Life at the Silent Disco

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A disco ball during an amateur drag show hosted by Atomic at Caledonia Bar in Athens, Ga., on Friday, January 13, 2017. (Photo by Cory A. Cole)

On a spring Saturday night in Athens, college students and townies alike mix in bars, jamming out to music in the city that birthed Pylon, R.EM. and the B-52s.

The staff at Highwire Lounge is preparing the bar for a late night rush of people. Typically, Highwire Lounge is an unassuming bar that serves up craft cocktails, live jazz music and award-winning food if its sister restaurant, Trapeze Pub, is still open next door.

With industrial wood paneling and soft, effervescent lighting, Highwire is a hipster paradise. It’s the kind of place you go to for a good beer and a long conversation. The bartenders like to get to know their customers, and bartender Sophie Livingston says that’s the best part of the job.

There’s a small stage near the front door where a jazz band comes to perform on Friday and Saturday nights. The bar faces the other half of the restaurant, which consists of just a few tables and a large banquette.

As the dinner patrons and evening barflies fade away, Livingston and the other bartenders prepare for the latest downtown sensation that happens right in their bar on Thursday and Saturday nights: Silent Disco.

Silent Disco has quickly become one of the most popular things to do in downtown Athens. By popular demand, the dance party has expanded to two nights a week and still has wait times of up to two hours. The concept of Silent Disco isn’t new, but it sure has created a new environment in Athens, one where two distinct crowds can come together for a night of unabashed dancing.

Scream Singing

A night at the Silent Disco begins around 11 p.m., when the indie crowd shuffles out and the bartending team puts away their craft cocktail accessories. With around 175 headsets in tow, the team begins to set up the music.

The mechanics of a silent disco are fairly easy: patrons come in, pay $1 for the headphones and an additional $1 if they wish to add a song to the queue. Then, they don the glowing headphones — the color flashes come in two distinct cycles, one for each music channel — and dance.

“It's changed a lot since the beginning,” bartender Sophie Livingston says.

The music options vary at Silent Disco. The DJ spins his stylized playlist on one channel, and the other is a mishmash of ‘90s hits and top 40 music, a playlist barback James Varley could live without.

“When Chainsmokers comes on, [the singing is] the worst,” he says with a laugh.

The bar staff often dances along with the crowd, listening with the headphones that have started to malfunction. “We get the f’d up headphones that don’t flash,” Livingston explains.

The appeal of Silent Disco makes sense. Everyone agrees to this unspoken contract of shedding all inhibitions. Bodies writhe in tune with the music. It’s a money maker for management and has little effect on their upstairs neighbors, a group of apartments called the Cotton Exchange Lofts.

This disco isn’t as silent as one might think, though. Head bartender Brian Springsted gets plenty of comic relief during late night shifts from drunken dancers screaming the words to songs he can’t hear. 

Dance parties have always been part of the fabric of Athens. In the old days, they were the proving grounds for musical legends that would put the Classic City on the map. In some ways, Silent Disco is this generation’s version of the legendary Athens house parties, which occurred in homes across the city.

Dance Shack

The Classic City’s years of a thriving counterculture left its distinctive mark on many parts of the city. One can feel it in the air of Normaltown, and you can see it in the dive bars downtown on any given night. 

The townie crowd typically doesn’t mix with the general student crowd downtown — mainly those associated with and around Greek life. That said, the parties of Athens, both crowds included, have always been legendary. 

In his book, “Party Out of Bounds: The B-52’s, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens,” Rodger Lyle Brown describes the townie crowd at a house party as “filled with an assortment of students and vagabond androgynes in wigs and pancake makeup.” That was the night the B-52s came together.

While the crowd that fills Silent Disco isn’t necessarily cut from the same cloth of students and “vagabond androgynes” Brown describes, an interesting dynamic between the counterculture and mainstream culture still exists.

Dance Dance Evolution

Livingston, who wasn’t working at Highwire when the bar first started Silent Disco, was one of the first people to attend. It was the hipster crowd that first committed to dancing, which was the natural progression as they were the regular clients. 

“It’s changed a lot since the beginning,” Livingston says. She describes the clientele of Highwire as diverse, saying the crowd is “pretty fun” and “versatile.”

“In the beginning, it was very much hipsters ... more and more of the Greek life [are] discovering Silent Disco,” barback James Varley says.

She counts on the middle-aged crowd to deliver solid tips and good conversation but enjoys the Silent Disco crowd, too. According to Varley, the event’s patrons are “younger,” but in a good way.

While that may be generally true, Livingston counters, saying she has seen a surprisingly older crowd crop up at recent discos. Her exchange with them is a good summation of just how Highwire is evolving, and why the original cult hasn’t left yet.

“[The older patrons say] ‘We heard about this. Can I still have my Manhattan and hangout at the bar and listen to music and watch the kids dance?’” Livingston says, emphatically supportive of their attendance.

Highwire’s attempt to manage both the old and new crowds is best described as frenzied. Their Instagram promotes the classic cocktail experience, but all anyone who’s in the know can talk about is Silent Disco. While they’re successful now, the grasp seems to be tenuous as they grapple with how to keep the old and embrace the new.

“In the beginning, it was very much hipsters,” Varley explains. Now, the crowd is more mainstream. On a Silent Disco night, Varley is seeing “more and more of the Greek life discovering Silent Disco.”

But, he maintains that the hipsters are still around, even if it’s to a lesser degree. Both Varley and Livingston credit the “class” of the establishment for that.

“The atmosphere is so much nicer to work with,” barback James Varley says.

Before the Greeks, there were less than a dozen people dancing in the small space. Now, the lines out the door have grown to include a two hour wait time and a one-in-one-out policy.

The change of crowd hasn’t come without some growing pains, though. When discussing how it’s evolved, Varley at first says it hasn’t changed much. “There’s never been fights or people puking or passing out, which is stuff that we’ve experienced in other bars,” he says. 

But Springsted, standing behind the bar shaking a drink for a customer, interjects, saying “I broke up a fight once.” Varley and Livingston laugh, remembering offhandedly that they too have had to inject themselves in some disagreements, but none of them were too serious.

There have also been a few more manageable changes in the habits of life at Highwire since Silent Disco’s inception. For one, the bar’s staff closes up shop around 2 a.m. instead of midnight when the event is taking place.

Varley prefers working Silent Disco shifts because “the atmosphere is so much nicer to work with.” As for Livingston, she says she would rather work on a Friday night that brings in a small rowdy group she can connect with and that will tip well.

While preparing for a Thursday night Silent Disco, Livingston, Springsted and Varley laugh and poke fun at each other. At one point, Livingston even chides Springsted for forgetting how to make the perfect cosmo—something the head bartender should be quite knowledgeable about.  

Their familial attitude, which all three pointed to as being part of the fun of working Silent Disco nights, seems infectious. It’s the reason people are so quick to lose their inhibitions and dance under the glow of neon headphones.

When the clock strikes 11 p.m., students and townies alike line up waiting to carry on the tradition of house party gatherings--that mix of students and vagabond androgynes.

Silent Disco may be one of the only places in downtown Athens where the two distinct identities of the city can come together and just have fun. Athens is almost bi-polar. It has had to maintain its two different selves for so long: both at once one of the biggest party schools in the nation and then this small, indie-rocker haven for creativity and good vibes. It’s been a long time since an act like R.E.M. or the B-52s brought Athens together, but Silent Disco might just be the place where it can happen again.

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