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Fire, flames and the wizard at Dancefestopia

There’s No Bass Like Home | Dancefestopia’s Emerald City is the Midwest’s EDM Gem

by Speed Raver

Growing My Own Festival Life Alongside Dancefestopia

As a Kansas City native, I have a special place in my heart for Dancefestopia. The inaugural edition in 2012 took place over my 19th birthday, right after I graduated high school, and was my first-ever music festival. In 2015 it became an official staple of my music life, having come into its own with a well-rounded variety of EDM artists who notably developed my personal electronic music taste. It was also the first time Bassnectar blew my mind. During his set I found the hardest-partying dancers – the Trippin’ Stewie squad – and in joining them I gained a fresh set of friends who became my DFT Fam for the next couple of years. 

Dancefestopia followed the Missouri River from its small park location just north of downtown KC to a bigger riverside venue outside of the city in 2016. The first night hosted the most insane lightning storm I’ve ever seen, which begot the infamous Swampfestopia – an ungodly muddy landscape that we adapted to for a memorably messy yet still gloriously good time. A chicken displaced by the storm was adopted by our camp neighbor and named Paco Taco, turning into a miraculous mascot for the weekend that happily stood on a totem’s pole and raged with the ravers in the audience for two days. 

A failed date with a romantic interest at this DFT taught me to avoid the trappings of basic women and fueled my focus on creatively exploring and capturing the Festival Realm – planting the seeds that would soon take root to birth my alter ego and set my career trajectory in motion. The production level expanded in 2017 and I returned to Dancefestopia for the first time as the Superhero of the Dancefloor, Speed Raver, with a sidekick-protogé to boot. I proudly harnessed an enhanced charisma alongside numerous hometown friends while putting Speed Raver out there to many new ones for the event’s all-time dopest lineup – including the heralds of Wakaan, the almighty Nectar, the terrific Tiësto and a culminating “Sandstorm” from Darude.

Considering the ubiquitous association of Kansas with “The Wizard of Oz”, moving the KC-area festival an hour southwest last year – across the state line toward the Kansas country – saw Dancefestopia establish itself with a fully-formed identity in an ideal venue. Merging its heavy-wub-leaning electronic lineup with an Oz aesthetic and theme was a brilliant rebranding move that utilizes the Midwest’s most iconic piece of pop culture in an unexpected environment. Oddly enough, it fits just right, and I found myself endeared to this Emerald City over any other version. With luminous dance magic, I spread the legend of Speed Raver across a now much more fantastical setting that brought out a bevy of colorful characters unlike ever before. 

Homecoming

Since I became Speed Raver, Dancefestopia has been the festival where I’m emboldened to most effectively step up my operation to self-actualizing new heights. This is my first year attending after officially moving away from my hometown and having, at last, turned my festival passions and imaginative self-expression into a real gig and full-time lifestyle. The superheroics are at their realest now that, like Clark Kent (a fellow Kansas native) and Peter Parker, I’m also writing about and photographing my adventures – so I’m bringing my A-game back to where this journey all started. 

Stopping at Walmart for food on the drive there, I introduce myself to Jacque and her friend, who are part of a crew that all met at Dancefest in 2018 and are camping together this year. I tell them about my journalist side and the revolutionary Electric Forest masterpiece I released earlier in the day, and as I can tell we’ll be buddies, then disclose my true identity of Speed Raver. “You were the guy running around in the crazy lights?? We remember you!” Ah, good, my reputation precedes me. I tell them to say hi when they see me glowing in the night this time, and we part ways. Upon arriving and parking 40 minutes later, I start unloading – then they pull up next to me. They give me a beer to commemorate our friendship and we head in.

Beyond the RV and field camping lies the forest, where letters hanging from the trees along the trail simplify navigation through the woods. Unlike the common camping layout of sectioned rows in a field that many festivals employ, attendees have free range to set up nearly anywhere they choose in the absorbing woodland here – making the camping environment far more interesting. The shade of the forest lowers the temperature to a cooler, more manageable degree, and I find my way to the prime camping zone of my traveling-festival-vendor, benevolent-hippie, KC friend Nova – who’s finishing her Cowardly Lion look – and her group.

