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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, September 29, 2023

First-timer embraces the unknown world of nightclubs

It’s 6 a.m., and I find myself on the Purple Line out of Chicago among a nest of snoozing commuters. My eyes are wide, lips chapped, feet still tapping in beat with the thumping club tracks I had just listened to for seven hours straight. Following in the footsteps of David Byrne, I ask myself: How did I get here? And more importantly, when will I be back? 

At 10 p.m. on a chilly December night in Wrigleyville, I walk up to the bouncer, having just finished a cigarette in a desperate attempt to give off the vibe of the mature and collected 23-year-old from Boulder, Colo., that I had to transform into in order to enter the club. In reality, I am neither mature nor collected. In fact, for the last two hours I’ve been filled with an insurmountable anxiety about this very moment, stressing equally over getting in and fitting in.

Up until tonight, I had only been able to experience club culture vicariously through the Internet. But something felt off about pursuing this world through a purely digital lens. The social media accounts of my favorite DJs and producers only offer fleeting glimpses of the underground world of nightclubs. While on the other hand, the streamed Boiler Room DJ sets from around the world are populated with meager patrons, knowing full well they are being recorded for the masses of Youtube. I knew that the only way to truly experience the essence of the club is to observe it in every stage of life from open to close. Winter Break is my only chance to glimpse into this world before I get thrown back into the vat of sweaty college basement functions.

The bouncer lets me in and half of my anxiety is gone. The other half multiplies when I enter the club and I notice that I am one of only four patrons in the several hundred-square-foot space. My college party experiences had taught me about the social pitfalls of showing up early to a function, but even that couldn’t prepare me for the stifling lack of human life. However, there is one person who gives me hope, a man in his 60s viciously dancing on an otherwise empty dance floor. The bartenders says he’s “the Conductor,” a local legend named after his orchestral dance moves, which he passionately performs from open to close. I think I’ve just found my “be this person by age 60” role model. 

At 11:30 p.m., things start picking up. Confident couples join the Conductor in dancing for the first DJ. I’m still biding my time, attempting to take in the full scene from the sidelines, fearing that joining the crowd might make me lose all desire to remain a passive observer. In a meager attempt at both journalistic reporting and establishing human connections, I ask patrons of the bar why they were at the show and what time they had arrived. Though, it’s not like I would remember. My phone is dead and I had nursed my Rum and Coke a little too hard. 

It’s only at midnight when I shed the barrier between observing and experiencing that I finally move to the dance floor. Fog spills out from the ceiling while neon red and blue lights intercept the mist with such intensity that I feel as if I’m viewing the world through 3D glasses. The crowd is a homogenous pool of people from every walk of life: black, white, Latino, straight, gay and transgender are all dancing with each other, filling the dance floor with an energy that Madison house parties could only dream of achieving.

I try utilizing the dance moves I practiced in the mirror earlier in the day before I soon realize that it is much more efficient to simply wild out. In those moments, when my eyes are closed and my fist is pumping to the religious four-on-the-floor bassline that unites the crowd, I feel brief pangs of total bliss overtaking my soul. Not long after the second DJ comes on do I accept that my original intention of reporting was merely a formality. I am here to understand something much deeper within myself. The digital dreams of luscious nightlife that tantalized me in far-away Madison are finally realized, and for a moment I feel my ego flutter away while my deep evolutionary urge to move and dance takes over. 

It’s now 1:30 a.m., and a brief lapse in music allows me to escape from within myself and cool down outside. When I come back downstairs, I see a much clearer picture of the citizens populating the dance floor. There are bros, who drape their bodies over girls like the skins of predatory animals, making rounds until they click with the right one who takes them home. There are proud dancers, who have the best moves and know it, building space around them for theatrical displays of tango. But more populated than any other group are the solo dancers, who look absolutely silly dancing on their own yet fit perfectly into a crowd of ecstatic techno enthusiasts. They dance alone, yet together, and it was clear that they had the most power in setting the mood of the dance floor. 

Bars in Madison close at 2 a.m. This is my opportunity to see a bizarro world of nightlife that doesn’t exist within the confines of Dane County. The bros leave with their mates, as the dancefloor no longer serves their pursuits. Those that remain pound their fists until close, which is exactly what I did until 5 a.m. when the blaring five-minutes-left lights came on. 

I saunter to the L station, my phone too drained to order an Uber. As I’m sitting on the platform, I ask the only person next to me if I can borrow their phone to call my mother. After assuring her that I’m not dead, I go on to explain my night in enthusiastic detail to the man whose phone I used. I ramble about how the club was a world separate from the real world, how I wanted to carry the essence throughout my life so that others could lose themselves in the dark flashy ecstasy of electronic music. It is only after I pour whatever remains of my soul out that I realize that this man is taking the train to work.

And that moment is all it takes for me to be flung back into reality. We keep talking about everything from comedy improv to the inadequacies of the CTA to Chicago as a whole. The conversation is a perfect wrap-up to the night. I take a deep satisfied breath and bid farewell to Jake the clubber, Jake the soul that was free for seven hours.

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