In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing, without rest, in a street in Strasbourg, France. Within a week, 34 people had joined her, though it remains unclear whether they danced willfully or not. Within a month, 400 people had fallen to what is now referred to as the “Dancing Plague,” many of whom eventually died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence for why these people danced themselves to death, though some historians believe it might have been caused by mass psychogenic illness, a form of mass hysteria, due to famine and distress that had plagued the area previously.
Whatever the cause, the consequences were fatal—not quite the happy anecdote one might hope for when the term “Dancing Plague” arises. Luckily Strasbourg, Greenpoint is not, and the dancing here is “a little more contained,” as Laura O’Neill, the neighborhood’s most recent dance party-thrower puts it. Just a little though.
On April 13, O’Neill, Greenpointer and co-owner of Van Leeuwen Ice Cream on Manhattan Avenue, started throwing weekly “No Lights, No Lycra” dance parties at the Church of the Messiah at 129 Russel Street. The parties run from 8-9:30pm and admittance five dollars. There are no drugs, no alcohol, and no lights, save for a small star machine that projects a blue-green galaxy onto the ceiling. Most of all, there are no pretentions—just high energy dancing for the sake of dancing for one and a half sweaty hours.
“It really is a dance party in the dark,” O’Neill said. “It’s not about being seen or looking good. You don’t have to have the right outfit. It’s just good, wholesome fun.”
“At first I actually thought that everyone would think it was really silly,” she continued. “But even though it sounds a bit obscure at first, it only takes people once to get it. It’s a really comfortable space for anyone to come to, as long as they’re respectful and open.””
The No Lights, No Lycra party was started by a friend of O’Neill’s last summer in Melbourne, Australia, where O’Neill originally hails from. Since then, friends have helped it spread to Berlin, and now Greenpoint.
“It’s almost too perfect,” O’Neill said. “It’s the perfect neighborhood to do it in. People here love to have fun. Since opening [Van Leeuwen] a few months ago, and then starting No Lights, No Lycra a few weeks ago, I feel like the community has been brought together even more.”
O’Neill throws the parties along with friends Peter Van Leeuwen, Adrienne Winterhalter, and Joanna Zawadzka. Each week they work to curate the perfect playlist—lower-energy songs at the beginning to warm people up, followed by high-energy tunes sequenced to keep the party going without wearing everyone out. Songs range from jams from the 50’s and the 80’s, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, Beyonce, and the Gypsy Kings.
“It’s pretty high energy,” O’Neill said. “You get really hot and sweaty; everyone is sore the next day. People can come for an hour and a half and let it be their weekly exercise. It’s amazing for fitness, and it’s great for the soul.”
While the first week of No Lights, No Lycra drew only a handful of guests, the next week numbers increased to about thirty. O’Neill hopes that as the word gets out in the neighborhood, more will show up, though numbers aren’t her priority.
“We’re not forcing people to come,” she said. “If it’s not their thing, they won’t enjoy it. We don’t need a room of a hundred people. We do it because we want to do it.”
O’Neill’s No Lights, No Lycra counterparts in Australia are currently applying for a grant to recreate the Dancing Plague of 1518. O’Neill and the other organizers on this side of the world have no plans for literally dancing Greenpointers to death, although they might have figurative ones—last week they ended the night with “The NeverEnding Story.”
No Lights, No Lycra begins promptly at 8pm, every Tuesday at the Church of the Messiah Hall at 129 Russel Street. Admission is $5. Check out the No Lights, No Lycra group on Facebook for the most up to date information and to request songs for the upcoming week.