“There’s nothing wrong with drinking. But people are looking to evolve. They’re looking to wake up.”
It’s 6:30 am on a Wednesday. The sun is barely out and yet the dance floor of SPiN, a hip basement bar/ping pong club, is packed shoulder to shoulder with partygoers. Decked out for the 90s theme, these ravers haven’t been out since Tuesday night; they got out of bed at the crack of dawn just to bump their butts together and sing along to *NSYNC.
This is Daybreaker, the early morning rave that has been catching on like wildfire since 2014. And unlike the ecstasy-fueled raves of the 90s, this dance party is stone-cold sober. Vodka shots and bumps of coke in the bathroom have been replaced with coconut water and bags of SkinnyPop Popcorn. Did we mention it’s not even 7am?!
This may seem totally nuts to some, but for an increasing number of young people, all-night parties, booze and hard drugs are out, while early-morning raves, juice crawls, and snorting lines of cocoa are in. What gives? Is this fun? We set out to explore the different incarnations of what we’re calling the “safe rave culture” and figure out why millennials are so drawn to this clean-party lifestyle.
The new kind of rave is totally sober and happening at the crack of dawn.
The “conscious clubbing” movement, as it’s sometimes called, started in London in 2013 with Morning Gloryville, the first sober morning rave. This UK pioneer focuses on substance-free dance parties as an alternative form of exercise. In 2014, Daybreaker popped up in New York City, marketing itself as “A community. A lifestyle. A movement.” With values of mindfulness, self-expression, and intention, Daybreaker is less zumba, more meditation for people who can’t sit still. In years since, both of these dawn discos have spread to cities across the globe, including, but not limited to, Shanghai, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Sydney and Dubai.
So what exactly motivates people to hit the dance floor when they could be hitting the snooze button? We caught up with a few Daybreakers in Chicago at a May rave. Between chia seed smoothies and choreographed dances by a wannabe BSB cover band, they shared their reasons for showing up, which were as varied as their rainbow lycra.
Some saw Daybreaker as a more social alternative to the morning jog, while others were looking to mix up their routines. “I’m older,” explained Mary Kate Mack, at the still very youthful age of 27. “I feel like at this point in my life it’s nice to wake up and do it in reverse: have the party and then go to work, instead of partying at night and then being hungover.”
The sober aspect was appealing for many attendees. “Chicago is kind of a drinking town, so…to get out of that,” said Mike Crothers, 28, when asked about why he came. “I’m trying to do more sober things…I feel like you can experience more, enjoy things more.”
Deborah, a dance instructor, brought her motivation around to mindfulness culture:
“Why wouldn’t I do this? It’s like, set a good intention for yourself; be around awesome people.”
That sense of intention and community seems to be behind much of this clean party culture. In addition to morning raves, there’s No Lights, No Lycra, a hyper-accepting “free movement” event where people bop around without judgement, as well as Ecstatic Dance, another a substance-free dance party with a hard swing toward the yoga crowd (their website describes Ecstatic Dance as “a freeform movement space where: spirit activates…boundaries melt…and an electronic tapestry of world rhythms weave us together.”) Perhaps the most surprising thing is that these are not individual events happening only in hippy havens; these clean dance parties have spread their granola wings to cities across the world.
Like any good scene, the safe rave culture is not without its celebrities. Tasha Blank, the DJ behind Brooklyn’s “The Get Down,” has been called the “Skrillex of wellness clubbing” for the devoted following she brings to her sober parties, which start at dusk and are over before a responsible bedtime. It seems telling of her fans that Tasha describes herself as living “in service of dance…the quickest path to love in the here + now.” Tasha’s “about me” wraps up with, “Most important, she loves you.” Seems like a spot-on mantra for this all-welcoming party scene.
Millennials are seeking a higher high.
So we’ve established that these dance parties have definitely become “a thing.” But can people really stand to dance for hours, much less socialize with strangers, without the help of drugs? Isn’t that how young people are supposed to rebel? There are a few substances popular with the clean living crowd, but they’re a lot more G-rated than you might expect.
