Sarah Tierney meets the Mancunians creating a no-drink, no-drugs alternative to the big night out
HOW long do your hangovers last nowadays? A morning? A weekend? I ask because my recovery from a big night out on Friday stretches way into the next week. Nausea and anxiety merge into lethargy and depression, often topped off with a mild, cold-like illness just to hammer home the message. The message being: you really should have grown out of this by now.
It's a very strange feeling because it's not normal in our culture.
Plenty of people over 40 will relate. Of course we can’t keep destroying our livers every weekend like we’re still swigging Moscow Mules on the Generation X roof terrace. But a growing number of younger people are also rejecting the traditional weekend blow-out. Nearly a third of 16-24 year-olds don't drink at all. And alcohol consumption has been falling steadily since its peak in the mid-2000s, especially among young people.
So what do we do instead? More Netflix? Okay, but is it Tuesday evening or Saturday night because they look identical when they're both spent on the sofa. It’s not easy to switch from hedonist to homebody without feeling like you’ve lost something essential along the way. "Fun" for instance and "friends". Even the exhausting drinker's cycle of highs and lows looks enviable when every day is the same.
What we need isn’t more nights in; it’s nights out with all the excitement, connection and abandon we love. But without alcohol and without drugs.
The good thing about living in a big, switched-on city like Manchester is that there’s usually someone who wants the same thing and has already created it for you. You just need to seek them out.
Cacao and conscious dancing
I have no idea what to expect from the weekly Born Free night at The Resonance Centre, a holistically-minded community hub in Clayton, East Manchester. More importantly, I've no idea what to wear. It's described as a "conscious dance floor". Am I hitting the club or joining a yoga class? I choose an outfit that falls somewhere in between and drive there on a Thursday evening.
Already I’m appreciating the sober lifestyle - you can drive to your night out. And I have no pre-booze anxiety about the anxiety that'd normally be in the post the next day.
I arrive early so I can chat to the Resonance Centre’s founder and co-director, Juanita. She bought this former kitchen showroom in 2018 and converted it into a space offering free and low-cost alternative therapies such as meditation and yoga. Conscious dancing is a part of this therapeutic offering. The people I chat to there describe it as "healing" and "spiritual".
When I sit down with Juanita, she explains what they mean: “It's incredibly effective for releasing unspent energy from the tissues in the body. Lots of different belief systems say our experiences are stored within the body in fascial adhesions, and that shaking and movement and yoga, or whatever it might be, leads to a release of emotion. That's very much what we’re finding on the dance floor.
“Not everybody comes for release or mental health purposes. Some come because they're in recovery, or because they don't drink for religious reasons. Some people just don't like that drinking vibe where everything gets a bit messier and a bit lairy-er. I probably fall into that category myself."
While we've been talking, the centre has filled with people and is now buzzing with conversation. It's like a party when everyone’s a few drinks in except nobody here has had a drop.
The only drinks are water or cacao: a mildly caffeinated, raw cocoa drink. Think hot chocolate but healthy. Juanita describes it as “nature’s dancing juice” because it gives you energy and acts as a “heart opener”.
My face must be saying what I'm not because she laughs and adds, “It sounds very spiritual when you say it's an opener for the heart space. That's just something you just have to experience.”
We sit in a circle to drink our cacao. Juanita reminds everyone of the dance floor rules: no phones, photos or talking (it disrupts people’s flow). Then the DJ starts and we’re dancing. Or if you’re me; shuffling awkwardly from side-to-side, more self-conscious than conscious.
To put this into perspective, I normally love dancing. I find it easier than standing still when there's a band playing and I’ve got a beer in my hand. This is different though: I’m sober, I know nobody here, and the otherworldly rhythms of tribal house are drifting over the dancers.
Juanita warned me about this: “There’s a moment when anyone first goes sober-dancing when you think, ‘I’m about to dance sober, with many strangers.’ It's a very strange feeling because it's not normal in our culture. But I think it only takes 10 or 15 minutes to realise that nobody cares what you're doing; they really are on their own little journey.”
