What happens when a lifelong east coaster jets away on the cross country plane from New York’s gridlocked, focused streets to the city of supposed angels?
I found it to be every bit as frustrating as New Yorkers say it is. And as awesome (the 18th-century meaning) as adopted Californians insist.
A few months ago, I exited the sliding door of the LAX airport to a whiff of air mixed with ocean salt and smog.
“David, have you ever done silent disco?” Amanda, my host and spiritual sister (I swear if I heard “spiritual” come out of my mouth in a non-satirical tone a month ago I would’ve told you to punch me) asked me on the quiet drive from the airport to her townhouse in Marina Del Rey.
(As to why I was in LA, My mentor John had been staying there with his partner Amanda over the pandemic, and the two of them invited me to crash for a month so John and I could work on his upcoming books, among other projects.)
“Do you want to go tomorrow night?”
A day later, and after sitting in traffic for about 20 minutes for a two-mile drive, we arrived at Venice Beach for “silent disco.”
We’re a few minutes late. Who would’ve thought the traffic would be so bad? Turns out, everyone else.
About 50 people are spread out across a stretch of beach. They all have big, black headphones on.
Their hips are swaying.
Their jaws are unclenching.
Some people are in baggy clothes, others in swimsuits. Some covered in tattoos, others in dreads. Nobody’s doing anything in sync. Movements ranged from galloping to twirling to sharks and minnows-esque seaweed. It was like every person was in their own little world.
Here, the ‘crazy person dancing with headphones on’ is everybody.
If aliens came down and saw this, what would they think? But then again, every culture in human history has performed some sort of tribal ritual. I guess the LA consciousness community is no exception.
Moments later, Amanda handed me a pair of headphones as she brightly skipped off into the sand, already beginning her own self-expressionist dance.
Once the music was in my ears, everybody’s crazy, seemingly random movements at least had a beat to them.
I wouldn’t even know how to describe the genre. The music hit my ears in a wave of electronic instruments that ebbed from quick, club-like EDM to calm yoga-style pop, all in the span of a song. It was a stark difference to the emo music I typically listen to.
For the first few seconds, I just stood there. Now, I don’t fucking dance. Not only do I not dance, but even the presence of dancing makes me squirm inside and clench up (oh, I also suck at it).
When asked to dance at social gatherings I usually make an excuse, calling it “uncivilized” or some other pretentious bullshit to mask my insecurity. The only type of “dancing” I have any comfort in is more appropriately called moshing. And crowd surfing if you count that.
So I just stood on the beach and awkwardly bobbed my head like the goddamn opening band was playing at a punk show.
Meanwhile, the circus of flow, rhythm, and unconstricted human movement swirled around me.
At some point the DJ, whose voice came in through the headphones, said something I finally understood, that wasn’t along the lines of wishy-washy LA consciousness community lexicon.
“Everybody, look towards Santa Monica and walk like you’re in New York City and you have somewhere very important to be.”
Ah, now there’s a dance move I can do.
I start strutting like I’m headed down Fifth Avenue towards the Washington Square arch. I feel the gridded streets in my body, a path to follow, a place to be.
“Now start moving exactly how your body wants to. Be open to the mystery.”
Open to the mystery? The fuck is this lady talking about?
Now everyone around me is moving in every direction possible like amoeba drifting around. People are jumping, bending backward, shaking their arms.
I’m just standing there like I’m waiting for the crosswalk to turn green.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so out of place: not even in foreign countries and cultures. I spoke the language, but I didn’t really speak their language. Not their language of words, their language of movement, or their language of the human experience.
Trying my best to move in a way that made me look like I was participating, I moved towards the water and dipped my feet in.
“Be open to the mystery,” ringed in my head along with the calming melodies.
Why does everything LA people say sound like a goddam riddle?
I stared out to the ocean as the sun set and took a deep exhale. I tried to unclench my jaw and bend backwards. It was more like yoga than dancing, but it’s a start, right?
“Listen to your body and open up to its mysteries.”
I translated this to mean “move the way your body feels like moving.”
I start jumping my feet in the sand, shaking my legs out. From the outside, it probably looked like I was getting ready for the 100m sprint. Then I realize I’m doing carioca (sometimes called grapevine, and inaccurately called karaoke) — a standard dynamic warm-up exercise that I guess is so firmly ingrained into my head from years of athletics that it was my default movement. Muscle memory, baby.
I shook my hands out, wiggled my waist, and pogoed my feet around in the wet sand. Even as I tried to lean into the experience, my jaw tightened and shoulders scrunched; cognitively I knew there was nothing embarrassing or any actual downside, but my body maintained its resistance.
I allowed my eyes to shut as a way to forget there were people around me, and I brought attention to the thumping electronic sounds. I felt the ocean air tickle my chest and the salty air inhale through my nostrils as I did my best to shake around.
Am I open to the mystery yet?
The sky had turned a soothing orange, and as it darkened, my arms timidly flailing around. My hips were stiffly moving like a three-year-old trying to draw an oval with their left hand.
As ugly as I’m sure it was, and despite my deep resistance, over the course of the hour my body ventured away from its gridlocked form and dipped its toes in the water of something new.
Eventually the dancing ended and the music shut off. The group circled up and breathed together. As the sun set, I felt a strange combination of relaxed and invigorated, like I’d just gotten a massage but could also outrun a bear.
As my feet moved from the beauty of the beach to the concrete of the Venice street, I realized what makes Los Angeles and New York so different.
In New York, you move through gridlocked streets from point A to point B. You chase your dreams, inhale the unexplainable inspiration of the streets that guides you forward even when you’ve already thought you’ve given it your all.
In Los Angeles, you dance to the way your body feels it needs to dance. You embrace the beauty you already have. You accept. This I struggled with and had a lot to learn.
I know I know, this sounds like a bunch of Woo woo Los Angeles voodoo shit.
A month ago I’d have told you the same thing.
When the beach was out of sight and I was back eating tacos (LA tacos > NY tacos by the way), I felt… relaxed. Sure, my shoulders rested down, and my jaw loosened on its hinge, but it went beyond the physical. I felt a smile continually form, an express of a perfect, unrushed experience. I felt this happiness, even though on the surface I hadn’t made my life tangibly better. I hadn’t really achieved anything.
But, I had let myself be happy, an LA kind of happy.
There have been moments in life that have made me happiest because of the traditional paradigm of success: won the game, made the sale, finished the job. They flooded me with fulfillment the same way screaming my lungs out at punk concerts does.
But there are other moments where happiness was there the whole time, just waiting for me to listen. That was beach dancing. It turns out the concrete grid was a figment of my imagination, and it could disintegrate to sand as soon as I opened up to the mystery of new experiences.