Wicked Wakaan of the West

The only real disappointment of Dancefestopia 2018 was its Circus Records Thursday night pre-party of underwhelming dubstep from Flux Pavilion, Doctor P, Funtcase and Cookie Monsta – which all sounded pretty much the same after an hour. However, the pre-party opens proceedings with a vengeance this time around as Liquid Stranger and his Wakaan label’s takeover instigate a tornado of galvanizing freeform bass music. I listen to TYNAN from camp while setting up and the low-frequency womps tell me I’m not in Kansas anymore as the sun sets. Dorothy says as much herself when I see “The Wizard of Oz” being projected in the white-picket-fenced, hang-out art-garden area next to the campsite.

The technicolor shine of Excalibur, my LED-lined Halo sword totem, cuts through the darkness to guide me out of the woods and across the pond, stirring the excitement of festing-newbie-youngins along the way. I share wisdom and encouragement with these munchkins for how Dancefestopia fertilized my music festival passion and shall serve as an opportune foundation for them.

On my approach to the familiar yet upgraded main stage, the trippy tangerine bass-waves of LSDREAM awake me from the initial exhaustion of getting ready, arriving and setting up ­– sliding me into the vivacity and vivid wackiness of this EDM arena that I thrive in. Two girls carry big plush sloths on their shoulders and I must know – what are their names? “This is Solomon, that’s Cecil.” Then the Swedish space alien himself, Liquid Stranger, beams down to the decks to unleash deep-bass bangers from the far-side of the galaxy. Woozy subs chop the beats, a horse neighs to punctuate building layers, and I turn around to see a massive inflated minion costume bobbling hilariously.

Collaborate with the Paint Boss

I discover my homie Joey O’Hara and his brother Tommy stationed back right with a couple seats, painting supplies, four canvases joined as one and various vibrant shapes taking form and detail in front of them as a vision of the hive mind. I last saw Joey at the end of the previous DFT, finishing up a live-painting that made my jaw drop as he switched places of the two linked canvases and they connected with detailed, abstract psychedelia on each side. I haven’t seen Tommy in about a decade, and he joyfully explains his brother’s ambitious art project while Joey zones in with two other attendees next to him, who are adding to the left canvases.

Earlier in the summer, they took a nine-piece painting of the same size to two different festivals, inviting those who stopped to admire to collaborate and add some new ideas or details to one of the panels while Joey constantly worked on the whole thing. It has nine different configurations where the canvases can swap placement and still cohesively, precisely bleed into one another. This new piece is the second in a planned series of four, all to be done at various music festivals.

As Liquid Stranger & Space Jesus’ “Space Boss” elastically zips up and down, Joey rises and gives me a hug, then throws his arms around to the billowing, zooming gusto of the song. In his delightful Swedish accent and goofy demeanor, Liquid Stranger playfully introduces Champagne Drip then brings LSDREAM back for a b2b between the three of them after his hour set – for 30 more deviously dynamic minutes on the main stage. I dive into the heart of the crowd and slyly pop up next to AA-Ron, who can’t believe the sight of Speed Raver with the legendary sword out of nowhere. Then our brains can’t believe our ears, as the b2b2b melts our minds like water droplets reverberating on the booming center of a speaker.

Linking Up at Lollipop

Dancefestopia has had a secondary, smaller tent stage that keeps the party alive till post-5 a.m. since its early days (honestly impressive for a fest of this size); this year that has finally evolved into a real outdoor stage with badass visuals and plenty of open room. While packing up to move over there, Joey demonstrates how the four panels line up to reveal different imagery. In just tonight, a lot of the white space has been filled and each version already locks together in bogglingly cool ways.

Lucii christens the new Lollipop stage with a set that weaves between lighter solar-system-cruising and dubstep drives through rough asteroid fields. I spot Link from “Legend of Zelda” running about and know it to be Mikey, a fellow Denverite and costumed crusader that I finally have the pleasure of meeting in person. He says he commits to the character every day at every festival he attends – indeed, a true warrior. 

In the confusing switch from Lucii to LUZCID, the deep-bass blowout grows heavier and Excalibur makes an attention-grabbing impression amidst the wonky-wub enthusiasts. A wook mage immediately mesmerized by its radiance comes to bask in its glow, and I test out his magic staff while he describes the attached trinkets, crystals and accursed items powering it ­– including a Special K cereal spoon housed within a full wookie’s dread that was cut off in a heady trade. “That spoon is never to actually be used though,” he stresses.