I keep moving, tune into the music, and try to relax. There’s a beach festival vibe to people's outfits, and everyone is moving in their own way as the tracks build and fall like a wave. There’s an energy building. Guys (and girls) are taking their tops off and whooping and stomping with bare feet.
If they were drunk I’d be worried (in truth, I’d be leaving). But because they’re not, the atmosphere is joyful and uncomplicated. There’s none of the tension and ambiguity you get when people are drinking or on drugs. Everyone’s okay and after a while, I realise I’m okay, too. More than okay: I’m enjoying myself.
Later, refuelling with vegan curry, I chat to Juanita again. She describes Born Free as, “A safe container. Because everyone here knows that everyone else here is in their right mind."
She says, “By nature human beings have a wild side. And sometimes that’s what our negative behaviours actually are: a subverted or misdirected need to be a little bit wild and free. And I think that's what Born Free provides for people.
“If a 35-year-old man wants to skip around the room shouting whoopsi-doo for an hour a week, who's he hurting? But if it's helping him release pent-up stuff that otherwise might come out as aggression, it's very healthy. It's a healthy way of dealing with being human.”
From relapse to sober raving
The following week I meet with Ben who runs a different sober rave night: Dry Wave. If anyone once needed a healthier way of being human, it was him.
"Think Trainspotting with bells on," he says when describing his old life as a crack-cocaine addict.
"I was six and a half years clean. And I picked cocaine back up and that took me down a horrendous path. I did a real deep dive into the world of drugs.
He'd been a club promoter at the time, while also working on music projects with hard-to-reach young people. Says Ben, "It all just went downhill, very slowly at first, but then rapidly. Working with young people was the first to go because I had to take myself out of the situation.
"I overdosed several times. Several times woke up in hospital. I became a thief to support my habit. When I say it was a nightmare; it was a bleeding nightmare.
"Dry Wave started when I came back from that relapse. I came back by the skin of my teeth."
He started attending 12-step-fellowship meetings and began exercising, including swimming. It was when he bumped into an old friend, a swimming coach, at a Life Leisure centre in Stockport that he had the idea for Dry Wave: a sober night in their empty swimming pool.
He started selling tickets but then the CEO heard about it and said no way. They offered him another venue instead but he kept the name. Now he puts on Dry Wave events at various venues in Manchester including The Academy, Tribeca, and at The Resonance Centre where the CIC (community interest company) he runs has an office and digital radio station. Dry Wave is quite a contrast to Born Free though.
Says Ben, "I thought, why can't a sober event become something that's cool? Something that involves wellness and wellbeing but isn't clinical, and also isn't out-there and New Age and hippy-like, you know?
"So we play music from across the board. We'll start off with something funky like house. Then we'll throw in a live PA. We've had Faithless, Baby D, Sweet Female Attitude. Then we move on to something a little bit harder like tech-house or garage."
"We like to keep it in within the age range. Skiddle says that 75% of our tickets are sold to women aged 27 to 35. That's really interesting because women are extremely underrepresented within the sober sector."
So is it mainly recovering addicts who go to the nights? I ask clumsily. I'm trying to figure out whether they're for ex-drug addicts or wellness-focused young women.
"We're very careful in regards to the language we use because there can be a lot of stigma attached to words and when you say 'I'm in recovery,' it almost adds that victim mentality; like, you're not there yet. Or you're not recovered.
"Sober curious is one of the words we like to use. If you're sober curious or are living a sober lifestyle, come and experience this sober lifestyle event."
That goes for the DJs and musicians who perform at Dry Wave too. Mr C from The Shamen recently played at one of their events. The last time I saw him I was watching Top of the Pops and innocently singing along to Ebeneezer Goode.
Says Ben, "When a lot of people turn sober, they think, I can never go out again and enjoy music. And, you know, maybe there's some truth in that because going into nightclubs where there's alcohol and there is that pressure and there are loud people - it can be quite scary if you're not smashed.
