Slate: Swedish Lunch Disco

The country’s new midday office raves.

When it comes to lunch breaks, the laissez-faire French like to take two hours out of their workday to savor their food in the company of colleagues while workaholic Americans prefer dining solo in front of their computers. Well, in Sweden we have a whole other vibe going. Here, more and more workers are forgoing both leisurely lunches and “al-desko” dining in favor of daytime raves.

It started in the fall of 2010 when 14 friends decided to dance their lunch breaks away in their office garage. They called their gathering “Lunch Beat.” As rumors about this literally underground movement spread, more and more people joined in. Today, Lunch Beat events are being arranged by a core group of organizers at venues around Sweden, attracting up to 600 people each time, and copycat clubs are popping up across Europe. Lunch Beat events can be arranged by any individual, group or company anywhere in the world as long as the organizers respect the founders’ Manifesto, a list of 10 rules specifying, for instance, that Lunch Beat discos must be nonprofit events, take place at lunch time, have 60-minute long DJ sets, and include a takeaway meal. In 2011, “lunch disco” was officially recognized as a new word by the Swedish Language Council.

The basic idea behind Lunch Beat is that workers take an hour out in the middle of the day to let loose in the company of fellow dance-enthusiasts. The founders have dubbed it “your week’s most important business lunch” and say that they want to create a sense of community among participants. But the discos are not meant to be crass networking opportunities. After all, the fourth rule of the manifesto is “You don’t talk about your job at Lunch Beat.” Instead, the aim is to embody “playfulness, participation and community,” the founders write. It’s intended almost to be a way of forgetting about your job, so you can feel energized and inspired when you get back to your desk.
With its strobe lights, smoke machines, funky wall projections, pounding techno music, and crowded dance floor filled with fist-pumping, sweat-dripping revelers, Lunch Beat recreates the atmosphere of nightclubs. Organizers look for spaces where there are not a lot of spectators or passers by, because they want dancers, not gawkers. The party starts promptly at noon and ends at 1 p.m. sharp. And while a sandwich, fruit, and water are included in the ticket price, drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden.

I attended the latest Lunch Beat on April 24, in Stockholm. It took place in a room with blacked-out windows in Kulturhuset, a multipurpose cultural venue in the city’s commercial center. The party attracted all sorts of professionals: engineers, insurance brokers, designers, and charity workers. One of the Lunch Beat founders, Daniel Odelstad, said the parties “give the lie to the myth that Swedes never dance sober.” DJ Johannes Drakenberg agreed. “Everyone was dancing from the moment I started playing”, he said. “I hadn’t expected that the crowd would have so much energy to dance to tribal techno in the middle of a workday. This is much more fun than playing at nightclubs.”

Several people were on the dance floor before noon, waiting for the DJ to arrive. Eventually a big crowd arrived, with people from their 20s to their 50s. Once the dancing started, there was no standing around, no self-conscious mirror-checking. Few even took breaks to drink water, preferring instead to grab a drink and a sandwich on their way out. While some came alone, most people danced next to the colleagues they’d arrived with, but just like at other techno dance clubs, the crowd was facing the stage where the DJ was spinning his records rather than dancing in pairs or groups. The crowd cheered and whistled whenever the DJ revved up the music and over time the place got hot and sweaty, just like a real club. At the end of the hour, when we all dispersed, the crisp air and business-as-usual atmosphere outside felt surprising. Some dancers compared the Lunch Beat experience to an energizing workout, a fun alternative to the gym. Others felt it was more like a wholesome nightclub where everyone was focused on the music and on dancing instead of getting drunk or finding someone to hook up with. There was a distinct lack of sexual energy at the Stockholm Lunch Beat, which, coupled with the ban on alcohol and drugs, made the whole thing reminiscent of straight-edge, the 1980s subculture whose clean-living adherents refrained from alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs but still partied hard. Odelstad insists that Lunch Beat is not a “manifestation for soberness” but added that serving alcohol would not “fit with the concept. After all, this is Sweden,” he added, “and here we just don’t have a culture of drinking at lunch like they do in, say, Denmark or the Netherlands.”

We could see it as a sign of our uptight, health obsessed times that the wholesome version of the rave has replaced the real one. In the 1990s, techno clubs were seen as dangerous, morally deprived places. The Swedish police set up a special department to monitor the growing number of underground raves and carried out frequent raids to hunt for drugs. Now, a “rave” is the kind of event that companies officially sanction, purchasing Lunch Beat tickets for staff as a perk. Lunch Beat has been featured on Sunt Liv (meaning Healthy Life), a website set up by unions and local government employers which promotes public health and good work environments. The organizer of a Belgian version of Lunch Beat said that the European Community is planning to send a group of staff members along to the first event in Brussels. From pierced teenagers to European bureaucrats in only 20 years. What a long distance to travel.