To an outsider, a silent disco might look a lot like a "Twilight Zone" episode: a crowd of people dance in silence while DJs work the turntables but no sound is emitted.
Everyone can hear the music but you.
Until you put on a pair of headphones, that is.
A silent disco is an event in which participants wear headphones that receive music transmitted from a system, sometimes even from a live DJ's setup. Some silent discos feature multiple DJs and channels, allowing attendees to choose which station they'd prefer for dancing.
The experience is said to have multiple benefits — friends with opposing tastes can dance alongside one another while listening to different music, noise ordinances are easier to comply with and conversations are more easily had.
Tellus360 will give local music lovers a chance to experience silent disco on its roof during two sessions on Friday, Aug. 28. The DJ duo Aortic Valve will be spinning, and tickets are limited.
Coming to America
Ryan Dowd, the founder of Silent Events, a production company that puts on silent discos, previously worked on audio and lighting for live performances. Dowd says Silent Events, which has been around for nine years, was the first silent disco company in America.
Dowd says the organizers of the Manchester, Tennessee, music festival Bonnaroo saw silent discos at European festivals and asked him to produce one in 2005. After that event, Dowd says organizers from other festivals inquired about hosting their own.
"It became very obvious that there was such a need," Dowd says. "I thought, 'If I don't do this, someone else will.' "
As business expanded, Silent Events had its own type of headphones and transmitters manufactured to better serve its events. Silent Events offers light-up headphones that can change color, depending on what channel they are tuned to.
Silence is a virtue
Dowd says a common concern people have when they first hear the concept of a silent disco is that wearing headphones will take away from the communal aspect of dancing.
"We get a lot of feedback initially — 'I'm afraid it's going to be antisocial,' " Dowd says. "Well, when you go to a loud club, are you able to talk?
"A lot of people go outside of clubs just to give their ears a rest. We can take our headphones off 5 feet away from the DJ and use our inside voices."
Another benefit is being able to work around common noise ordinances in outdoor spaces like parks. The quiet nature of the event allows a dance party to happen in places they couldn't otherwise, says Sarah Thomas, director of public relations for Silent Storm. Silent Storm, which got its start in 2009, will produce the Aug. 28 event at Tellus360.
"When we founded it, we were hoping to bring a unique musical experience to alternative environments," Thomas says.
Silent Storm recently produced a wedding in the woods, where a DJ with a traditional speaker setup wouldn't have complied with noise ordinances.
"We were able to extend the wedding past the noise ordinance and allowed people to dance in the moonlight to the wee hours of the morning," Thomas says.
A 'spin' on DJing
Performing at a silent disco —especially one where there are multiple DJs and channels — adds a level of competition to the DJs' performance.
Dowd says that in his experience, DJ reaction to the prospect competing for listeners' attention has been mixed.
"I think there are some DJs that are totally comfortable in their skin … and then there are some that are, 'No, I'm a performer and an artist and I don't want to do that,' " Dowd says. "Some people really enjoy it, enjoy battling for the attention."
At the Tellus360 event, the DJs of Aortic Valve won't be competing with other DJs.
Aortic Valve is a partnership between Rich Johnson and Justin Ayala — Johnson handles the music and Ayala creates video to complement the sound. Johnson and Ayala work improvisationally and don't have a set list or a prepared video for any gig.
Johnson says having everything in the headphones will change how he hears what song is up next.
Typically, he can alternate listening to the ambient sound of the room to hear what's currently playing and listening to his headphones to hear what he will play next. At the silent disco, Johnson says, he'll hear everything in his headphones at once — what's currently playing will be in one ear while what's up next will be in the other.
"It's going to put everything very much in my ears, right to left all night," says Johnson, who has been practicing mixing in his headphones to prepare.
Johnson and Ayala, however, are looking forward to the challenge.
The duo first experienced a silent disco at New York City's Governors Ball three years ago, and knew then that they wanted to be involved in one. They pitched the idea to organizers at Tellus360, who the pair say were receptive to the idea.
"It was such a head trip," Ayala says of seeing a silent disco for the first time. "The minute you have the music there, you're immersed in the environment. You kind of take that for granted because anytime you're in that environment, you're listening to music.
"To be able to remove that element of it is so weird. Just to look around and see people raging out and then you put (the headphones) back on, you're immediately part of that group again."
Johnson says that those who are concerned a silent disco will be antisocial shouldn't be concerned.
"It is definitely not as social verbally, but at the same time you're all connected by the music, just in a different way," Johnson says.
Not just for dancing
Silent disco technology can be utilized for more than just getting your groove on.
Thomas says Silent Storm has used its technology for many kinds of events, from interactive children's journeys (children can choose their own adventure on the headset channels) to the wedding service that would be difficult to amplify, or art gallery exhibits. She says the possibilities are limitless.
"Basically, anything you can amplify, you can silence," Thomas says.
Dowd says Silent Events has utilized their equipment to broadcast simultaneous translations for bilingual events. Dowd says his company repurposed it for a comedy show, in which listeners can change the channel if they don't find a comedian funny.
Dowd says that three months after he started Silent Events, the stock market crashed, and festivals weren't as willing to add silent discos to their rosters. He's grateful that business has since picked up, and says, on some days, Silent Events is triple-booked.
"I'm in a really good spot now," Dowd says.
Thomas says she hopes people will keep thinking of new ways to utilize silent disco equipment.
"I would just love to have people be creative in their thoughtful expression of how they want to experience it," Thomas says. "The opportunities for application are endless beyond that."