There is nothing more magical than that moment between DJ and partygoer. I do not know if anyone else was at Wireless Festival in 2018, on one of those summer days when we ate too little and drank too much, and found ourselves in that sweaty tent modeled like some magical forest, where my friend Yas was DJing with no headphones to mix – a miracle in itself – and she was playing cuts designed to get people moving. And people were moving but it was slow work in the heat. That is until she began to tease a distant melody, a few chords creeping through the mud of percussion.
I could not tell you what song was playing at that moment; my attention was taken by the young man, his shirt swinging open with just one or two buttons done up, who, on recognizing the track, feeling it deep in his soul, left the wall he had been holding up with his shoulders and made his way into the center of the dance floor. His eyes were closed, hand raised in reverence for the DJ.
Yas let the track build; she let others be led to the floor by this lone dancer. By the time “Gabriel” by Roy Davis Jr. dropped, there were whoops and cheers; a chorus of voices was singing along. There was movement. Sometimes I think this is all it takes: for one person to ask another, “Do you know this track? And if not, do you know this feeling? ”
The last time I had heard that track was in a basement, somewhere in Hackney, at a Boiler Room gig in 2015. I, too early, too eager, had stood outside with a stranger, waiting to be let into the venue. By the time we were inside, we had already begun to gently rib and tease, in the way that two people feeling each other out will do. By the time the second DJ started playing, we were friends.
Between sets, we spoke quickly, urgently, about what it might mean to express yourself not as a want but as a need. We spoke about what it might mean to submit to the DJ’s wants and wills, to let sound reach deep into you, to move.
To be free, for the time it takes for the bass to seep into the track being teased, or that pause when the music breaks and there’s so much space, or for something unfamiliar to morph into something known.
That night, that something known was “Gabriel”. As those chords began to play, my new friend smiled at me and said that if I really wanted to enjoy myself, I was going to need to loosen my hips, warm up a little. I listened to her instruction and let the drums settle somewhere in my chest, somewhere they were not just being heard, but felt. So maybe the magic does not just exist between DJ and partygoer, but between us all, entering those brief spaces where music pauses and breaks, aware we are in the presence of something magical.
It had been so long since anyone, friend or stranger, had insisted I dance that I was surprised at a party in December to feel a hand on my shoulder, the other hand sliding into mine, tender yet firm: “I’ve been asked to bring you to the dance floor. ” I could feel the excuses tumbling from my mouth. I told her I was going soon, that she had maybe 10 minutes of dancing from me. She shrugged and said, “Ten minutes is better than nothing.”
Maybe she assumed I was not much of a dancer, but it’s not that. I love to dance, I love to move, but when I aim for grace it often comes out as lumbering.
Given the right conditions and a little persuasion though, I will let go. I will, as I did then, allow myself to be led towards the dance floor. I will listen as the DJ plays a song from a specific moment in our lives – that song, from that night in 2018 when summer sweltered and we ate too little, drank too much.
I will submit to that magic of the transition, the anticipation that comes when the DJ teases a track, bringing it in slowly, until the music overwhelms the body. I will whoop and cheer, I will become chorus, I will become space. I will, with each movement, ask the person in front of me: do you know this track? And if not, do you know this feeling?
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s novel “Open Water” will be published in paperback on February 3; it is the winner of this year’s Costa First Novel Award
This story is part of the FT Magazine package “Tales from the Dancefloor”, featuring the work of selected photographers, Rosa Lyster on the best fictional parties – and six FT writers remembering the best party they ever attended