This past weekend I traveled to Boise to perform at Treefort Music Fest, a four-day event that takes over downtown Boise, filling it with live music, art, food, film, theater and interactive activities. I was part of the activities portion, DJing a live amateur dance battle hosted by my roommate Piper's aerobic performance troupe, Werk Out Palace. The idea was to get anyone who wanted to be a part of the competition up on stage to face off against other brave boogiers. There were no set rules: You just had to want to dance. It didn't matter if you were a professional ballerina or someone who just liked to get down in front of the mirror at home — if you wanted to strut your stuff in front of strangers, you were invited.
I spent the afternoon prior to the battle perfecting a playlist of the best dance songs I could think of from the last four decades; Michael Jackson, Missy Elliott, Ariana Grande and the Ramones all made the list. The songs were kept secret from the dancers and as they signed up to compete, they were asked to pick from slightly ambiguous music categories like "solid gold" and "bad bitches" — but other than that, they had no clue what they were going to be choreographing to on the fly. An adult male in head-to-toe spandex arrived to sign up; three little girls under the age of ten rolled through the door ready to compete as a team; an unassuming woman in yoga pants appeared ready to take part. This was going to be amazing.
But by our allotted start time, we only had four contestants signed up. I started to get worried — what if not enough people showed up to make it a competition? An audience was slowly trickling through the tent flap and filling in the seats, but it was looking pretty thin. There was no way this amateur dance battle was going to be a success if the room was empty: Without people, there was no vibe. Still, I put on Quad City DJs' "C'Mon 'N Ride It (The Train)" and hoped for the best. Piper started to warm up the crowd with some beginner aerobic moves — many people seemed hesitant to even wiggle their hips in public. But soon enough, the tent was packed with people and everyone was moving together; the dance competition vibe was born and shit was about to go down.
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What happened next felt like a dream: The competitors took over the elevated dance floor and I dropped track after track of wild jams like Ludacris's "How Low" and Ke$ha's "Die Young" and a cypher emerged. The energy between a couple hundred strangers grew frantic as a grown man did the splits in a wrestling costume, battling a nine-year-old who did the worm in slow motion to "Turn Down For What" (a move that eventually pushed him into the winning spot). I looked up from behind my modest DJ set-up and saw grandmas wiggling next to young couples grinding. It was unreal.
After an hour of non-stop screaming, glitter-throwing and competitor after competitor wowing the crowd with their anything goes-styles, an elementary school kid walked away with a crown, a doughnut as a prize and fifty bucks. After the show, his mom came up to us and asked, "Do you always let kids win?" as if we had rigged the situation. This is something that happens in adult world a lot: We assume that things like this are rigged. I mean, where else is a child in cargo pants and a T-shirt actually going to do battle with a man in his forties dressed like '80s wrestler "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan?
But it also reminded me that once we quit being kids, we often think we need permission to go wild in public. We worry so much about what we look like or who sees us being ourselves that we don't fully commit to doing exactly what we feel like doing inside. When was the last time you were on a dance floor and you really let yourself go and danced exactly how you wanted to dance? Better yet, when was the last time you were on a dance floor? That day on the stage inside of a tent full of strangers, I saw ten contestants drop the façade of what was assumed to be socially appropriate behavior and get loose — and it was awesome. It was all because we had "permission" to do so within the context that a dance competition presented, and with that permission came an energy I had not witnessed in a long time.
Before the competition began, Piper had given the room permission; while the crowd was warming up wiggle by wiggle, she talked about the idea that there were no losers in this amateur competition. Losing is a created social construct, so instead of competing to be the best, she asked dancers to just be themselves. It worked. The room became a pit of wild energy, a space where everyone was allowed to move however they pleased. But the magic of it all was this reminder: You don't have to get permission to be yourself. Ever. Just do it. And if you need any help, throwing DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" on and pumping it through a powerful speaker system works wonders for the timid.
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