Louie Vega looks out of the booth, feels the crowd, flicks through his records and makes his next selection. The dancers -- the Ritualists -- spin, duck, stretch, scream and smile as the rhythms of the world are refracted through the sound system. Global and emotional, the music and the crowd meld into one as they journey into the material-spiritual ether.
Past, present and future connect in this unfolding scene. The primeval act of dancing, the house party ethos of the downtown party network and an array of musical roots are integral to the experience. Yet this is no nostalgia trip, for Vega cuts across time, playing both old and new, and his dancers are absorbed into an of-the-moment experience that is so overwhelming that conscious thought evaporates in an overwhelming present. There is no need for a different future.
The first Dance Ritual party was held in May 1998 at Vinyl, the then home of Shelter and Body & Soul. Vega -- renowned for his groundbreaking remix and production work with Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez under the Masters at Work and Nuyorican Soul monikers, as well as a series of celebrated residencies at Heartthrob and the Sound Factory Bar -- came up with the idea of holding the party. "We needed a place where we could express ourselves musically and bring together our friends," he says.
Vega asked Body & Soul resident Joaquin "Joe" Claussell -- a highly-rated remixer who had collaborated with Vega on nineties classics such as Mondo Grosso's "Soufflé" and the Groove Collective's "What You Got"-- if he would be interested in putting on the nights together and Claussell agreed. "I was honoured," he says. "Yes, there was Body & Soul, but we needed more than just one party to bring this music further, and Louie was the right DJ to do that." Claussell came up with a name for the party that promised to combine tribal togetherness and cathartic release: Dance Ritual.
Opening night followed hot on the heels of a rigorous Body & Soul workout and featured a live performance from Roy Ayres. "The place was packed with folks from all walks of life," says promoter Robbi. "White, black, Latin, Indian, Asian, straight and gay all mixed together and shared the vibe." Songstress-songwriter-dancer Quinsessa Harrison joined the dance. "Everybody was moving to the groove of Louie and Joe," she says. "It was one of those magical moments. At the end I was a little achy, but it was worth it!"
Right from the start, Vega and Claussell cast aside the potential security of a set routine in favour of instinct and improvisation. Vega normally went on first, but after that the two spinners would switch according to the mood of the moment. "Louie and Joe would feel each other out," says Mr V, host and opening DJ for the parties. "They wouldn't give each other turns and they didn't really mind who was playing. It was almost like seeing one person, not two."
After a couple of months Claussell decided that it was time to step to one side. Although the parties had switched to Saturday nights, there was a lingering sense that the Body & Soul resident was stretching himself by playing two consecutive nights at Vinyl. The split was amicable. "The parties were amazing," remembers Claussell. "There were artists like Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, the Nuyorican Soul band and many others. Dance Ritual was flowing and there was no need for my services. It was all Louie from there."
Over the next couple of years, the party continued to evolve and mutate, switching nights and then venues as Vega and his loyal team built up a core crowd. "At one point we moved to Pinky, which was on the same block as the old Sound Factory Bar, but I didn't really feel it there," says Vega. "Then Timmy Regisford and Kevin Hedge opened the new Shelter on Thirty-ninth Street and they told me I could make the club my home." Due to Vega's extensive travelling commitments, Dance Ritual became a monthly affair. "Now we hold Dance Ritual parties at Shelter, Cielo on Little West Twelfth Street and Deep on Twenty-second Street."
There are times when Dance Ritual segues seamlessly with the Roots night at Cielo, where Vega plays alongside Hedge. "We consider Blaze -- Kevin and Josh -- as family," says Mr V. "Louie worked with them on his Elements of Life album and now they're playing together." Importantly, Cielo is beginning to feel like home. "It's very classy, very spacious, very mellow," adds Mr V. "A lot of people love the space. We've had some great parties there."
Like all good nights, Dance Ritual provides a space in which Vega and his crowd can explore new musical possibilities. "Most clubs are stuck in the cookie-cutter style of house that facilitated the dumbing down of the New York club scene," says friend and collaborator Frankie Feliciano. "But at Dance Ritual you can hear urban dance music in an environment that is nurturing, not exploitative."
