You might’ve heard this one before: that dance music is just ancient ritual with a new skin, a manifestation of our age-old need to come together and be transported. “I always saw underground dance music culture as that,” says Luca Mortellaro, the DJ and producer better known as Lucy. “That’s what I think when I see a performer in charge of distributing energies in a certain way, and a group of people that [dance] to obsessive rhythms for hours and hours. I don’t see that many differences, just maybe in the tools used.”
Mortellaro’s contact with wellness culture began when his DJ career took off. “The shock was so big. Everyone around me [was saying], ‘Wow, this is a dream, you should be really happy.’ And I wasn’t at all, actually I was burning out quite fast.”
He began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks before discovering a form of Hatha yoga. Unlike with Petkova, though, Mortellaro’s discovery didn’t lead him to reject dance music.
“[Yoga] became like a daily ritual. Wherever I was, in Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Rome, Berlin, something was always the same. And at some point it started to become a very synergic part of my music career. In the weekend I was putting all my energies into one direction, during the week I was putting them into another, through the yoga practice. I started feeling how that was helping a lot in fighting a certain kind of alienation.”
Mortellaro isn’t the only DJ in search of coping strategies. Roman Flügel has described his yoga practice as “a nice counterpoint to the usual weekend madness.” Xosar, a licensed yoga instructor, recently told RA’s Mark Smith how her musician students “have physical problems from making art all day… my job lately has been to help people heal their bodies and to get them more in harmony with their craft so that they’re not abusing their bodies in their creative work.” In an RA Exchange, Monika Kruse revealed that she takes two months each year for a traditional Indian form of body detoxification called Panchakarma treatment. It “gives me the power for the rest of the year,” she said, noting that Sven Väth, Dubfire, Richie Hawtin and Magda have done something similar.
“You get up in the morning and you brush your teeth—it’s like that for me,” says Tony Child of his own yoga practice. As the DJ and producer Surgeon, he’s had two decades to get to grips with the touring lifestyle. His relationship with Ashtanga yoga started about ten years ago, after a health checkup revealed a risk of back problems. At first he was skeptical. “I’m not really a sporty person, shall we say. But the first session I did, I was instantly really interested in it, because it did far more to me on a psychological level than just a physical level.”
Child had had a “quite serious problem with insomnia,” and ground his teeth so much that “my dentist warned me that they were probably going to fall out.” Yoga quickly fixed both problems. “On a psychological level, I think it’s made me much calmer. You can never remove stress and crazy situations from your life, but I think it’s helped me to be able to deal with them better. And in terms of my gigs, it helps me to focus and concentrate for much longer periods of time than I ever could before. That’s really helped me enjoy and improve, I think, my performance.”
Yoga also helped him confront an ongoing drinking problem. “Doing what I do, there’s all kinds of drugs and alcohol around all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just when it goes out of balance and something has more negative than positive effects—then I see it as a problem. I’ve not drunk alcohol for seven years now, and I feel a lot better for it. I definitely attribute yoga as the thing that gave me the inner strength to be able to deal with that.”
Child is hesitant to draw a direct line between yoga and his music, but Mortellaro has no such qualms. In 2014, alongside yoga teacher Amanda Morelli, he devised “a transcendent performance integrating traditional Eastern breathing techniques, field-recordings and the spatial dynamics of sound.” For the past few years he’s hosted a regular “sound bath meditation” session in Berlin.
I attend the first session after the summer break, at a community-supported yoga studio in a Neukölln apartment block. Shoes are taken off at the door, and regulars chat around the tea dispenser. The session, once it starts, is structured similarly to yoga classes I’ve attended. We get comfy on mats and cylindrical cushions, and begin and end with breathing exercises centring around “om.” (At points the rooms sounds like it’s full of angry insects.) Once we’re suitably in the zone, the sound bath meditation starts. The roomful of stylish 20- and 30-somethings lie back under colourful blankets, and Mortellaro teases rich, sometimes deafening roars out of a pair of enormous standing gongs.
The experience is a lot like Intrinsic: the clientèle, the cushions and blankets, the meditative sound. Only the focus has shifted: the “healing” activities have become the main event. A description of the session claims that “Sound has been used as a healing implement for centuries… Synchronizing body vibrations and consequently brain waves to specific sound frequencies, it is possible to achieve profound states of relaxation to restore disharmonies. As illness could be regarded as a manifestation of disharmony in the body, rebalancing by bathing deeply in sound is the key to opening the deepest doors of our self-perception.”