Encountering my friend Danielle – one of the veteran ravers and most reliable devotees of Kansas City electronic music shows – invigorates me with nostalgia for this scene as we catch up and get down to the drippy bass euphony of Champagne Drip. Eventually, I go chill at the back with the O’Hara brothers and designate them as my command post within the venue for the weekend. Watching a good friend and artist I support tackle such a uniquely interactive and radical passion project evinces my beliefs in the Festival Realm as a place to make your dreams a reality. The way Joey’s art invites onlookers to tap into their creativity, right here in-the-moment, proves especially satisfying.

Golden Hour Wubz > Said the Sky Sunset

By the time I arrive for Blunts & Blondes on Friday, the continued evolution of Joey’s painting – just since we went to bed following the Wakaan Takeover – is miraculous to behold. So I bring my friend Grant from the last two DFTs, who appears suddenly in his Jesus Christ mode with a full beard, long hair and wearing all white, to bless it. To balance the Buddha split across two panels, he adds a cross above it on the dividing line, subtly infusing the spiritual iconography amidst the hodgepodge of psychedelic shapes. 

We woogie to the melodic dub and bass-distortion of Blunts & Blondes in the soothing light of golden hour, until the sun passes the horizon and Said the Sky starts an airy sunset set of light harmonies and “emotional” tracks. I lack any interest in this music so I just people-watch – the KFC crew toting a bucket-of-rubber-chickens totem and a Colonel Sanders in their ranks crack me up – and capture the bubbly bliss with my camera before hitting camp in preparation for the evening. 

Click through to see more than 225 pictures I shot at Dancefestopia 2019.

Wild Fire and the Wobble Master

I’m enveloped in the enchanting grooves and uplifting lyrics of Big Wild upon my return, chasing the illuminating flow of fire performers in the back of the crowd. Over by the giant face of the Wizard, I enter a fascinating conversation with two other visual illusionists: my college filmmaking-friend Sam and magnificent artist Clair Voyage. Clair details her recent journey through numerous marvelous countries and locales all over the world, profoundly expressing the wonder and fulfillment it graced upon her spirit. The amount of adventure and extraordinary living she’s already experienced at only 21 – more than many have in a lifetime – is truly awe-inspiring. 

Activating the LED strips velcroed to my arm sleeves and swimming along with Excalibur, Speed Raver plunges into the 90-minute, headlining set of Belgian dubstep duo Ganja White Night. Less headbang-heavy, more wobble-centric and featuring anime-like visuals and storytelling, they inhabit a more easily digestible zone on the dub spectrum that rolls out the rhythms with euphonious tunes and gut-gripping bass. 

I carve up the viscous reverberations of “Wobble Master” with Tommy – whose wild’n-out movements go so HAM that he fearlessly topples over – then bump my body to the deep beats as I befriend Pokémaster Yuki and her womp-reveling group. I also chill with a couple carrying a dino-piñata-head chomping a taco, because a totem like that obviously indicates cool people.

Reunion in Wonderland

Weaving from the right side of the audience to the left edge, I lovingly reunite with two of my closest KC homies and Electric Forest allies: Raina and John. Raina and I worked on our high school newspaper together and were friends then, but it was DFT 2015 where I first met her boyfriend John and they introduced me to the group that they grew into the roles of rave mom and dad for  – which ultimately became my KC Vibe Tribe. So we enjoy a trip down memory lane with one another before sliding into the rabbit hole of Alison Wonderland’s set. 

I’ve had ambivalent feelings about Alison for several years, appreciating her aesthetic and a couple original songs but generally finding her sound too driven by mainstream pop. I’ve also been weary of her sets supposedly lacking much variance from one to another (a common criticism of REZZ as well), but this is my first time seeing her in person so I’ll give her a fair shot. She swings and sways us through a distinctly pre-planned yet engrossingly moody production of electropop, future bass and trap that often hews too close to basic EDM to entice me – or only sporadically does. But for 20 or so minutes she charges forward unencumbered by her typical style, spinning high-energy electro house akin to Oliver Heldens that amps me into action.

