An update from Ann Batenburg, Faculty in Residence (FiR) for the Virginia-Snider Residential Commons:

August 28, 2013

So, the Silent Disco. Fascinating. My RA buddy said it had an atmosphere of a social experiment, and I think that captures it quite well.

The premise of a silent disco is that people wear headphones to listen to the music. There are two channels on the headphones, each represented by a different color; tonight’s colors were red and blue. Each channel plays a different set of songs, so people are dancing together on the same dance floor, but they are dancing to different music.

How utterly silly and beautiful. And this, August 28, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We were not judging by the content of our character that night, but on the content of our headphones. Sort of.

At first, I have to say, it was just awkward. Not because I was still feeling like a creepy middle-aged woman even after my RA arrived, but because not very many people were dancing. People put the headphones over one ear, but left them a bit askew so they could hear each other’s conversation out of the other ear, generally swaying, but not actually dancing. I think this is how every student dance in history has started – without dancing. Groups mingling awkwardly until someone has the guts to start. There must be safety in numbers.

As more people arrived and we reached that mysterious tipping point, dancing ensued. To one not wearing headphones, the scene was hilarious. First, not being able to hear themselves, some people would sing out loud. Of course, two different songs were playing, so the two a cappellas were often in conflict. Second, when a popular song came on, everyone on that color would suddenly scream and start to dance together with enthusiasm. If one group appeared to be having a great time, other groups switched colors on their headphones to hear which song was playing and usually joined in, dancing to the better song. Third, there was at least one team of two young men, each on a different color. When one thought a good song came on, he tapped the other one on the shoulder, wordlessly telling him to switch. They would then smile and nod in agreement, heads bobbing in unison to the beat.

And on this 50th anniversary of the King Dream speech, a speech that dreamt of a time when people would no longer be excluded from society for arbitrary reasons like skin color, there were still groups of white kids and groups of black kids at the disco. There was some mixing, but the dominant dance groups at the Silent Disco were initially split by race. And there were still awkward kids on the fringe, not being invited into the dancing circles, pretending not to care. (Cell phones now provide excellent escapes for the wallflowers. We can pretend to return texts when no one is asking us to dance.) Segregation was noticeably still alive.

Until. The Electric Slide.

Line dancing saved the day. Everyone either knew the Electric Slide, or wanted to know it. Nearly the whole dance floor took those steps in unison, or tried to – teaching each other, prompting each other, counting the steps out loud for someone with two left feet. And then another line dance, to the song Blurred Lines, kept us dancing together as one group. Black, white, geek, cool: all were stepping as one.

I left shortly after that. The groups were much more mixed up by that point. People felt freer getting to know each other after bonding over music and dancing and general silliness. Makes me think that we, as contributors to the new Residential Commons, need to find that thing – that thing that brings everyone together. Many things, in fact, that show us that we are all ridiculous and afraid and yet willing to try. Willing to help out. Willing to sing aloud when we can’t hear ourselves. Able to communicate clearly with no words at all.

What a wonderful way to spend the 50th anniversary of the Dream speech. Rather felt dreamlike, didn’t it?