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Gonzo Report: Dance Space of the Grateful Dead

Winstons Beach Club, Ocean Beach, New Year’s Eve 2021.

Dance like nobody’s gonna try to take your spot…
Dance like nobody’s gonna try to take your spot…

Electric Waste Band was ringing in the new year with sweet, rocking Grateful Dead sounds. I saw some friends of mine at a table, and headed over to say hello. But soon after starting into a conversation with them, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and the guy who tapped me said, “You’re standing in my dancing space, so you need to move!”

Place

Winstons Beach Club

1921 Bacon Street, San Diego

Now, Winstons has a good sized dance floor; it can pack in quite a few people while still leaving some wiggle room for getting your groove on. But I wasn’t standing on the dance floor, and neither was this guy. After he issued his order, he jumped back to his chosen spot, which was three or four feet away from me — again, not on the dance floor. I’d never seen anything like it. I’m the last person to tell someone they can’t dance where they want to, especially in a club on New Year’s Eve. But I was baffled as to how this guy had staked a claim on the spot where I was standing. Had he put down some sort of payment to reserve it?

Well, sort of. My friend Milo Rose told me that he and the guy had had the same exchange, and that he’d been told that the guy was a big Deadhead, and had been to so many Dead shows that he was entitled to his space. I tended to agree with Milo’s take on the matter: “Not wanting to get into anyone’s individual space, but when you’re in public, you’re not at your house and you’re not in your living room.”

The Grateful Dead assembled in 1965 and became the house band for the writer Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. At these tests, you’d get a cup of Kool-Aid laced with LSD. There would be projectors showing melting amoeba-type images. There would be people in costume, people dancing very close together, people holding each other, and in some instances, making love. All set to the music of the Dead. I’m not sure if anybody staked any piece of floor as their own at these tests. I’d guess that they didn’t: something about the scene seems to tend more toward sharing than excluding, though I imagine folks made a little room for the people making love.

More recently, I attended the Skull & Roses festival in Ventura, which ran from April 7 – April 10. The festival featured 31 acts on a revolving stage, playing mainly Grateful Dead music. When I got there, I noticed that people had left their chairs on the arena floor the day prior to the festival. They had staked their claims; that was where they were going to sit, stand and dance. Among them was an elderly gentleman I will call Fart Man. I don’t usually make fun of people, but when he danced, he appeared to be waving off the smell of a fart from his behind. He did this for the first two days of the festival, making a nice spot for himself in the center of the crowd.

On the third day, I noticed that Fart Man was not in his usual spot. Then, while I was standing and talking to friends off to the left of center, I felt a poke on my shoulder. It was Fart Man. He said, “Excuse me, you’re standing in my dancing space, and I’ve been in this spot for the past two days!” Before I could reply with, “Excuse me; I’ll move,” he raised his voice and shouted, “Get out of my dancing space!”

I couldn’t let that pass. I replied, “I’ve seen you standing in the middle of the place for the past couple of days, and now you’ve moved over here trying to stake a new claim or something.” Then I moved away from him so he could be free to wave away his farts. But it didn’t stop there. The following day, I noticed an elderly woman pushing another elderly woman in the front row by the stage, crying, “This is my dancing spot!” I couldn’t imagine that happening at a Slayer concert. Was it a Grateful Dead thing?

I turned to social media for an answer, and got a good response from an individual named David Defoe. “I would say the concept originally took hold in the San Francisco ballrooms in the mid-’60s,” he said. “Attendees weren’t voyeurs standing like packed sardines drooling on their shoes, but were an integral part of the whole experience. They were encouraged to freak freely rather than just be spectators. Having grown up with Deadhead parents, I knew it was common sense that you didn’t crowd in on dancers; you allowed them to do their thing unencumbered. The nouveau trend of wedging yourself to the front, only to stand there like a fucking idiot with your cellphone held up, is something I’ll never understand. We are now a nation of spectators rather than a unique collection of freely freaks.”

That didn’t quite explain my own encounters, but at least it gave a possible reason for why people got possessive. And his comments made me think that maybe I’d be less likely to get my shoulder tapped if I were dancing myself. Still, I couldn’t help but agree with Milo Rose’s point about how you don’t want to get into anybody’s individual space, but being in public means you shouldn’t act entitled, the way you might in your own home. At concerts and festivals, there’s a good chance you’ll get bumped, stepped on, and have your personal space encroached upon, whether standing or dancing. We all must exercise patience and understanding and simply get along. I think the Dead would agree.