A fiery mix of HI-LO’s “Renegade Mastah”, followed by a combo of Cirez D’s “On/Off” and Green Velvet & Harvard Bass’ “Lazer Beams”, kick Speed Raver into a swirling romp of delirious dance magic. Alison’s dashes of stirring chillwave, like Mura Masa’s “Lotus Eater” accompanied by synced clips of Ron Burgundy on jazz flute, produce moments of majesty. Her recognition and promotion of healthily dealing with anxiety and depression, and spunky, slightly awkward Australian persona prove endearing enough that I can take her seriously in spite of weaker elements, and see a solid potential for her future that might eventually live up to the hype surrounding her.

Aerial-Fire-Dance

A new area for this year behind the main stage hosts both the Pyromid stage (enshrouded in supremely trippy projection mapping) and the ReKinection stage, where DJs play from the back of an engaging dome while flow performers get in their zone in the open range outside of it. Russ Liquid lays down far-out funk as I relax on the ground and encounter Jacque, for the second time since we entered the woods Thursday. Our random meetings have turned into a recurring joke. We luxuriate in the wonky sounds, sharing tales of festival ridiculousness and watching lasers draw upon the tree canopy until aerial and fire dancers take over the performance area right of the stage, where I go sit by the fire pit and stare with rapt attention. 

Link and his wife Theresa take a seat and we discuss our backstories into, and glories of, costumed-character festing – as well as unique dynamics this approach engenders (like effortlessly being able to initiate a conversation with virtually any attendee). As we broach advanced prop-creation (he attaches lights to his sword and shield on occasion), I break down the inner-workings of my LED supersuit and what makes Excalibur the perfect totem: lightweight flow, iconic nostalgia and badass LEDs. Link pulls out a pouch of diamond-shaped rupees (the currency from “Legend of Zelda”) that he had 3D-printed, and bestows Speed Raver with one as a token of our friendship.

Stepping to the other side of the flames for a better camera angle, I’m extremely pleased to discover E-Blevs, a mythical KC party pixie I met once or twice nine years ago, but had yet to run across since she came into her own as a free-flying faerie in the Festival Realm. To snap a photo of the aerial-hoop dancer ahead of us, I support my arms on the object next to a log seat – which happens to be a friend of E-Blevs laying on the ground, covered by a blanket. “Excuse me…”, she speaks up. “Sorry, I thought you were a rock.” “Oh, great, a rock is exactly the look I’m going for,” she sardonically replies, initiating one of the funniest and sassiest ongoing jokes of the fest.

E-Blevs commentates/reacts to the dexterous feats of the Phlox Fire performers with giddy, amusing enthusiasm, amplifying the immediacy and impressive spectacle. The spinning, chained fireball, light-streaking fire fan, gyrating fire hoop, twirling fire staffs (particularly the balanced full rotation of a staff on one’s dread-head), whirling fire poi, and Darth Maul-esque, double-sided fire saber – in the hands of these experts – leave us wowed with eyes ablaze. The aerial silks performer prompts me to stretch as she winds this exhibition down with daring splits and uncompromising flexibility before I head over to the Lollipop stage. 

Fire performers at ReKinection stage

Late-Night Connection and Lollipop Treats

Kaivon is delivering throwbacks that smack as I arrive, with the build of System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” (my middle school alarm-clock song) ramping up into a furiously heavy dub-barrage. Even doper, he digs up the old-school groove of Eminem’s Without Me, kinetically escalates the BPM, then unleashes Liquid Stranger & Space Jesus’ “Dragonhawks” in a drop so savage that the crowd erupts in screaming hysterics. 

A girl named Laura, a bit of a late-bloomer to the Festival Realm who’s heartily absorbing her first music festival experience, stops me to learn more about this landscape from a shining star living his best life. I am all too happy to highlight how Dancefestopia can serve as an eye-opening induction into this fulfilling culture, and freeing shift in perspective/one’s own existence. Upon delving into how I not only found my true self but also aligned with my highest path through festing, I explain my journalism background, which I didn’t think I’d explicitly utilize, and how I ultimately forged my own career path through that.

