Moving beyond the drugs and deviance issues: Rave dancing as a health promoting alternative to conventional physical activity?
Liverpool John Moores University, Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Science, Webster Street, Liverpool, L3 2ET, UK Phone no: +44 (0)151 231 4341
Physical activity and the people
One of the things that people do when they take drugs is go out raving or clubbing. A lot has already been said about the consumption of drugs and the legality issues surrounding the rave culture and here is not the place to elaborate on them. Instead, this is an attempt to add more of a cultural aspect to the phenomenon. The angle pursued within this presentation is focused upon rave’s potential as a community based alternative to conventional forms of physical activity (namely exercise). At present these dominant expressions of physical culture emphasise image, comparison and a work ethos. Nevertheless, exercise is generally equated to positive health, the overlap within western society being so immense that if you don’t exercise, you are perceived as being unhealthy.
Unfortunately, attempts made by health promoting education have been generally unsuccessful in recruiting individuals into sustained exercise participation, despite vigorous campaigning and awareness driven initiatives. Only a fraction of western society is active post schooling, and approximately 5 -15 % of adult populations within the western world are active enough to produce fitness gains. Over 60% of people who engage in conventional exercise programmes drop out after only six months.
This suggests somewhere down the line that even though the physical benefits of exercise are well known to society, perhaps this type of physical culture is not well suited to our everyday existence. Thus we can continue pursuing the same approach and continue placing blame on the individual who doesn’t ‘work-out’, or we could also look for alternative ways of being physically active, ways which are more suited to our human, cultural and social sensibilities. If not, we could well end up with an inactive population turned off at the very thought of physical activity, because they feel alienated and disenfranchised by the physically active practices available to them.
Over the last decade or so, a new (this is contentious as dance is woven deep in to our cultural existences) or recycled way of becoming physically active has been available to the masses. This activity is called raving or clubbing. This can be seen as a type of dancing which is done to a rhythmic, repetitive beat. Usually the dancer does not perform for others but merely for the joy of it, and this occurs in both permanent and ad-hoc spaces (clubs and warehouses, the outside, etc.)
Exercise and ‘rave’ as recreational options
Within this presentation, a critical eye will be cast in highlighting some limitations to traditional forms of exercise. In particular, it will be suggested that raving can in part redress limitations found in conventional exercise domains. More importantly, the idea will be set forth that rave is likely to be more instrumental in securing gains in the broad sense of health and well-being, particularly in the area of community health as it is a phenomenon that relies upon shared senses and sensibilities. Obviously the evolutionary benefits of this are immense, as it is within the rave that new ways of interacting and understanding are being forged through communication that transcends language and rules, relying more on spontaneity, playfulness and empathy.
Rave, it is felt, should be accorded due respect in its function as a health promoting activity, which due to its cultural popularity is more likely to appeal to people as a viable recreational option (n.b. approximately 16 million people went to UK clubs last year). Furthermore, it should be viewed as a progressive, civilised activity that, unlike most public social contexts, gives us a glimpse of a loving, caring community based upon principles such as awareness, respect and love of self and others.
Limitations of exercise
Traditional exercise health models (i.e. public health and health promotional discourses) have a tendency to privilege a certain type of person. Usually this person is self-regulated, health conscious, middle-class, rational and civilised. Further to this, within society increasing attention is being been placed upon the physical body as the most significant determinant of health. That is to say that the body has been accorded value as the main site in which health is realised. This has been fuelled by the consumerisation of health and exercise, along with society’s wider fascination with containing people in space (e.g. Lupton, 1995). This is due to the fact that when exercise is performed, one of its main benefits perceived within society is in shaping and sculpting the physical body and thereby illustrating this process in the domain of human movement.
This type of logic (particularly when applied to females) has been fuelled by the increasing consumerisation of exercise and health. This has, as already stated, helped to highlight the role of exercise as a legitimate way in which to sculpt the body, as well as exaggerating the social worth of physical appearance. Such logic usually paints the desirable or healthy female body as being "firm but shapely, fit and sexy, strong but thin" (Eskes et al., 1998). These images contain both enabling and constraining features for the exerciser. For example, a woman can strive for some of the gains (improved cardio-respiratory fitness) but others, such as a perfect body appearance, are generally out of most people’s reach. Thus when we examine these features more carefully, we see that they play into the hands of dominant, patriarchal ideology, allowing the status quo in gender inequalities to continually be reproduced and maintained.