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Dance like nobody’s gonna try to take your spot…
Dance like nobody’s gonna try to take your spot…

Electric Waste Band was ringing in the new year with sweet, rocking Grateful Dead sounds. I saw some friends of mine at a table, and headed over to say hello. But soon after starting into a conversation with them, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and the guy who tapped me said, “You’re standing in my dancing space, so you need to move!”

Place

Winstons Beach Club

1921 Bacon Street, San Diego

Now, Winstons has a good sized dance floor; it can pack in quite a few people while still leaving some wiggle room for getting your groove on. But I wasn’t standing on the dance floor, and neither was this guy. After he issued his order, he jumped back to his chosen spot, which was three or four feet away from me — again, not on the dance floor. I’d never seen anything like it. I’m the last person to tell someone they can’t dance where they want to, especially in a club on New Year’s Eve. But I was baffled as to how this guy had staked a claim on the spot where I was standing. Had he put down some sort of payment to reserve it?

Well, sort of. My friend Milo Rose told me that he and the guy had had the same exchange, and that he’d been told that the guy was a big Deadhead, and had been to so many Dead shows that he was entitled to his space. I tended to agree with Milo’s take on the matter: “Not wanting to get into anyone’s individual space, but when you’re in public, you’re not at your house and you’re not in your living room.”

The Grateful Dead assembled in 1965 and became the house band for the writer Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. At these tests, you’d get a cup of Kool-Aid laced with LSD. There would be projectors showing melting amoeba-type images. There would be people in costume, people dancing very close together, people holding each other, and in some instances, making love. All set to the music of the Dead. I’m not sure if anybody staked any piece of floor as their own at these tests. I’d guess that they didn’t: something about the scene seems to tend more toward sharing than excluding, though I imagine folks made a little room for the people making love.

More recently, I attended the Skull & Roses festival in Ventura, which ran from April 7 – April 10. The festival featured 31 acts on a revolving stage, playing mainly Grateful Dead music. When I got there, I noticed that people had left their chairs on the arena floor the day prior to the festival. They had staked their claims; that was where they were going to sit, stand and dance. Among them was an elderly gentleman I will call Fart Man. I don’t usually make fun of people, but when he danced, he appeared to be waving off the smell of a fart from his behind. He did this for the first two days of the festival, making a nice spot for himself in the center of the crowd.

On the third day, I noticed that Fart Man was not in his usual spot. Then, while I was standing and talking to friends off to the left of center, I felt a poke on my shoulder. It was Fart Man. He said, “Excuse me, you’re standing in my dancing space, and I’ve been in this spot for the past two days!” Before I could reply with, “Excuse me; I’ll move,” he raised his voice and shouted, “Get out of my dancing space!”

I couldn’t let that pass. I replied, “I’ve seen you standing in the middle of the place for the past couple of days, and now you’ve moved over here trying to stake a new claim or something.” Then I moved away from him so he could be free to wave away his farts. But it didn’t stop there. The following day, I noticed an elderly woman pushing another elderly woman in the front row by the stage, crying, “This is my dancing spot!” I couldn’t imagine that happening at a Slayer concert. Was it a Grateful Dead thing?

I turned to social media for an answer, and got a good response from an individual named David Defoe. “I would say the concept originally took hold in the San Francisco ballrooms in the mid-’60s,” he said. “Attendees weren’t voyeurs standing like packed sardines drooling on their shoes, but were an integral part of the whole experience. They were encouraged to freak freely rather than just be spectators. Having grown up with Deadhead parents, I knew it was common sense that you didn’t crowd in on dancers; you allowed them to do their thing unencumbered. The nouveau trend of wedging yourself to the front, only to stand there like a fucking idiot with your cellphone held up, is something I’ll never understand. We are now a nation of spectators rather than a unique collection of freely freaks.”

That didn’t quite explain my own encounters, but at least it gave a possible reason for why people got possessive. And his comments made me think that maybe I’d be less likely to get my shoulder tapped if I were dancing myself. Still, I couldn’t help but agree with Milo Rose’s point about how you don’t want to get into anybody’s individual space, but being in public means you shouldn’t act entitled, the way you might in your own home. At concerts and festivals, there’s a good chance you’ll get bumped, stepped on, and have your personal space encroached upon, whether standing or dancing. We all must exercise patience and understanding and simply get along. I think the Dead would agree.

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