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Utopian Dreams: What would the ideal safe space club look like?

What could the ideal safe space club look and feel like? Michelle Lhooq imagines a possible future for nightclubs where everyone is free to dance, feel welcome, safe, and wholly themselves

Ever since the concept of safe spaces became popularised in the clubbing lexicon a few years ago, it’s been at the centre of an exhausting debate about how nightlife communities should police themselves. It turns out that trying to throw a party where people don’t feel harassed or discriminated against is hard to enforce, especially when people are drunk and horny at 2am. Don’t get it twisted, safe spaces in nightlife are absolutely vital. But what’s missing from the current conversation is the question: what does a safe space club actually look and feel like?

It’s important for us to expand the definition of a safe space — or, more accurately, a safer space. This entails taking into account how the architecture and design of physical spaces has a direct effect on our mental health and wellbeing. Some consideration must also be given to our climate, and how steps to eliminate toxic behaviour in nightlife should include some eco-friendly measures.

When you’re trying to create a safer space, every little detail matters — from the building’s architecture to the smell of the dancefloor, the decorations on the walls to the security guard’s uniforms. So here’s a tour through an imaginary club, using effective, radical tactics from real safer space parties around the world. We’re going to call this place Club Utopia, but maybe this future isn’t too far off at all.

It’s sunset on a Saturday when we start making our way to Club Utopia, which is nestled in a hilltop anarchist commune far from the grime and congestion of the city. We’ve been waiting impatiently for this moment. On weekends, the club requires a membership card to get in, and the process is tougher than applying to an elite dating app. We needed three existing members to recommend each of us, followed by community service to the club’s affiliated charities.

Yeah, doing this much work to get into a club seems a bit outrageous. But crowd control is a big challenge for safer spaces, which require effective barriers against bad actors. Membership-style systems have done wonders to filter out nightlife predators and parasites, those who are looking for cheap thrills without contributing to the culture. Without the need for sneering bouncers, or hours-long lines, this process is a form of natural selection: even as the club grows in hype and popularity, only the community-vetted and committed get in.

We take a free, eco-friendly shuttle to the club, and 20 minutes later, are deposited at the top of a densely-forested hill. With a smile, the door person tells us about the staggered ticket pricing system: $30 for cis-gendered straight white men, $15 for femme and non-binary folks, and trans people of colour get in for free. The idea is that Club Utopia works to reverse economic inequality. Since women typically make 79 cents to a man’s dollar, and women of colour typically even less than that, they should pay less — or sometimes nothing — to enter this space.

After paying our entrance fees, we walk past two giant signs. The first one says: “No sexism, no racism, no ageism, no homophobia, no transphobia, no body shaming, no patriarchal flexing, and check your white fragility at the door!” The second one puts its message more plainly: “If you touch a woman against her will, we will personally ruin your life!” Manifestos like these can be found at the entrances to safer space events all over the world, and it feels like an intention. Even though a party that’s free of all discrimination will never truly exist, reading these maxims before jumping into the fray sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

The club is like a garden playground, built by an architect with a green thumb. The walls are lined with plants, so that the air smells of figs and frangipani, and a strong breeze billows through the open-air roof — a dome-shaped arch with psychedelic projections, of shimmering stars and rippling water. Unlike a typical gritty  warehouse or sleek club, there are hardly any harsh angles, chain fences, or slabs of cold concrete. Instead, this soft, ecofriendly environment feels ergonomically designed, with sloping walls that cradle the ravers leaning into them, and curved nooks for people in wheelchairs to hang out.

We glimpse the silhouettes of dancers swaying under rice paper curtains in the pink light of the sunset, and realise that the stage is built out of bamboo and industrial hemp. Being surrounded by nature has an immediate, soothing effect, and we feel our bodies relax. Walking around the club, we notice that our fellow clubbers don’t fall into obvious categories: New Age hippies and shimmering club kids, beard-stroking disco bros and techno goths in head-to-toe leather. There are also grandmothers with neon hair, a troupe of house dancers doing warmup stretches, a gentleman in a bow-tie clutching a bottle of Moët champagne, and surfer bros laughing uproariously between taking massive hits of their vapes. Spanning all genders, races, and sexual orientations, this crowd is like a human salad of society’s most colourful characters. “That guy is a legend,” whispers our friend, nodding towards a kid in the back. “He’s deaf, and he dances all night to the vibrations.”

One of the coolest parts of the club’s design is that there is no specific dancefloor. Rather, people are dancing all over the place — the stairs, the hallways, the bar, the bathroom — everyone spinning in circles and playfully locking limbs, rather than staring reverentially at the DJ. Adding to this sense of dynamism, there are podiums scattered throughout the club. These podiums elevate the fiercest dancers while giving them extra space to perform. It’s as if their glittering bodies become part of the club’s architecture: their extra visibility tacitly giving others permission to be less self-conscious, and flaunt their own fabulousness.

On the other hand, a club should never be a panopticon. As the party hits the late-night hours, the drug sessions and hook-ups congregate in the nooks and crannies, and many of the ravers are shirtless or wearing very little at all. The club has employed people as monitors to oversee these spaces, tasked with making sure that everyone is as safe as possible.

These monitors are wearing easy-to-spot tie-dye T-shirts, and most importantly, they look and speak like ravers. Rather than employing aggressive security guards, Club Utopia employs these monitors because they’re trusted members of the community. Since they understand the codes and customs of nightlife, it makes it easier for ravers to report harassment or any other issues, without fear or intimidation. At one point, a man plops on the floor, stares at his hands, and starts to cry. The monitors take turns giving him hugs and bringing him water, talking with him through his difficult time.

Dawn is breaking by the time we decide to check out the ambient chill-out room. It’s packed with dancers drenched in sweat, cooling down with matcha smoothies and fuelling up on plates of mango, bananas, pineapples, and other fruits. The DJ is playing a collage of rainforest sounds — cawing birds, buzzing insects, and rain showers — over the ghostly spectre of a squelching analogue synth. Somehow, it’s working, and the polyrhythmic vibrations start to slowly rock us to sleep. Before we pass out on a well-worn couch, we spot the man who had been crying earlier. He’s now spinning in slow circles in the middle of the room, with a blissed-out smile stretched across his face.

DJ Mag's Mental Health Issue is on stands now. For useful contacts and further reading on mental health, click here

Read our lead feature on mental health in dance music here

Michelle Lhooq is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleLhooq