No Boys, No Booze, No Judgement
I always arrive early for Dance Dance Party Party.
I tell myself it’s because I live farther away than the other den mothers, so I need extra time in case there’s traffic. But really, it’s because I like the ritual of setting up the studio.
I line the perimeter of the studio floor with rope lights. I point the lava projector at the white wall, knowing that soon, we’ll be shadow-dancing in its swirling spotlight. After plugging in the rotating rainbow light, I pull the curtains so it’ll be nice and dark once we kill the overhead lights. I attach the two sound system components and plug them in.
Dance Dance Party Party, or DDPP, is a safe space where women pay five bucks to enjoy an hour-long bootyshake. There’s no instruction. Everybody dances however she wants. The motto is No Boys, No Booze, No Judgment—a rejection of everything that makes both nightclub dancing and gym workouts a bummer when they should be a blast.
In a club, the DJ might inspire you to drop it like it’s hot…but you’ve already had enough catcalls and snide glances, and you don’t want to draw any more attention to yourself. At the gym, when you hear your jam on the treadmill, you can’t just go all Flashdance. Other treadmillers will give you the stink eye for being a freak, and security will escort you out.
In fact, sad is exactly how I felt about my fitness situation before I discovered DDPP. Though women from all walks of life regularly attend DDPP, I’ve rarely seen another professional dancer there. I’m not a professional dancer anymore. When I was, I wasn’t anything special—just your average corps de ballet girl. I quit after a hip injury and a few underwhelming company experiences. And I realized then that I had no idea how to work out beyond ballet classes, which I just couldn’t bear anymore.
In graduate school, I would dance with my friends all night at Mark Cherry’s house, where he’d hang a disco ball and make endless mixes. The women would let loose until we either fell asleep or needed to go home to feed our cats. Years after ballet, I still loved to dance. I didn’t want dance lessons, though. The idea of learning a new movement vocabulary that I had to articulate in an exact way in order to feel successful made me want to punch somebody.
I tried dance fitness classes at gyms, but I found the choreography embarrassing in its utilitarian purpose, completely devoid of expression. Running bored me. Same with exercise machinery, including treadmills, StairMasters, exercise bikes, elliptical machines, and those weird rowing things with no boat. Ten years went by, and slowly, I fell out of shape.
That first summer DDPP existed, I saw Time Out Chicago’s write-up about it, and I thought to myself, Yes. I had never heard of a dance class without instruction, but when I read about DDPP, I realized that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want someone to teach me steps. I already knew steps. We all already know steps. As soon as they can stand, babies dance to music. That’s how innate dance is.
So I went.
I drove from my job in legendary Chicago traffic, and I arrived late. For fear of interrupting the class, I almost didn’t open the door. But when I did, I saw a dark roomful of women shaking it as hard as they could with colored lights twinkling all around them. I heard a beat that made me want to dance. I saw two women (who turned out to be the den mothers) freaking out in time with each other’s moves, like a pas de deux gone wild, but perfect. I saw a place for me. And I went in.
Other women become DDPP regulars for a host of reasons. Claire Zulkey (aka DJ Incredible Zulk) learned about it from a friend. At first, she had some reservations. However, she says, “after the warm-up song, I was hooked. I had never realized how much fun and what a great workout dancing can be if you’re freed of tight jeans, high heels, holding an overpriced beer, and trying to look cool. I love introducing friends to it because, just like me, they’re uncertain at first, but they have a great time.”
Michelle Argento (aka DJ Chelles Belles), a dedicated fitness buff, insists that “the best workout I can get is DDPP.” It’s rare to find a form of exercise that appeals to both hardcore and fair-weather workout people, and Jennon Bell (aka DJ Bell Biv deHo) explains why: “I like being active, but if it’s not fun, I just can’t keep myself interested. DDPP provides the fun. I like that I can break into relaxing yoga poses or do cardio kickboxing moves. Almost always, whenever I start to feel winded, a new song comes on that reenergizes me. An hour later, I feel great, I’m dripping sweat, and I don’t want it to be over. THAT is what I want in my workout.”
At DDPP, there’s a different DJ each time. Anyone who has attended once can sign up for a spot. Simply make a playlist on your iPod, iPad, or computer. Anything goes—rock, pop, hip hop, R&B, swing, show tunes. We post the playlists on our blog in case you hear a song that you desperately need to buy but have no idea what it’s called. Summer Violett (aka DJ Brunch Slut) calls her DJ debut “one of the best days of my life. It was like no other energy I’d felt before.”
My own first-time DJ experience affected me in a similarly singular way; I felt the strangest combination of omnipotence and vulnerability when I trotted out my most deeply-felt grooves for all to hear.
Many women sign up to DJ time and again, like Liz Mason (aka DJ MC Escher), who makes a point of consulting the DDPP song database when building a playlist, with the goal of including only songs that have not yet been heard at DDPP.
That’s not to say she eschews the familiar entirely. Mason explains, “There is something to be said when a song that I love comes on and the moment is right, that moment can be magical and euphoric; this is what I think people mean when they talk about the ‘the ecstasy of dance.’ ”
The birth-story of DDPP contains the kind of synchronicity of things that are destined to happen. In 2007, Chicagoan Jennifer Brandel (aka DJ Bran, who makes you lose your shit) wanted to start a workout event for women that revolved around music, dancing, and having fun. Her friend Jennifer Martin (aka DJ Tanner) agreed that this was not just a good idea, but necessary.
Meanwhile, in New York, Glennis McMurray and Marcy Girt founded DDPP. By chance, Brandel and McMurray had met previously, so when Brandel saw McMurray’s name in a Venus Zine article about DDPP a few months later, she literally did The Happy Dance. DDPP was the actualization of the same workout concept she had come up with on her own, so she contacted McMurray about starting a Chicago chapter. Today, the Chicago chapter is the mothership, and there are DDPP outposts in cities around the United States and beyond.
Cherise Collins (aka DJ E=QC2) thinks Brandel and Martin succeeded in their mission: “I love knowing that when I’m at DDPP, I can completely be myself. I never have to worry about being judged.” The ex-ballet dancer in me, the one who spent eighteen years aligning herself with an ideal form factor, the one who obeyed choreography to the fraction of a twinge, says amen, Cherise. Amen to that.
Learn more about DDPP at: http://ddppchicago.wordpress.com