The Silent Disco and the things we've missed

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Posted at 12:34 PM, Dec 21, 2021

CLEVELAND — With the pandemic stretching into its 22nd month, it can be difficult to think back to everyday life before it. Public events, gatherings, even the thoughtless minutiae that pockmarked life in Northeast Ohio have unimaginably changed since March 2020. There is a way back to that place, however, and it can be reached only through listening to the silent disco.

Cleveland’s most well-lit district, Playhouse Square, truly comes alive when the lights come on. Glitz, glamour, drama and humor are all illuminated by thousands of LEDs, some pulsing, some constant. In the shadow of the GE Chandelier and the giant PLAYHOUSE SQUARE marquee erected overhead, a dark corner of U.S. Bank plaza gives way to a moving sea of dimly lit headphones and the clacking of shoes on brick.

Red. Green. Blue. Silence.

It’s the summer of 2019. Warm days are precursors to cool nights. COVID was just a collection of letters that no one had assembled yet. People could live out loud.

And they did, despite the beauty of silence.

“Tonight, we have the adult prom silent disco at Playhouse Square,” said Heather Marshall of the Playhouse Square Foundation. “Basically, it’s just a great way to shut out the sounds of Euclid Avenue and the world and lose yourself and dance like no one is watching. It’s just a great way to show our appreciation for the city and get everyone together to have some fun.”

A trickle of people turned into a sea of humanity. Hundreds of people, packed closely together, ebbing and flowing with the staccato sounds pumped into their ears. Every once in a while, someone in the crowd will inevitably forget the silent in silent disco, screaming the lyrics of the song they’re listening to.

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Silent disco is itself a wonderful oxymoron. Sure, participants can dust off their bell-bottoms and platform shoes, but most don’t. Disco music is meant to be enjoyed, with four-on-the-floor beats, syncopated bass progressions, and electric piano, guitar and other stringed instruments.

You can’t forget about the synthesizers either.

Hosted by the Playhouse Square Foundation, the string of silent disco events that dotted the calendar in the summer of 2019 allowed people to gather, listen to music and simply enjoy each other's company. Free of charge, participants simply grabbed a pair of headphones, selected a station that corresponded with a certain color and away they go.

There’s a certain peer pressure associated with silent disco — but in a good way. Periodically, participants would survey the crowd and see what others were listening to.

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The greens sure look like they’re having fun. What song is playing on that station right now?

Color, creed and chorus don’t matter; dance like no one is watching — even though they are; pick your station, pick a partner and enjoy the night — these are the principles of silent disco. The divide between friend and stranger was smaller than a Cleveland pothole in the dead of winter.

We’ve been through some ups and downs with life and death and friends. It’s just looking to have a good time and celebrate a moment together because nothing is promised,” one man said at the final 2019 silent disco event. “Every day is not promised, every moment is not promised. Every second isn’t promised.”

Every second isn’t promised.

Very seldom has that four-letter phrase proven to be more true than it has over the past 22 months. Since the last silent disco, there has been a pandemic that seemingly will not end; there has been a reckoning on race and policing in America; there was an insurrection at the capitol.

We started off being "in this together" until we weren’t. We refused to survey the people around us and see what they were listening to. Instead, we retreated to our typical tribes, our stations, our music.

Sure, at first blush, it may sound absolutely ridiculous. It may sound naive. But, in so many different respects, the silent disco represents what’s best about humanity. We’re not reds. We’re not greens. We’re not blues.

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We are people and partners in this shared experience.

“You can see that there’s older people there, there’s younger people. They’re all having fun with the same thing. It all brings unity to what we do,” said William Lindsey. “It really goes to show that no matter what you hear about society, we’re all good people and we’re in a good position. The human race is okay.”