If this is magnified to the level of life transformation, we can see that the forces that mould the exercise experience, continually play on people’s vulnerabilities, diverting attention away from efforts to challenge and change their lives. As Eskes et al. have stated:
remaining weak, passive and subordinate by pursuing an impossible body ideal robs women of the energy to fight important political battles that have real impact on their lives (…) such implications, prey on female hunger being contained and the capitalist consumption machine plays on women’s insecurities, as a result of a definition of femininity that 99% of the female population can not achieve, it can mesh fitness and beauty to become an even bigger producer of profit. (1998, p.340).
Involvement with exercise, due in part to these forces, can be seen to open up the individual to increased introspection and criticism of the ‘self’. This criticism that a person inflicts, whenever they deem themselves to be falling behind fitness schedules, or deficient in a certain body look, help to contain that person. This is an ongoing process, wherein the individual attempts to construct a body that is tightly controlled, contained in space, devoid of excess fat or flabby muscle. With an increasing emphasis placed upon the physical body as the primary construction site for healthy living, exercise, as a health promoting activity, continues to deflect the value of the exercise experience to the periphery (i.e. actually enjoying movement for movement’s sake), as people become more self obsessed with exercise’s ability in helping to build, sculpt and achieve the look.
This fixation upon the products of exercise has been noted by Lupton (1995) and Featherstone (1991) and is reinforced by the dominant health logic, which is instilled on a societal level. This basically states that being physically active is most important in its capacity to reduce the risk of dying, attempting to deny one of humanity’s most fundamental realities, that of death. Through not acknowledging this fundamental truth, health education helps to distort the perception of the life process. The prescription of exercise, in this sense, helps to create a hypothetical ‘healthy future’, which can only be realised through continued regular exercise. This is then proclaimed as being the minimum needed to secure future life and happiness. One wonders, however, in adopting such a philosophy, whether the individual will ever have time off to enjoy and live their life? Since in order to maintain physical health (i.e. fitness), which turns out to be only one relevant and important domain of health, the exerciser with little consideration for other health domains important to individual growth (psychological, social, spiritual) is left distinctly short changed by the exercise regime. The function of the experience is thus reduced to that of a vehicle in which to secure physical health gains at the expense of enjoying and nurturing other aspects of human life, which are equally important for human development and growth. This is not to say that exercise cannot be used to promote human growth, it is just that the emphasis within exercise culture has the tendency to substitute and see only fitness as being healthy.
What is clear from this, is that exercise is geared towards constructing and shaping the ‘self’ (to look and feel like something it is perhaps not). In this practice, people actively work on themselves; when we go to exercise we "work out". This is perhaps the major reason why exercise is not something that people are willing to engage in on a regular basis. We are offered so much choice in the way in which we consume our leisure time and the spaces in which it is acted out. It is likely, given people’s propensity to want to escape the stress of living in a ‘stressful society’, that asking them to do even more work seems futile.
The origins of ‘rave’
Raving, in numerous respects, can be seen to afford an alternative recreational context, which is relatively free from the constraining features that are woven into the exercise experience. A major difference between exercise and rave can be seen in the way in which people act towards one another. The origins of rave within the British context were in part due to annoyance about the way in which people were being treated in an increasingly capitalistic, narrow-minded, conservative society, fuelled by explicit references made by the state that there was "no such thing as society" (re: Margaret Thatcher). Generally, people were, and still continue to be, stigmatised and stratified in terms of how desirable they are to the state. Thus rave can be seen as a rebuke to the way in which people are perceived and treated within society.
Peace, love, unity and respect became the maxim of the raver, whereby community aspects of human existence were seen as highly significant to the experience (i.e. dancing and being together), promoted through the celebration of sameness as opposed to highlighting people’s differences. An example of how this attitude has affected the raver’s experience when compared to that of the exerciser, can be seen if we look at their bodies. The raver celebrates his/her body as it is, whereas the exerciser’s is usually under construction or in the process of being criticised.
Mapping rave on a wider canvas
Some of the main limitations in the way in which exercise attempts to empower and make healthy the individual have now been outlined. It is pertinent at this point, I feel, to attempt to map and make sense of these processes from a wider evolutionary perspective in order to see more clearly why raving has not been considered a healthy alternative to exercise, although in reality, it probably is. Central to developing this perspective is highlighting rave’s involvement with drugs, which violates the state’s monopoly on how people behave and what they feel in public places, thereby helping to paint a deviant picture of the rave.
Since feudal times there has been a more or less continual refinement of manners and standards (an example being a decrease in the propensity to applaud violence/aggression). In this respect, rave can be seen as a generally positive development in the civilising/evolutionary process. It does tend to alter the perception of how society should co-operate, by promoting awareness of differences and respect for each other, as opposed to judging differences and taking advantage of them. It focuses on how we emote towards one another, using empathy and physical communication, as opposed to reserve and distance, as well as feeling ecstatic as opposed to average.
