How to get your Groove on during the pandemic

9 November 2021 / by Andy Lee

On Wednesday nights, they come out to dance in silence – or so it seems.

Donning glowing wireless headsets in outdoor spaces across the city, 50-100 free spirits move to a DJ’s soundscape journey from calm and quiet, accelerating to a frenetic climax and eventually returning to stillness. 

This is Chocolate Groove, the brainchild of Jesse Buck, a conscious entrepreneur bringing a new-age take on the nightclub experience. At the weekly ecstatic dance event, alcohol is prohibited and talking is discouraged in order to focus on freeform movement and expression.

Each night begins with an opening circle and cacao ceremony, in which participants set their intentions and collectively consume concoctions of pure cacao, hot water and spices, energizing them as opposed to alcohol. After two hours of ecstatic dance, the evening winds down with a sound-bath meditation led by Buck’s quartz crystal singing bowls.

“Usually I have to have a few [alcoholic drinks] before I can get the groove on but it’s great,” said Marie-Paule Pietrangelo while witnessing the event for the first time in High Park in late September. “You just see people being their authentic selves… it’s beautiful.”

In July 2016, Buck co-founded an ecstatic dance event called The Big Love with his friend and mentor Darren Austin Hall, a Toronto sound healer and musician now living in Costa Rica. Held around auspicious days with full moons, solstices and equinoxes, the event welcomed 300-500 dancers at Beach United Church during its peak in 2019. As the community grew thirsty for more, Buck answered the call by launching the weekly Chocolate Groove in July 2018.

“When I finally found the [Toronto] spiritual community it was so nourishing,” said Buck, who moved from Ottawa in early 2012. “So for me, I’m really trying to give back to that community, to create a space for us to come together and nourish each other with love.” 

“I believe, through movement, meditation, diet, gratitude and self-acceptance, we all have the capacity to take control of our lives and manifest the life we wish to live,” says Jesse Buck, founder of the weekly Chocolate Groove ecstatic dance series. Photo: Andy Lee.

Buck began hosting Chocolate Groove at Alternity, a vegan cafe and event space located near Bloor and St. George. During the pandemic lockdown the Groove moved online and as gathering restrictions eased up, shifted again – this time outdoors at various public parks. To evade the ire of bylaw enforcement officers, the party became a silent disco with dancers wearing personal headsets, a trend that originated in Europe in the early 2000s.

Aside from reduced noise for local residents and wildlife, benefits of silent disco headsets include high-quality stereo sound and the ability to adjust the volume – or to take them off altogether. 

“I liked having the option to be able to talk to people if you wanted to but still hear the music, or put the headsets on and just rock out,” said Rebecca Croden, a longtime Chocolate Groove attendee who recently tried her first silent disco at Coronation Park. “I feel like it’s still a shared experience because you can witness other people dancing, you can dance around them.”

Drawbacks include discomfort from prolonged wearing and most noticeably, the lack of bone-shaking bass booming through a sound system. As a compromise, a portable speaker pumps the beats at a modest level for those who prefer to dance sans headsets.

“As the DJ, it’s a little harder to get a read of what’s going on because I can’t hear the sound around me as easily, as I have the headsets on myself as well, but it’s a different experience,” said Greg Bonser, AKA Gregorian Beats, who DJed the Groove for the first time in late September. “It’s a little odd but it’s fun and it’s a good group of people and everyone seems to be having fun.”

Gregorian Beats DJs a Chocolate Groove silent disco night at High Park in late September. Photo: Andy Lee.

To deliver the good vibes week after week, Buck relies on a core team of 20 that expands and contracts as needed based on the scale of the event. Michael Egan has volunteered since its inception, in addition to supporting other community happenings such as the Trinity Bellwoods drum circle on Sundays for five months of the year.

“I volunteer because I get a lot out of it,” said Egan, who has been dancing his entire adult life. “Once we start supporting and helping other people to do things that are wonderful, it comes back and it goes around.”

Buck’s vision is to create a safe space for like-minded, health-conscious people to meet, and to support them on their personal journeys. Recently, this culminated in the first multi-day Chocolate Groove event: the Mabon fall equinox festival in Newcastle, featuring ecstatic dance, cacao ceremonies, vegan meals, yoga, meditation and a sacred fire. 

The community Buck has fostered in Toronto has expanded to Costa Rica, where he has spent several months in recent years, along with Hall and others. Earlier this year, he hosted a month-long collaborative residency at the Posada Natura retreat centre in Quepos, and plans to return this winter. 

“I feel like we’re all on a healing journey in some way or another, whether we’re doing anything about it or not,” said Buck. “I think everyone’s aware that they’ve got stuff to process, so to create more celebratory, high-vibes spaces where those kinds of transformations and connections can happen is pretty amazing. It definitely puts a lot of fuel in the tank to keep working hard to keep making beautiful things happen.”