For a week in July, hundreds of people gather in a small community camping out creekside in the foothills of Placerville to get away from it all. Enlightenment seekers call it Massive, though the movement is better known as Alt Blues Recess making its way through the Northwest, Aspen, Portland, London, Drift Creek and now California. In the one-hundred-and five-degree heat, people relax in the river. Next to them stands a dance hall and a bridge with white tissue paper scribbled with intentions.
“Recess has been going on for seven years now with some 17+ official events held over that period. This year I am throwing seven events, it’s kind of crazy,” says event organizer Justin Riley. “We called it Massive because it’s the only one we let get big.”
“I won’t ever throw the same event twice, so that means changing both vision and location. California is beautiful and we had an enormous dance community we wanted to welcome into the Recess family. Once people find us they either decide that it isn’t for them, or they fall in love,” Riley adds.
To fund events, Riley charges for entry on a sliding scale. In the past, he says he has funded some of the events himself but that doesn’t happen anymore.
“Letting people who can’t afford a low-income ticket name their own price makes effective accounting difficult,” he explains. “These events live off of share ideals more than anything else.”
“My first Recess was Urban Blues Recess in Portland. I’ve since been to Lost Valley, Drift Creek, and Aspen,” says Oakland resident Shawn Lesniak, who taught cuddle-wrestling workshops at Recess. He got the idea from teaching acrobatics, circus work and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with another instructor in Oakland. He was also a street medic at Occupy Oakland.
“Recess is great because there are great leaders with infectious positive energy [...] Sure, there are people who want to insult other people because they are afraid because someone does not fit the mold. The mold is stifling and boring. I wanted to see more individuals not caricatures,” Lesniak says.
“The water and pebbles tickled my toes. I jumped right into the experiment. I felt really safe,” Rachel Kern, 27 a graphic design student at The California College of the Arts says. “I was in between jobs and wanted to immerse myself in something new. It’s been a curiosity to explore a polyamory culture.” She says the first thing she noticed at camp were the signs to the bathrooms illustrated in pictures: Shirts. Pants. Whatever. Human.
“Dance reduced my anxiety better than any prescription. When I’m around people, I forget what I had been worried about,” Kern says.
Camp is an escape into a nomad culture at least for a short while, participants say. Occupants share housing, food, and skills. A volunteer kitchen staff prepares the meals of the day starting with coffee, cheesy grits, and slices of fruit. After breakfast, yoga starts.
Throughout the day, there are several workshops on blues, tango for fusion dancers, and skits on acceptance and consent. They also offer how to improvise music over deejay sets, a library, a photography class, partner stretching and storytelling. Dinner follows the workshops then a late-night snack.
Reeva Bradley, 27, a graduate student in psychology at U.C. Berkeley, is here to teach a couple of dance workshops with her partner Jasmine Herrick. In Berkeley, they host a weekly fusion dance event called Soul Food Berkeley at The Pacific School of Religion on Tuesday night influenced by Recess.
“I learned that I really do have something to offer the community,” Bradley says. She led a discussion group called ‘Feeling It,’ a support group for people who were experiencing emotional difficulty at Massive. “It was open to anything, really, we wanted a conversation for the experiences that people were having and identify some emotional themes. We agreed to keep the content confidential,” she says.
Reflecting on her polyamorous experiment, Kern says, “strong emotional connections with others is common in this scene, sparks can fly. It’s easy to feel rejected when you are no longer acknowledged by your crush. There can be hurt feelings.”
Music plays a big part in the weeklong event. Deejays from Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles play more than a dozen genres of electronica including a technique called looping where recorded sound is reproduced then repeated in a measure. Musician Milo Walker-Hayden, also known as Mr. Moo, improvises live instruments over electronica beats. Ashley Wright, a music teacher from Eugene, Ore., plays the melodica, a free-reed instrument similar to a harmonica with a keyboard. Camille Charlier, a pen and ink sketch artist from Seattle, plays a pocket trumpet in a school bus that’s been transformed into a large group’s means of transportation.
Violinist Ryan Avery, also known as Chances End, whose studio is based in San Francisco, shares live songs from his third album “Down the Doors.”
After the weeklong event, Riley writes everyone who took part in Massive. “I have always said that these events are not just parties, but rather they are a single piece of a much larger cultural project. I saw that more than ever this year, so thank you.”
The next recess in California will be Gender Bender Recess Workshop on Dec. 13-17 in San Francisco. Other events this year include Northwest Blues Recess in Au.g 15-18 in Bellingham, Wash. and Aspen Blues Recess Sept. 26-20 in Colo.