All agree that Vega is excavating the spiritual core of his sound. "Over the last few years Louie has been digging even deeper into his roots," says Robbi. "He's incorporating all of those elements into one expression." Mr V reckons fatherhood has been a key factor. "Louie has evolved. He has a child, he's married, he's getting older, and he's taken his music to a whole new level." Live musicians, who enable Vega to reconnect with the endangered traditions of pre-digital music making, have become central to his project. "I don't know anyone else on the scene today who could have put out an album like Elements of Life," says Mr V. "It's got to the point where I'm on edge about where Louie's going next."
Whatever the destination, Vega's crowd is hooked into the journey. "The crowd is high energy, diverse and loyal," says Jasmine, who has been going to Dance Ritual events since the very first party. "It has become one big unified family." Vanessa, who used to travel from Washington DC in order to hear Vega spin at the Sound Factory Bar, believes the parties are just getting better and better. "The vibe is incredible. The unity on the dance floor is like no other."
Vega is pleased with the way everything has turned out. "Underground Network at the Sound Factory Bar was more industry oriented, whereas Dance Ritual is more intimate, more friendly," he says. "Everybody knows everybody in this core crowd of four hundred people. It's a family of friends."
Over the years, the family has taken on an increasingly global hue. "Dance Ritual has always opened its doors to the international crowd," says Vega, "and people from all over the world have come to support the parties." The DJ has returned the compliment by taking Dance Ritual around the world. "We've had Dance Ritual parties in Tokyo, Naples, London, Athens and beyond," he says. "It's been inspirational."
Dance Ritual has reached the point where the crowd produces the music and the music produces the crowd. "Music is the foundation, but the parties are also about the dancers, the DJs, the hugs, the tears, the smiles," says Sista Sara, a regular at the parties. "Dance Ritual is so powerful for all of us. It has helped make our lives a little better." Long-time Louie aficionado Doris Goliatha agrees. "At Dance Ritual you know you're going to dance all night and end up hurting, but you'll also feel like you just ate a great meal. The crowd just keeps going and going."
The Dance Ritual years have coincided with a period of adversity for the city of New York. Pre-millennium tension, aided and abetted by Mayor Giuliani, was followed by the unpopular election of George Bush. The attack on the World Trade Centre shook the city to its core. And just as New Yorkers began to find their feet again, Bush initiated a treacherous war on Iraq that persuaded the city's habitants to turn out en masse in an ultimately futile attempt to unseat the President in the 2004 election.
This has become America's age of individualism, materialism, xenophobia and aggression, and New Yorkers are unhappy. Yet throughout these troubled times, Dance Ritual has continued to provide an alternative vision of the present -- a vision (channelled through audio) of community, spirituality, tolerance and peace.
"Louie likes to make dreams," says Ralph Muniz, one of Louie's oldest friends. "He doesn't want to forcefully change people's lives. He just goes into a club and does what he does best, and these people love it." If Dance Ritual is anything to go by, the pulse of dance culture is still strong. "The city's scene isn't what it used to be, but Vega is one of the guys who is working to keep things vital," says Bruce Tantum, club editor of Time Out. "When Vega stretches out, there are still few better on the decks."
Time is on the side of the dance floor. "Dance rituals have existed for thousands of years in many cultures around the world," says Juan Mejia, a Vega regular for the last decade. "Taino Indians and Mayan Indians had dance rituals to release spiritual energy through dance and music, and the bliss of the dance ritual is still being enjoyed by present cultures. To dance is to celebrate life." Dance Ritual cherishes this tradition while it lovingly maps out its future. For this, indigenous and visiting Ritualists are grateful.
Thanks: Joaquin "Joe" Claussell, Frankie Feliciano, Doris Goliatha, Quinsessa Harrison, Jasmine, Juan Mejia, Mr V, Ralph Muniz, Kyri Patsalides, Robbi, Sista Sara, Bruce Tantum, Vanessa, Louie Vega