There’s no denying that those involved in dance music are in need of healing. A 2016 British study found that musicians could be up to three times more likely than average to suffer from anxiety or depression. DJs, with their disrupted sleep patterns and constant exposure to alcohol and drugs, are surely high on the at-risk list, along with many other people involved in dance music culture.
Yoga and meditation are not quack cures, either. A survey in the Harvard Mental Health Letter found that they “can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression.” Yoga fits the DJ lifestyle, too. As Child says, “I just put a towel on the floor in the hotel room and I can do it.”
But wellness culture often trades in blurry lines. It’s a world where aesthetic and social preferences merge with the medical, the pseudo-medical and the mystical. How literal is Mortellaro being when, at the end of the session, he advises that we sleep with a pen and paper close by tonight, since the full moon means that our dreams may offer useful advice? And how seriously does E/Tape believe that the resonant frequency of the earth is relevant to humans’ health? (This claim, regarding the “Schumann resonance,” is popular in alternative medicine). Or that gong bath meditation works because the gong “has a certain vibration that goes really deep into your DNA memories” opening “a portal that links the finite and the infinite experience of the self” and has “a healing effect on the deepest level of your cells”?
In some instances, taking these sorts of ideas seriously may be the opposite of healthy, leading people to make ill-informed decisions, perhaps even to go against medical advice. At the very least, discussions around these issues often seem to lack a critical element. Western democracies—the cradles of dance music culture—have experienced a widespread collapse of trust in this century. A rejection of the authority of governments, the media and academia informs political and social movements across the spectrum. Wellness culture might be one facet of this search for a new truth, but it doesn’t always look in the right places.
“We had been a part of a scene with no barriers, where everyone danced together regardless of race or class, which was revolutionary at this time of deep rooted Thatcherism. And our experiences in the techno scene over nearly 30 years have shown us that just because you are in the scene doesn’t necessarily mean that you think in an openminded way.”
Debbie Griffith, AKA Pheen X, is more qualified than most to talk about dance music’s social aspect. She is a founding member of Spiral Tribe, a British soundsystem at the forefront of ’90s free party culture. The crew was present at the Castlemorton Common Festival, and was driven out of the UK by the subsequent Criminal Justice Act. They travelled Europe keeping the rave spirit alive, but things got harder as the years went by.
“At the beginning of the new century the traveling had become almost impossible due to stricter policing and many of us moved into more settled living situations. But then there was a massive feeling of dissatisfaction amongst many of us. We had been a part of so many fantastic adventures, now where was the mission?”
After dabbling in yoga, in 2002 Griffith went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the “Vipassana” Buddhist tradition. It was “the start of a massive shift deep down in my consciousness.” But she soon found herself split between the hedonistic party scene and the ascetic world of silent retreats. So, alongside yoga instructor Denis Robberechts, she devised Dharma Techno.
A Trax feature recounted one of Dharma Techno’s retreats: four nights of silent meditation in a remote villa in the south of France under the guidance of Robberechts, and in the middle a (sober) six-hour rave courtesy of Spiral Tribe artist 69db. It seems like a rejection of rave’s usual values—sociality, substances. But Dharma techno’s organisers see it as the opposite: a return to the essence of dance music culture.
“So many people, like myself, find themselves in a loop with the scene,” says Griffith. An initial profound connection with the music weakens over the years, and growing quantities of drugs are needed to reestablish it. Dharma techno is about breaking that self-destructive spiral. (Though Griffith emphasises that the retreat isn’t intended as rehab, Trax reports that some attendees used it to reexamine their relationship with substances.) “I totally reconnected with techno music at the first Dharma Techno retreat we did,” she says. “I finally remembered why I had loved it so much for so many years.”
The free party scene isn’t representative of the dance music world in its entirety. But Griffith and Vaughan’s story echoes a broader one. Dance music is bigger than ever worldwide, but the rave dream, that initial burst of utopian energy that propelled it into the global consciousness, has been subsumed in a complex and money-driven industry.
“A few artists are definitely saying that the industry is getting too much,” says Intrinsic’s Nathalia Petkova. “Many people are bored and are finding something different. I don’t have anything against the industry or against dance music, I just think that it’s expanded to a point that it’s overdone now, and most people don’t do it for the right reasons.”
Petkova’s view is shared by several of the people I spoke to for this feature. Whether DJs jaded by the circuit or festivalgoers looking for a new rush, they’re dance music lifers trying to rediscover something lost along the way. Wellness culture has helped them to reconnect.