I sense that this type of living and being is essential to global human growth, but is still quite far removed from society’s general ways of communicating and being in public. This should nonetheless be seen as progressive, because from such contexts, people are beginning to have more faith in one another, in the sense of building real communities and feeling really happy and content with life. Rave also has the ability to cut through societal inequalities and differences (being one of the few public spaces in which women don’t feel threatened by men). This phenomenon can also be highlighted as being beneficial for society, as within the rave people view others as equals, regardless of looks, size, shape and shade. This is something that has been noted by many people both on an anecdotal or a more academic level (e.g. Reitveld, 1998). However, its reception by the authorities has been met with contempt, as drugs and dancing have been historically viewed as variations on violence and war; being seen as a direct threat to the State’s welfare and monopoly on people’s boundaries of experience.
In many respects, the civilising forces that help shape the individual’s existence within general life (which emphasise the individual as being solely responsible for their health and well-being) are highly related to the way in which big businesses use exercise as a means to suppress and oppress people. Individuals are constrained by the focus on health as something that can be bought but never owned, and something that the individual can only aspire to and achieve through continued work and effort on the body. Maybe the reason that rave has not been accorded attention and positive press is because it is seen as a direct challenge to the way in which the body is regulated and the boundaries that are placed upon its experience? For example, every time somebody goes to a club and takes ‘ecstasy’ they are directly opposing the State’s underlining sense of morality. However, it also has to be highlighted to the public that raving is a peaceful rebellion; instead of objecting through violence and aggressive stances, people tend to reject and disappear together in an ocean of joy and happiness.
Commercialisation and globalisation
After more than ten years, rave is seen and used to focus people’s attention in the marketing and advertising of products for consumption (e.g. American Express make the link between exercise and rave). As well as providing huge corporate appeal, the ‘Cream’ emblem holds about as much acumen as many corporate images.
Control over individuals has finally been lifted through processes such as globalisation and the opening up of the information data bank, the information super highway, that is the Internet. Through the opening up of such channels, knowledge and information are now accessible to the masses through a series of networks as opposed to traditional hierarchies. Rave has evolved into a global phenomenon. One can make contact with ravers in every continent. Millions of people have been given a means by which to explore their minds and consciousness in environments that offer a peaceful and creative alternative in which to view the self and the community. ‘Trance’ has hit the whole of Europe. Week in week out, people are dancing to the same beats and grooves, furthering claims that this dance music is the first to highlight people’s common senses and sensibilities on a world level.
Rave can be seen as part of the emerging cultural rebuke against ongoing ‘global industrial annihilation’. It has created respite in parts of Eastern Europe, in the unification of Germany and in furthering real claims for peace in Northern Ireland. It has also provided a medium in which to frame peaceful or non-violent direct action protests. It is highly interwoven into the fabric of DIY culture, for example the ‘Reclaim the Streets’, ‘Exodus’ and ‘Spiral Tribe’ initiatives. Rave can also be seen to serve as a movement against the increasing consumerisation of society (although rave culture has been increasingly assimilated by mainstream commercial forces, and used as a vehicle to market youth culture) since the experiential feeling of the raver is something that can seldom be obtained through consumption of the material world.
Rave as an alternative leisure activity
When we view rave and its potential in furthering human development (in the broad sense of well-being), we can see that it can provide an alternative space in which to secure conventional health gains (e.g. high intensity aerobic exercise). More importantly, however, and on a developmental level, it allows people access to an emerging holistic understanding of health and the self, whereby one is led to a space in which it is compulsory to live for the now, directly exploring and experiencing the self and others. If one compares the ideals and norms inherent within rave and exercise contexts, it can be seen that this emerging new understanding of health (i.e. awareness of social, mental and spiritual growth) can be facilitated through raving. For example, we ‘let go’: we celebrate our bodies as they are, in a highly social context in which awareness and significance is placed upon highlighting and sharing people’s similarities (i.e. the ability to have a good time), as opposed to highlighting people’s differences.
These rave and club environments are unique micro-communities, which allow individuals of all shapes, shades and sizes to transcend their cultural bodies in order to share a community space and feeling. This shared space allows even those marginalised groups and people within society access to ecstatic community experiences. The individual is far removed from performing and spectating, as each person becomes wrapped up and immersed in the actual experience. In describing the rave environment, words such as light, sound, energy, happy and ecstatic (ecstasy is a state of mind and not just a drug) spring to mind. One’s senses are fused together in sensory overload through theatrical, psychedelic trickery, drugs, visual and audio effects, which help to drown out many social differences (Reitveld, 1998). This allows the physical body, which is often judged within society, to disappear.
