witnessing the way What The Float has impacted others. Last May he noticed a family of four watching one of his events near Battery Park in downtown Manhattan. He ended up offering them each a set of headphones, and says, “The two teenage girls were reticent at first, but once they put the headphones on, it was like they’d transformed.”
“You've melted into this collective thing, you're part of the in-crowd, the tastemakers, the ones in the know — just by virtue of wearing the headphones,” Libowitz says. “You can disappear entirely into the bliss of your own world.”
*Some subjects in this story have requested that their names be changed for privacy reasons.