Forget drinking, being sober is the new social lubricant

You don’t have to be drinking to party hard.
You don’t have to be drinking to party hard.
Image: Daybreaker/Daniel Lee
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Next Wednesday, 400 San Franciscans will wake up at 5:00am, put on their brightest spandex, and head to a science museum for a Space Jam-themed dance party. At 6am, there will be an hour-long cosmic yoga class and a sound-bath experience. After a quick organic-juice refreshment, two international DJs will spin electronic dance music—even though the crowd is stone-cold sober. At 9am, sweaty, elated, and covered in glitter, everybody will get changed out of their onesies, put on their office attire, and head to work.

If this doesn’t sound like your normal morning routine, you’re not alone. But in cities like San Francisco, where Fitbits count your steps and apps monitor your spiritual progress, early morning sober dance parties are an opportunity for busy professionals to disconnect from their phones and connect to each other.

From digital-detox summer camps for adults to silent-disco yoga classes and sound-bath cacao ceremonies, the buffet of new-age recreation is booming in Silicon Valley. Though the Bay Area has always lived at the intersection of wellness and wacky, what’s new is the popularity of device-free, alcohol-free events that push back against the very technology that the Valley helped create.

But the Bay Area isn’t the only place where people are looking for healthy party alternatives—the scene actually started in the city of sin.

Saluting the disco sun god at Daybreaker.
Image: Daybreaker/Get Tiny

After a night out clubbing and a 4am falafel, Radha Agrawal came to a sobering conclusion: Nightlife was dying. “Everyone was on their cell phones and putting on a version of themselves they thought would sell,” she laments of New York City’s pretentious nightclub scene, circa 2013. “No one was actually connecting.”

A serial entrepreneur who was already running two companies, Agrawal decided to do what she had done in the past: build the world in which she wanted to live. Her idea was to replace all the negative variables of nightlife. She wanted to trade surly bouncers for a hugging committee at the door, and swap stilettos and makeup for silly costumes and temporary tattoos. But the biggest difference? She wanted to get rid of the whole “night” part.

In 2013, Daybreaker saw its first dawn. An early-morning sober dance party, it has now expanded to 18 cities across the world, including San Francisco’s Space Jam soiree. Daybreaker combines the music of a club and the spirituality of a yoga class to create an atmosphere unlike anything else you’d normally find before your first coffee of the day. The parties run from 6am till 9am so that people can head to work afterward, and instead of bar food and vodka shots, they feature healthy snacks, juices, and kombucha.

presence party
Salon-goers chitchat at a Presence event.
Image: Presence

“Today, we go to bars, we go to clubs, we go to movies, we go to restaurants, but all of these spaces are poorly designed for real, human connection,” says Damian Madray, an ex-product designer who now curates Presence, a series of artist salons, group meditations, and living-room concerts in the Bay Area. “As a UX designer, I’d think about what the experience is like for people to go from point A to point B on a website. Now I try to apply that same philosophy to a room where someone goes from uncomfortable to entrenched in a meaningful conversation.”

Presence’s events are like the nighttime version of Daybreaker’s dawn raves, replacing Gertrude Stein’s living room with an open-plan design studio and French intellectuals with Silicon Valley’s techeratti. The explicit goal of Presence is to “re-design the way we have conversations.” (Leave it to San Francisco to disrupt the most basic form of human interaction.) Activities may include a mindful cooking class where participants learn the medicinal qualities of their dinner or a listening session where attendees intentionally absorb a few tracks of an album.

A live dance performance at one of Presence’s parties.
A live dance performance at one of Presence’s parties.
Image: Presence

“[Presence] melts the normal small talk,” says Walter Roth, a startup founder and regular attendee of Presence events. “You can just assume that everyone you meet is someone you don’t know, but you should.”

That’s because events like Daybreaker and Presence make sure everyone is on the same level. Yes, sobriety plays a role in ensuring people are lucid and able to hold a conversation, but it’s more than the lack of drinks and drugs: It’s about creating a space free from selfies and work emails, where everyone is in the same headspace. Disconnection aside, respect becomes a comparative advantage, as attendees don’t have to worry about unsolicited advances from intoxicated strangers or making sure they are sufficiently altered before they can have a good time.

Instead, the interactions between strangers are lubricated by the novelty of the shared experience. With most events being free, the cover price is simply the commitment to be there. The intoxication comes from DJs flown in from around the world to play sunrise sets, or from the intimacy of a living-room concert.

“We’re not saying live your life fully sober,” Agrawal says. “We just want you to remember who you are without the need to alter your state.”

Though early morning dance parties and device-free “art experiences” may seem like the ultimate first-world luxuries, events like Presence and Daybreaker serve as welcome antidotes to the stressors of our digital age. The space to connect face-to-face with others as an uninhibited, guilt-free version of yourself is a rarity—especially before work on Wednesday.