While Daybreaker offers coffee to partygoers, Morning Gloryville does them one cleaner by replacing caffeine with cacao as the provided stimulant. That’s right?—?cacao, like chocolate. The raw form of the tropical cacao bean can be eaten, drank, or snorted for a brain-boosting high. For serious cacao connoisseurs, there’s even a special “Chocolate Shooter”snorting device, created by Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone, so you can huff cacao like it’s cocaine. But unlike hard drugs, the goal is not to get messed up. It’s seeking a higher, more enlightened state.
“A great cacao party feels like a rave must have felt in 1988, back in the day when everyone would drop an ecstasy pill from the same batch always at the same time.”
One major difference is that unlike ecstasy, cacao doesn’t sap the serotonin from your brain and slap you with a sadness hangover the next day. So how exactly does this super-food-turned-club-drug make you feel? Lucid co-founder Ruby May describes the experience of drinking pure cacao as “like a smooth, sensual hug in a cup.”
There is some debate as to what exactly happens when you drink the purest form of chocolate, but proponents of the substance say that a good cacao experience triggers a surge of endorphins, filling you with a sense of euphoria, before the rush of magnesium (aka the “relaxer mineral”) de-tenses your muscles. Pure cacao is also chock-full of flavanols, which has been shown to increase blood circulation and improve cognitive functioning, according to a recent study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But even with all these yummy feels, cacao stops short of being an actual drug. It does not distort your sense of reality, but rather “amplifies” the party experience with a subtle mood boost, according to Ruby May. While raw cacao does contain phenylethylamine, one of the chemicals released when we fall in love, experts say the amount is too low to have much of an impact on your actual state of mind. Dr. Catherine Kwik-Uribe, the director of research and development for Mars Symbioscience, concludes that “all of this alleged chocoholism is probably a placebo effect.”
Another booze-free, plant-based high making a name for itself is kava, the “magical” (read: sedative) root from the South Pacific. Traditionally, the root is ground into a powder and mixed with water or eaten as a paste. In today’s drug-alternative culture, kava bars around the country serve the bitter brown liquid in mock coconut shells. According to the Chicago Reader, a bartender at the recently-opened Tropikava Kafe described its effects as “a combination of weed, booze, and caffeine,” depending on the variety.
Tropikava’s menu advertises the Vanuatuan strain as providing an “uplifting euphoric energy” while other varieties are intended to induce relaxation and quell anxiety. So does it work? According to an independent review from the Cochrane Collaboration, kava was deemed “likely to be more effective than placebo at treating short-term social anxiety.”
Though it is legal in the US, Web MD warns that “kava is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when taken by mouth” due to potentially harmful effects on the liver. The EU has banned the root altogether for this reason. Despite such warnings, however, kava bars in Florida, California, Illinois, New York, and Colorado are thriving. The Tropikava Kafe in Chicago opens early in the morning and closes at 2 a.m., hoping to catch both the early health-conscious joggers and the late night party people.
I have tried kava myself and I wouldn’t personally recommend it as either a rise-and-shine, feel-good elixer or an evening alternative to alcohol. Aside from the dirt taste, it just made my tongue feel numb and my body feel sleepy. But now that I’ve read up on its anxiety-relieving properties, I’m open to giving kava another try.
The hippest happy hours are now booze-free.
Following in the footsteps of celebrities like Blake Lively and Kim Kardashian, who claim total disinterest in alcohol, an increasing number of millennials are ditching the booze but keeping the age-old tradition of happy hour with friends. Events like Juice Crawl and The Shine provide many of the social benefits of drinking without the haze of alcohol.
The idea behind NYC-based Juice Crawl is pretty simple?—?participants go from location to location, sampling drinks, just like a pub crawl. But instead of tossing back beers and whisky shots, they’re downing shots of kale juice and beet juice medleys at trendy juice bars. “The whole concept is to socialize and be healthy,” explains Juice Crawl founder Anna Garcia. The event starts with a group workout, followed by a nod to drinking culture: a juice “pregame.”
“As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol,” says one juice crawler, “it’s a fun social way to get the same experience that most of my friends get.” Another testifies to the benefits of “filling your body with good nutrients instead of junk.”