"So providing a space both for sober revellers and for sober musicians is a must."
He says he'll put me on the guest list for the next Dry Wave night in a few weeks. It's about 20 years since I've been on a guest list for a club. I'm back, baby! And this time I'm going to remember it the next day.
Dance like no one's watching
In the meantime, I've got another kind of sober dance night to check out. This one's in Chorlton and it's not so much as a big night out as a mid-week mood lift.
Dancing in the Dark has been going for about five years, first at the Irish Club and now at St John's Parish Centre. It's changed hands a few times since its early days (we wrote about 'Chorlton's barmy new dance craze' in 2017) and it's now run by Catherine, who volunteered for the job even though she'd never actually been to Dancing in the Dark before.
"I put my hand up to do it because I'm rubbish at exercising," she tells me. "I know if I'm obligated to do something, then I definitely have to do it.
"This is the only cardio I do so I really go for it. Also, I absolutely love dancing. It was my exercise right through my 20s and early-30s. But I'm at an age where my friends aren't going out dancing now.
"You go from spontaneous nights-out to dinner in people's houses and cooing over their babies. And that's lovely but I still like to boogie."
We're chatting outside the church hall because inside, it's pitch black. There are blinds and tape over the windows and a stereo is playing a killer playlist of everything from rock and indie to hip hop and soul. Catherine hands out glow sticks as people go in - so you can see where your fellow dancers are.
I'm not sure whether it's familiar music or the comforting anonymity of the darkness, but I get into it a lot quicker than I did at Born Free. Within minutes I'm back on the springy dance floor at the Ritz in 1996, throwing shapes to Blondie and The Foo Fighters. At one point, I'm dancing so exuberantly, my glow stick flies off my wrist and across the room. It's a good thing nobody can see what's going on is all I can say.
Says Catherine, "By the time your eyes adjust, you'll have forgotten your inhibitions. And there's no expectations on you to do anything. Some people just sidestep the whole time. Other flail their arms around. It really doesn't matter what you do when you're here as long as you connect with yourself and have a good time."
We dance our hearts out for a very enjoyable hour then Catherine calls out that it's the last song: a Fleetwood Mac banger I've never heard before but need to seek out. Then it's over and everyone's heading home to get on with their evenings - cardio done, inner indie-kid revived.
Dancing in the Dark is essentially an exercise class; most people are in trainers and leggings. But it's not just about getting your steps in. The regulars tell me it takes them into a different mental space, helps them solve problems, and balances out the stress and isolation of working from home. Before I leave I ask Catherine what she does for a living?
"I'm a children's therapist, so it's quite the antidote to my serious, heavy day job."
"Do you do talking therapy?" I ask.
"It's a mixture. Predominantly play therapy."
That makes sense. It's what we've been doing for the last hour in that church hall. Dancing. Playing. Getting comfortable with the dark.
A different kind of ecstasy
The idea that movement is medicine isn't new. I think we all know by now that moving your body makes you feel better mentally as well as physically. But there's a difference between feeling energised and uplifted by exercise and using it to work-through difficult emotional states.
At Born Free regulars report a lessening of PTSD symptoms and social anxiety after their weekly dose of dance floor therapy. At another sober night, TribeGaia, held in Vernon Mill, Stockport, they've seen similar effects.
I talk to Will, one of the facilitators, over the phone. At TribeGaia they practise "ecstatic dance" which he describes as "no substances, free dance, moving whatever way you want."
The 5Rhythms practice is perhaps the best-known form of ecstatic dance (there are classes in this all over the country, including one in Chorlton). At TribeGaia they combine it with yoga and sound baths to further help people connect with themselves.
Says Will, "It's about getting in the body, and not being in the head, and just being able to move - and then being able to ground that into your life.
"If people come to ecstatic dance and they've got resistance in some way; they feel stupid, they don't know what to do. It's a space where they can break through that. And by breaking through that in dancing, they're then able to tap into that self-expression in life in general.
