Disco Decibels Demolished

“He’s a monster! A silent dancing monster,” raved Veronica Dougherty.

It was Saturday night, and a shy-looking boy had stumbled inside from the garden at Stain Bar in Williamsburg. Ms. Dougherty, a 32-year-old artist, flashed him a broad grin of approval from her barstool. Dripping sweat behind his glasses, the boy smiled and shuffled over wearily, a beer-starved refugee from the disco action outside.

But to what subtle song had he been shaking that ass? A sonic survey of the garden turned up people chatting, glasses clinking and burgers crackling on a grill … but no music at all.

No booty-busting bass bump. No toe-twitching techno thrum. And yet, in the middle of the mellow quiet, a klatch of Brooklynites were getting their groove on in baffling unison. Heads bobbed; arms flailed in the humid summer night; hips did what hips will do.

Welcome to the Quiet Disco. Born of noise complaints in the Netherlands, this scene (Dutch kids call it stille disco) puts dancers in wireless headphones. Each headset is tuned to receive transmissions directly from the D.J. booth, where turntables are connected through a mixer to a small radio transmitter. Ms. Dougherty was so taken by her first silent disco, witnessed at a 2003 festival in Rotterdam, that she applied for a grant with the San Francisco–based Black Rock Arts Foundation to start one here. Her proposal was approved. She placed an order for 50 pairs of wireless headphones, which arrived last week.

One minute in those headphones and self-consciousness dissolves. On display last Saturday were seductive grinds, pantomimed spankings and punch-drunk attempts at swing. One kid, who looked like a familiar character from the movie Clerks (Jay, of the long blond hair and fuck-off slouch), ended up tossing himself rhythmically against a cement wall. A mural on the wall depicted a curly-haired gent, breathing fire and pulling on a leash. The leash was attached to a dog with six well-articulated nipples.

Suddenly, in the depths of his spastic reverie, the kid’s headphones flew off. They went clattering to the ground, and he froze as if someone had slapped him. Then he rushed to scoop them up. He blended back into the beat with tangible relief.

“It’s like everybody’s bedroom-dancing, but in a crowd!” marveled a bystander. He chose to watch the antics on mute; a pair of headphones dangled loosely around his neck. Without sound, the participants seemed distant, like figures underwater. “Well, I guess it doesn’t bother the neighbors,” mused Ambrose Martos, 32, a professional clown from Park Slope. Tall and loose-limbed, with a shock of curly hair that would not be constrained by his headphones, Mr. Martos cut a rug with his date for the better part of the evening. And, as if the idea of a Quiet Disco weren’t subversive enough, he discovered a way to take things one step further.

“It’s fun to dance to music that everyone’s listening to at the same time, but it’s also fun to dance to your own music,” he noted. With a simple flick at his headphones’ radio dial, he twiddled away from the D.J. and toward standard radio hits—classical, pop, salsa!—pausing to help his gal pal match up. At one point, she was spotted dancing out of step from everyone else, belting out an incongruous set of lyrics by the Stone Temple Pilots.

Other people adapted to the technology with creativity—and some confusion. A young Polish fellow named Glen realized that he’d been listening to a Russian pop station—and not the D.J.—by mistake. He had assumed it was just Eastern European–inspired trendiness. Another guy wore his headphones askew so he could keep up with the music and have conversations at the same time. “I’ve adopted this kind of one-on, one-off aspect,” he bragged. During lulls in the music, one reporter’s curmudgeonly companion tuned in to a Yankees-Angels game in progress on the West Coast.

Mostly they danced. They danced silent, raucous dances, punctuated by occasional handclaps and mock-diva wails. But no one can dance forever, and as the night wore on, the quiet surroundings offered other options.

The “silent dancing monster” had some homework to do. He cracked a book right next to the D.J. and studied it intently before going home. Near the bar, a man with a graying beard nodded off in a velvet chair.

After a seven-hour run, the party ended around 2 a.m. One by one, the headphones were collected and turned off, which seemed to make the quiet night feel, well, even quieter. Some revelers planned to return for the next Quiet Disco on Aug. 12, which Ms. Dougherty hopes to follow with a pair of silent spectacles in McCarren Park that weekend.

Mike O’Connor, 34, a D.J. from the Lower East Side who had spun the last set, was packing up his records in a pair of milk crates. He’d played an eclectic mix of Afrobeat and other accessible, dance-friendly genres, stuff that was “one step beyond what the average person would know about.”

Looking back on the gathering, he reflected on the eerie absence of that full-bodied, tooth-shaking sensation D.J.’s and clubbers alike feel from beats thudding out of speaker cabinets. And just watching the dancers go at it was odd, too.

“It’s like D.J.-ing in a deaf camp or something,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Disco Decibels Demolished