DECATUR — For most people who step out onto the dance floor, the rhythm and beat are simple time-keepers, letting us know when to step and where to move. For others, however, the world of dance goes much deeper, into realms of devotion and even spiritual transformation.
This is what Decatur native Andrew Johner discovered when he began investigating the subculture of electronic dance music. It’s the world he reveals in his new documentary, “Electronic Awakening,” which will be screened Wednesday night at Katz on Merchant.
“I chose to focus on this dance subculture for my thesis because I had friends back in high school who were into it, and I had witnessed their lives transformed by their involvement in it,” said the former Warrensburg-Latham High School and Richland Community College student. “When I started investigating and finding all of these correlations with religion and shamanism, that’s when it got really interesting.”
Johner was an anthropology student at Appalachian State University in North Carolina when he began the research that would lead into “Electronic Awakenings.” Despite a basic familiarity with some forms of electronic dance music from his friends, he admits he had no idea what he was getting into when he began attending the ravelike events to research the subculture.
“I went to my first-ever event with a grant from the university and a camera; everything else I knew about it came from the library,” he said. “I most definitely felt like a fish out of water. It was everything that I’d written about but nothing that I expected. I expected to find some correlations to religion and faith, but what I found was a fully developed, serious, underlying mythos.”
What Johner witnessed was participants in many of these dance events attributing vast, powerful meaning to the communal aspect of the dance floor, even going so far as to call the acts of mass communication their religion.
“It was really mind blowing to see this culture evolve so much and develop a mythology about where it had come from, what it means to its members and where it’s going,” he said. “You are meeting people who say, ‘this is my religion; this is where I found God, on the dance floor.’ The difference is, there’s really no church and no dogma; it’s all in this shared experience. It’s an activity that starts out as recreational and becomes transformational.”
Over several years of filming, Johner compiled interviews and analysis of the dance culture, attending such famed events as Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and wove other stories into his documentary as well, those of outsider artists, “eccentrics” and people who make their living through the dance culture. He examines the industry that now caters to this community, including manufacturers of CDs that now bear stickers reading “This music is made for the evolution of consciousness and invoking spiritual experiences.” Throughout, he attempts to communicate the ways members of the culture say the combination of music and dance have positively affected their lives.
“They describe themselves as feeling more open to one another,” he said. “Issues of diversity and understanding are embraced. Identifiers of the self are completely ripped away, and they see themselves as human and nothing more than that.”
The culture, however, is decidedly not for everyone. Illegal drug use has been linked hand in hand with the dance crowd since the earliest days of the rave scene, and Johner admits it is still ubiquitous among those who would claim some form of music and dance as a faith. There are also communities within the subculture, however, who don’t use such substances.
“Within the culture, there are many avenues of reaching that desired state of oneness,” Johner said. “Meditation can take people to that place. So can a combination of drugs, dance and electronica. It’s obviously not for everyone. It’s a very edgy and out-there and bizarre thing that’s going on. I like to say it’s like an extreme sport because it can be dangerous, and it’s not for everyone.”
“Everyone” ultimately includes Johner himself. As an anthropologist and researcher first, he had to totally submerse himself within the culture without ever really becoming a part of it. He is, however, determined to make others understand it. After the screening of the film Wednesday, a DJ’d dance party will be held that features music from many of the artists in the film. And in 2012, Johner will publish “The God Machine,” the collected book of his ethnographic research that went into the making of “Electronic Awakening.”
“It’s a culture that is changing in a big way today and is reaching the mainstream in a lot of places,” he said. “I can’t say I was ever truly a member of the scene during my research, but it made a big impression on me. The experience I had in doing this will always be there.”