"It's basically about having a chance to freely express yourself and celebrate that with other people."
It sounds a lot like the kind of connection and inhibition you get from say, half a bottle of wine. But rather than adding to your problems like booze does, it helps you work through them.
I have to ask though: Does ecstatic dancing ever feel quite as fantastic as drunken dancing with your best friends on a Saturday night? I mean, can you ever get that level of excitement and happiness?
"Totally," he says. "Ecstatic means ecstasy. If you allow yourself to let go, I find - and other people find - that you can tap into this ecstasy that is at hand at all times, that's present at all moments.
"It can happen in the Dry Wave stuff I've supported them with as well. Yeah, it's totally possible."
Saturday night sobriety
It's Saturday night and I'm getting ready for Dry Wave. I text a friend saying, "I'm about to go to a sober rave on my own. Can you think of a less appealing night out?"
They text back: no. And truthfully, if I wasn't writing this article, I'd be staying at home. I like the idea of ecstatic happiness; I just don't believe it actually exists, not without sex or drugs. Even taking E never made me ecstatic so I doubt I'll get there stone-cold sober.
As expected, I find myself dancing at Dry Wave and thinking, Is this it? Is this as good as it's going to get? There's no imminent beer buzz and I'm not "coming up" as we used to say.
It's a weird, wobbly feeling knowing that I'm fully responsible for creating a good time for myself. I'm so used to outsourcing my happiness to pints of beer, I don't know how to create it myself.
Ben interrupts these spiralling thoughts. He's introducing a singer to the crowd. Esther. She's in the early stages of recovery. "We've both been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, burnt it," he says. "Then we bought another and ruined that too."
This is the first time in 20 years that Esther has sung live without the crutch of drink or drugs. She hides her nerves and nails a performance of drum n bass anthem Afterglow, getting a big, enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.
Looking around, I'm guessing that quite a few people here have "burnt the T-shirt" several times in their past. There are copious Red Bull cans. Cigarettes and vapes in the car park. But the energy, as Ben describes it, is "clean". And while normally I'd feel intimidated by all these tough-looking guys, I don't tonight.
What I feel is a sense that everybody in here is trying really hard to have a really good time. Everyone is making so much more effort than they would at a normal club night. They're dancing, cheering, joining in. They're not standing around waiting for a high to kick in; they're creating it themselves, and I feel a lot of respect for them for that. It's hard and it's scary being sober but they're doing it.
It might be that sense of being "in it together" or it might be the music, but I'm fully immersed in the dancing now. They're playing nineties house and it's getting in my blood. The headline DJ, Lynne from Manchester rave act Awesome 3, is on. Her set takes me back to when I was 20 and going out was all about little wraps of speed at techno clubs in Sheffield.
She plays A Guy Called Gerald's Voodoo Ray then Josh Wink's Higher State of Consciousness. Ben gets us all in a circle and tells us to wait for the drop before we come into the centre and go crazy. It's like a gleeful, daft, grown-up version of the Hokey Cokey and it's the best I've felt in ages. A flood of endorphins washes through my head. And unlike when I was 20, there's no pay-back; no sudden, bewildering comedown because this is all within my control.
Instead, it's just a gradual resettling, and over the next few days, a lasting sense that life feels better than it did before. It's the absence of a hangover and the knowledge that I don't have to get drunk to feel drunk on life.
All the things I love about going out: music, dancing, people, connection. When you experience them sober, they feel brand new.
Where to go to a sober dance night in Manchester
Every Thursday from 6.45pm at The Resonance Centre, Clayton. Tickets £6 on the door. £3 for cacao. £4.50 for food afterwards. Cash only. Or pay in advance through The Resonance Centre crowdfunder.
Dancing in the Dark
Every Wednesday at St John’s Parish Centre, Chorlton. Get tickets.
Next event is Saturday 9 July at Vernon Mill Art Studios, Stockport. Get tickets.
Next event to be announced soon. Follow @drywave_events for details.
Main image credit: Arts Council England
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!