Thus it would seem that the raver is integral to the actual experience. Reitveld (1998) and Thornton (1995) have likened the experience to that of being part of a bigger whole, whereby once on the dance floor, the raver ceases to be a spectator but another important and significant part of the experience. They move beyond the spectacle and become totally immersed, as those captivated in the experience disappear along with their senses of daily rationality. They are, for all intents and purposes, forging and celebrating a sense of community.
Such shared states and feelings are prompted with the belief that all the people within these temporary communities like the music that is being played. It is this preference for the music that allows people to be brought together so that other sorts of affective relations and practices can take place (e.g. talking with strangers, laughing, touching etc.). In other words, the music brings together people who would otherwise be apart.
With conventional exercise, how well you feel is often dependent on how well you do against set targets (e.g. in meeting targets or goals); for instance in whether you have shed weight, gained muscle, etc. Within the rave, in contrast to the gym, feedback is geared more towards a continual stream of positive feelings and images, in which there is no (or little) success criteria. These feedback mechanisms (often non-verbal), such as hugs, laughter and smiles, are not so much extraordinary expressions within the rave, but are to varying extents, norms of the experience. Everything is geared towards total immersion, which allows the raver to travel on a rhythmic journey, losing their sense of self in becoming part of the immediate social, cultural and spiritual environment.
Although rave would seem to be a youth expression, it would be unfair to label it a youth culture. Like most leisure activities in late 20th century society, people of different backgrounds and ages pick and choose how they consume and construct their leisure identities. Rave seems to be something that appeals to many, due to its ability to let people escape and recharge.
Raving is very much geared to ‘opening the self up’ and ‘letting go’. It would seem that this mentality does not have much significance in securing conventional health gains (although as stated, a significant amount of intense aerobic exercise does go on), whereby self-control, denial and will-power would seem to be the requisite attitudes which facilitate losing weight, dieting, and exercising. However, rave’s real utility and potential, I feel, is in its ability to open up and facilitate the emergence and understanding of the new health paradigm (through practices geared towards self-transcendence, e.g. Yoga, meditation). Nurturing of the ‘inner self’ is deemed essential for human growth in such techniques. Rave, however, departs from such individual practices by promoting a kind of community meditative experience. In such contexts, the focus is on embodied experience. In conventional Western exercise and health beliefs, the blatant fixation upon the external ‘body’ as the signifier of health, leaves the mind thoroughly neglected, and thus unable to fully develop growth of the individual. Again, this illustrates the potential of the rave in giving people space to develop these neglected but significant domains of human and social growth.
A few ideas have been highlighted in terms of the way in which raving can explore these new understandings of health, through fusing the mind and body together, giving room for inner experience, and a return to a sense of community. Exercise (that goes on in the rave) promoting health through happiness and liberation, and not suffering, could be seen as the new team sport whereby we are working for each other. Health should be a practice as well as project to do with opening yourself up, not denying your ‘self’. Raving can be a very useful way to this opening up of ‘self’, as millions will agree, all over the world, every week. We would do well to recognise the potential within it for individual as well as community growth. Why not embrace this as a legitimate and just way in which to recreate and be physically active, in what can be, for a lot of people a very alienating society in which to live?
Raving can, I feel, help to illustrate to society how people can be empowered to manage and run their own lives without placing any serious threat to the state’s monopoly on violence, aggression and order. The insecurities and fears concerning raving, are I suggest, perhaps just figments of the authorities’ minds and imagination and they indeed might benefit themselves by ‘letting go’ of them every now and again, just like the raver. Given the emphasis on peace, love, unity and respect, perhaps it is in the rave that people are beginning to see a new life template and ways in which to view and treat other people emerge. As we increasingly find ourselves placed within a global community, our ability to accept and respect people, cultures and different points of view will be tested. Rave will play a significant part in meeting these challenges.
Eskes TB, Duncan MC, & Miller EM (1998). The discourse of empowerment: Focault, Marcuse, and women’s Fitness Texts. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 22(3), 317-344
Featherstone M (1991). The body in consumer culture. In M. Featherstone, M. Heppworth, & B.S. Turner (Eds.), The body: Social processes and cultural theory (pp.170-196).London: Sage.
Lupton D (1995). Imperative of health: Public health and the regulated body. London: Sage.
Thornton S (1995). Club cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Reitveld H (1998). This is our house: House music, cultural spaces and technologies. Aldershot: Asgate.