The Agony and the Ecstasy: A decade after the heyday of St. Louis' rave scene, it still feels like the morning after

It is 8:30 p.m., and Kenny is dancing alone.

You might actually say he is flailing alone. In the next room, a dreadlocked man in a cowboy hat and plaid suspenders is freaking out, also solo, to an acerbic techno beat backed only by the words "MUSCLE, GUNS, BURN" on repeat. But Kenny is the only one in Atomic Cowboy's central room. Darting frantically across the dark dance floor, Kenny rhythmically snakes his limp wrists vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally, then almost double-jointedly through the air around his face. His legs follow a similar, if more stilted, trajectory as he twists his thighs and jerks his feet even faster than his fingers, nine of which sport glow rings he ordered in bulk online. (The tenth one fell off during an ill-conceived dance move.) Kenny is raving — and he is recruiting.

The other patrons at Atomic Cowboy are, as a result, scooting further into the recesses of their leather sofas. They probably missed most of the era Kenny is single-handedly reviving with all the gusto it takes to be the first person on a dance floor devoted entirely to '90s rave music. The Kenny dancing by himself is now 42, which means he learned how to dance this way in his twenties.

The We Are Family Party at Atomic Cowboy.
Lee Haris
The We Are Family Party at Atomic Cowboy.
The We Are Family Party at Atomic Cowboy.
Lee Harris
The We Are Family Party at Atomic Cowboy.

Even today, Kenny holds fast to all the tenets that come with his moves. The first unofficial rule revolves around his lack of a surname. We know only Kenny's first name because that is all Kenny told us, and it's all he told most people at the raves he attended twenty years ago. The second rule is constant motion. If you stop dancing, you stop mattering. "You've got to do it," Kenny tells his attempted recruits as he offers them light-up necklaces. It takes a while for him to find his first partner, and when he does, she is considerably less vigorous than he. "You've got to move more than that," he chides. "Your feet aren't even moving."

The key, he says, is in the hands. "It's simple. Take your hands and pretend you're holding an invisible ball. Now just start rolling that ball, and don't stop until it's not even about the motherfucking ball anymore."

Perhaps it is this instant, with Kenny cradling his make-believe ball, or perhaps it was earlier, when someone plugged in the strobe lights. Maybe it comes even later, when Kenny is finally joined by hundreds of dance partners, and the old feeling of community comes flooding back.

Regardless, at some point, in one of the moments of this night, it becomes clear: The city's original rave culture, one that peaked and plummeted in the ten-year span between 1992 and 2002, has been revived almost twenty years after it mattered the most.

This feeling will last exactly one night.

Even now, there's dissension in the ranks. For a period of approximately ten years, some of them more vibrant than others, St. Louis was a cultural hub for both rave music and the lifestyle that accompanied it. The city was a tactical post between Detroit techno and Chicago's house scene, and its lack of territorial music rivalries made it the most open-minded rave stop in the central United States. St. Louis parties packed the biggest and most diverse setlists in a collection of regional-based sound, says Marc Buxton, a former St. Louis DJ.

Fans of either style of music — and those in between, like trance, ambient and trip-hop — found a comfortable home on the couches of St. Louis apartments. Every weekend, ravers flooded the city's warehouse district on rented buses and in shared cars, coming from Indianapolis, Akron, Dayton, Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis and Nashville. Some of them made the same trip almost every weekend for ten years, while some St. Louis natives were unable to use their own couches for the same period.

When St. Louis lost its title, it was largely because of a deteriorated internal dynamic: A newly mercurial group of people, jaded by drugs and the demands of constant partying, no longer resembled the naïve high school students they'd been when the party started. In the end, dancers kept their backs to the walls and watched their belongings. In the end, ravers called in their friends' drug habits rather than face their own being reported instead. In a homogenized era of pacifiers and phat pants, style-biting grew rampant, and people began to clone each other.

When it was time, the end was quick in coming.

"I have mixed emotions about it," says Davidian Alterior, a founding member of the local scene. "The whole old-school rave scene nostalgia bit — I haven't been too gung ho about it."

Today, most of the stories about the city's rave legacy — how the drugs entered the scene, what genre was most popular, whether rave still exists in St. Louis, whether the reunion should have happened — come from two camps, both arguing aggressively for their own perspective. Members of both groups will warn you whom to talk to, who was first-string, whose memories are wrong and who never cared enough. Those camps came to a head even at the scene's one-off reunion at Atomic Cowboy July 9, with rival factions disagreeing about the event's intentions, lineup and setting.

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