The Shine is an “enlightertainment” event, aka a booze-free happy hour with live music and guest speakers. Beginning in Los Angeles in 2014, this “mindfully-curated variety show” now sells out crowds of 100+ people in New York City and LA.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shiners are not recovering alcoholics, but rather intention-fueled young professionals who believe they’ve transcended the need for mind-dimming substances. At the inaugural installment of The Shine, Katia Tallarico, founder of the Uplift Project, said:
“There’s nothing wrong with drinking. But people are looking to evolve. They’re looking to wake up.”
In between the group meditation and inspirational storytelling, attendees interviewed by The Guardian said they wanted to “open up to others on the same journey” and get “centered and calm to appreciate the day.”
While these new-agey reasons are common at the Shine, there are also those simply looking to meet people with a clear head:
“I just feel like you have deeper conversations with people when you’re not distracted by drunkenness,” said June Zhang, a 26 year-old Shiner and MBA student.
So what do all these things have in common?
Clearly, there is a growing trend among young people of infusing partying with presence and intention. Instead of using drugs and alcohol to feel outside of their bodies, they want to more fully connect with themselves and others. Ultimately, the underlying link between morning raves, legal highs, and sober socializing appears to be mindfulness.
As clinical psychologist Goal Auzeen Saedi put it, “Mindfulness, in a way, is the new church.” And like an organized religion, it’s big business. According to Fortune magazine, the mindfulness and meditation industry brought in nearly $1 billion in 2015 alone, and that doesn’t even include revenue from the over 1,000 mindfulnes apps that are now on the market.
So what’s the big draw? Isn’t this the opposite of how 20-somethings are suppose to experiment and rebel? Why the rejection of social lubricants among such an anxiety-ridden generation?
“Substances are becoming culture, not counterculture,” said juice crawler Rachel Floyd. “Like, actually the real rebellion is to not do this stuff.”
Baby Boomers had the hippies and the punks; Gen Xers had grunge and rave culture. Perhaps safe raving is the millennial way of rejecting what came before. Sticking it to the man with sex, drugs and rock and roll has less of an impact now that those former taboos have become mainstream.
Like most things today, this trend probably also has something to do with the internet. In the words of the Uplift Project’s mission statement: “Our culture is saturated with distractions, information and technology. Despite this fact, we believe we are all seeking ways to elevate our mind, spirits and consciousness through real experiences.”
Is it really good for us to become lean, green party machines?
With the distracting barrage of technology and social media, young people today have a hard time unplugging. So much so that when they’re not working, what they really want is to connect with others. Instead of meeting people in a loud, low-lit bar, an increasing number of individuals are looking to see, hear, and experience real life without the fog of substances (or screens).
On one hand, this is great. In addition to the physical health benefits that come with ditching drugs for cold-pressed juices, this trend toward sober partying could also lead to healthier, more genuine relationships. Think clear-minded dating instead of drunken hookups with whoever’s around.
But it’s not all sunshine and kale salad. The dark side of this clean living trend is that addictions don’t have to involve drugs. While the superpowers of juice, cacao and kava are often overblown, there is a real danger of “clean eating” blurring into eating disorders.
Orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods, is on the rise, according to eating disorder expert Dr. Steven Bratman. If you’ve been on Instagram in the last five years, you’ve seen evidence of this in the parade of green smoothies and tea-toxes that consume the feeds of the clean-living crowd.
Another potential risk for obsession comes in the form of the new-agey spirituality that accompanies many of these sober socials. People dole out big bucks to attend event after event, looking for spiritual guidance and a “fix” for their worldly problems. As one woman who became addicted to buying crystals put it, “Anything I hope will set me free always ends up imprisoning me…Is the person who can afford to spend money on giant f*cking crystals more spiritual than the person who can’t afford to buy any? The same goes for $960 mantras and $2,000 retreats to holy places. Not to shit on anyone’s path, but I don’t think this is the way the universe works.”
Ulitmately, whether this safe rave trend was born from rebellion or an evolution toward enlightenment, it’s all about balance. Surely the 6am dance parties and liquor-free lifestyle will not appeal to everyone, but for those who do choose to rave on in a mindful way, there’s a delicate harmony to be struck. If you feel all the clean eating and spiritualist messaging tipping your scales toward a culty compulsion, well, just be…mindful.