As a college student in Boston 10 years ago, my fellow radio-station geeks and I had access to an FM transmitter that covered a 100-mile radius. One Friday night, we gathered a bunch of cheap portable radios and headphones, handed them out to our friends, and told everyone to tune in. While the rest of metro Boston who were listening that night were probably confused by the nonstop beats punctuated by the radio DJ periodically calling out instructions—"Head to the Charles River!"—for a couple dozen of us, it was a feat of sheer genius: We were commandeering the airwaves for a mobile dance party.
The so-called silent disco has now become a festival staple, but the double takes it can elicit when a band of merrymakers prances by with no audible music are at their most entertaining in the context of everyday life.
So if you see a gyrating horde passing by in utter silence this summer and ask yourself "WTF?" then you've already stumbled upon the answer. What the Float is a roving silent disco that dances its way through different neighborhoods. In its third summer season in Seattle, the mobile dance party will float its way this summer through Fremont on July 14, Belltown on July 28, and Georgetown on August 11 (find more information at forwardflux.com/float).
Unlike my radio experiments, these dancers are equipped with headphones synced to a portable Bluetooth broadcaster with a range of up to 150 feet, which allows participants to hear the same music simultaneously while they get their freak on in a half-block radius of the transmitter.
Wesley Frugé, executive artistic director of Forward Flux, a live arts production company, is the force behind this eerily silent crowd of hip shakers. A New York transplant who has quickly established a robust presence in the local theater scene, Frugé brought What the Float from the Big Apple—it's also spread to Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC—in a valiant effort to lure dance-averse Seattleites out of their crossed-arm shells. "It's a chance for people in Seattle to release their public and private inhibitions," Frugé says. And lest you worry you lack the necessary chops, he adds, "We welcome people who move and groove to whatever their rhythm is."
For the happily carless Frugé, his What the Float itineraries are a natural outgrowth of pounding the pavement in his adopted home as a Seattle flaneur. "I am a giant believer in exploring on foot," he says. "I fancy myself an urban explorer, always taking the turn you don't think you should take."
That inquisitive nature has helped him choreograph the Floats, which run for roughly two 40-minute sets, with a break in the middle—as befitting a theater director, essentially two acts with an intermission. Over the course of that roughly hour and a half, Floaters will cover about 1.5 miles, from a mix of busy streets full of foot traffic (think Pike/Pine or Fremont Avenue) to more private destinations that allow for what Frugé calls "an introspective and personal experience in your relation to the city." Floaters are welcome to interact with curious passersby—e.g., by popping their headphones onto a stranger—but are discouraged from badgering anyone who doesn't show interest. And while parks and plazas make for ideal dancing spots, Frugé avoids ones where homeless people sleep, so as not to disturb anyone's slumber.
His favorite gem is the Centennial Fountain on the Seattle University campus, which invites people to frolic in its basin. Plotting last year's route through Ballard also revealed old train tracks and a park with an empty swimming pool.
"Floats that work the best have hidden surprises," Frugé says, though he was unwilling to divulge any secrets of this summer's itineraries.
As those surprises reveal themselves, the music—a mix of bubblegum dance music, hiphop, and club-friendly throwbacks—is timed to match the mood. Each Float comes with a custom mix that Frugé swears will offer something for everyone from ages 21 through 60. The Float leader, meanwhile, knows when to move people along so that, for example, a soaring crescendo hits right as the crowd crests a hill with a majestic view.
While What the Float may seem like an odd choice for an arts outfit primarily presenting theatrical works, Frugé sees no conflict. "My number-one barometer for a Forward Flux event is 'Do I want to go?'" he says. "Fuck yeah, because I love to dance."