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New York’s Dancehall Parties Are ‘A Different Type of Turn Up’

This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife in New York.

CJ Milan was racing around a yacht just after midnight on Sunday, handing out hundreds of foam glow sticks.

“When the boat starts moving, we play soca music,” she said with a mischievous smile as she paused for a moment to watch the dance floor. “It gets everybody turned up.”

Ms. Milan was running Yacht Fete, a 1,000-person reggae, dancehall, soca and afrobeats party that takes place monthly on the Hudson River.

The yacht is just one of the venues that she uses to host her recurring Reggae Fest dance parties, which she started organizing in New York in 2015.

Dancehall, a party-friendly byproduct of reggae music with faster tempos and the cadence of hip-hop, came out of Jamaica in the late 1970s.

And New York’s dancehall parties, which are often thrown by and for the city’s large Caribbean communities, bring people together on flamboyant dance floors where they can whine, dagger, line dance and drop into full splits.

Ms. Milan, who estimates that she has drawn more than 170,000 people to Reggae Fest events in New York over the last seven years, has since expanded the parties to Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles.

But even as she broadens her reach, she’s still figuring out how to keep picky New York crowds happy.

“New York is a different type of turn up,” she said. “We just have so much more to cover music-wise because our city is so diverse.”

She said that at each of her parties, she tries to have a team of D.J.s ready to play whatever type of music the crowd is responding to most vividly that night.

Marvin Smith, who’s known at Reggae Fest as D.J. Legend, said that he plays anything from reggaeton to dancehall to keep people moving.

“When I see the hairdos sweated out, when I see people who are looking around like, ‘Where are my keys? Who has my phone?’” Mr. Smith said. “When we see that, we know it’s mission accomplished.”

And Ms. Milan said they try to throw something in the mix for every kind of listener.

“Dancehall has different levels — some of it is hardcore,” she said, which often appeals to a younger generation. “But then you get the older generation who want to hear Mr. Vegas or Sean Paul.”

She added: “Then you got other ones that say, ‘I want that sexy stuff’ — they want to hear what the women have to say,” referring to artists like Spice.

Yet there are certain shows that bring out dancehall fans of all kinds. As Sean Paul performed at Elsewhere in Bushwick on April 25, the crowd reflected his fan base, spanning an international and intergenerational mix.

Paul, 49, a mellow and singular figure who’s responsible for bringing dancehall to American radio stations in the early 2000s, said that his earliest memories of Jamaican dancehall parties are from when he was 14.

He would sneak out with friends to a street party called Frontline, where they would often spot dancehall legends like Tiger and Shabba Ranks and dance under the open night sky.

“That was the one thing I didn’t like about clubs here at first,” he said. “You can’t see the stars. You can’t feel the moon, there’s no island breeze blowing on your face while you’re listening to some real, authentic rumbling bass lines.”

But when he started coming to New York in the late 1990s, he discovered a more “grimy” dancehall scene with audiences for every niche.

One of his favorite spots in the early 2000s was a two-story warehouse in Brooklyn where the parquet floors moved “at least a foot” as people danced.

“It’s the only city that I knew at the time where I was able to hit four clubs in one night,” he said before rattling off a list of the places he would visit.

“Two clubs in Jersey — one is a Jamaican club, and then one is a Guyanese club,” he said. “And then one in Brooklyn, which is a straight hardcore hip-hop type vibe, and the same thing back up in Manhattan.”

But many of the clubs that Paul remembered are now long gone. And while smaller spaces that play Caribbean music are still sprinkled around the city, there are only a handful of parties and shows that consistently bring out thousands of people.

Cathy Rodriguez, 25, who was at Ms. Milan’s yacht party last weekend, said that she’s been coming to Reggae Fest parties for years.

Often traveling up from the Washington area, where she now lives, Ms. Rodriguez said that she’ll sometimes plan her trips around the parties.

“I will legit just go out of town for Reggae Fest,” she said. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I will go see my family, of course. But I will be like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to New York and we’re going to Reggae Fest.’”

Ms. Rodriguez said that one of the main pulls of the event was the chance to hear her favorite music.

“Dancehall will always be my first baby,” she said. “Growing up in New York City, particularly in the Bronx, dancehall has always been a huge part of my life. Like my mom listens to dancehall on Sunday morning when she’s cleaning.”

And even beyond her favorite songs, what keeps Ms. Rodriguez showing up again and again is the lively dance floor.

“In the Caribbean community, we say ‘stush’ a lot, and stush basically means like, standing still,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a regular nightclub in New York City, but people are like standing still, smoking hookah — you know, they’re not really enjoying themselves to the music.”

“CJ’s vision when it comes to Reggae Fest is like, ‘I want people to come, I want people to turn up, but I want people to dance,’” she continued. “That’s why I keep going to her events, because it’s guaranteed I’m going to dance my ass off the whole night.”

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