Laura works in journalism education and before long, we realize our high school journalism professors – the most influential teacher in each of our lives, respectively – are the married couple leading the journalism programs at two different schools in the Shawnee Mission, Kansas, district. That tidbit verifies her underlying skill and potential capability as a writer, since anyone that thrived there can thrive in this field. So I encourage her to pursue writing about festivals from a newcomer’s view, confident she could achieve such a goal if she so desires and commits to it.

E-Blevs’ friend hilariously whispers “Now I’m a moving rock” upon passing me, and I get up for the superb house jams of Treasure Fingers. Dancefestopia’s lineup predominantly focuses on heavier bass and dubstep, but injects bouncing house and techno late at night – and I am absolutely here for it. Afterward, I join the O’Hara brothers at the Pyromid stage, where Joey’s painting attracts more attention than the music, and the canvases have, remarkably, been almost completely filled. It’s like looking at the membrane of an abstract, multicolor brain MRI that pulsates with an artist’s visual projections. 

Joey and a collaborator painting at the Pyromid stage

Back at camp, “The Peanuts Movie” screens from the projector in the garden, Nova leads me to a righteous renegade set at the RVs, and we snack on pistachios, slap the bag, and continue dancing until it begins raining at 6 a.m. I giggle at the sight of our goofiest campmate, tripping still and cracking up by himself to a “Madagascar” sequel in the garden, then I pass out before the sun sneaks into the sky.

Yellow Bass Road and the ATLiens Among Us

Saturday I walk through the garden on my way in and happen upon the Yellow Brick Road. True to form, it shortcuts closer to the entrance and I provide some curious munchkins with a history lesson on DFT’s unconventional origin. Its peculiar initial incarnation included Wiz Khalifa, Flo Rida, Matisyahu, 2 Live Crew and 3OH!3 as headliners, with some electronic pop and lesser-known DJs in the mix for an off-kilter yet undeniably fun weekend. Witnessing the Australian, big-booty ratchet-rap of Iggy Azalea at 4 p.m. was an unforgettably weird occurrence back in 2012, yet reminds me how much Dancefestopia has grown from those messy beginnings. 

As extraterrestrial frequencies and reality-warping, devious trap bass rattle upon my eardrums, I’m bewildered by an omen of the day’s craziness to come. A naked guy slowly marches forward and scans his surroundings like a Terminator fresh out of the time-travel sphere – or just way too lost in the sauce. I spot Clair Voyage near the vendors, live-painting a massive, luscious piece of two lovers kissing with their faces separated from their bodies, symbolizing a relationship they had to detach from and move on. I compliment the beauty of her artistry and comment on the box housing an enormous kandi collection. She grins and retrieves a florid, extravagant cuff then places it upon my arm, a gesture I’m touched by and immensely grateful for.

For once, I get to hang with my campmates inside the venue thanks to the codename messages transmitted over their walkie talkies, from which I gathered their location before venturing out. Joey is stationed nearby so I take them to behold and collaborate on his increasingly mystifying composition. Then I zip around to infernal, unreleased ATLiens IDs and the swooshing bass melodies of Delta Heavy, connecting with numerous old friends, many new ones from the past 48 hours, and meeting the Rave Spider. Seeing him twirling nun-chucks in a golden Iron Spider jumpsuit, I introduce myself and extend an invitation to join my squad of the League of Extraordinary Dancers for a monstrous midnight throwdown.

KC Mob Funks It Up

With Saturday being my most anticipated night, I head back to camp to don my LED supersuit, cast power upgrade spells and transform into the real Wizard of Oz: Doctor StrangeLamb, Sorcerer of the Dancefloor. A surge of frenzied dance magic sparks forth as I stomp around to the dirty electro and robo-laser dubstep of Space Laces, who rains heavy-bass cannon-fire down upon Emerald City. Trampa b2b SKisM dispatch an even more rabid yet obnoxious assault that forgoes much sense of rhythm. 

Luckily, the Lollipop stage is blasting off with a DJ set from Kansas City band Recycled Funk, rallying a rollicking audience of fervent locals thankful for a funky-fresh change of pace and respite from the dubstep. This opportunity to vibe in my element with so many of my KC friends is the kind of moment I live for at Dancefestopia. About the only KC staple missing is Danielle, who I find amidst the horde at Zomboy and join her in flitting around with ritualistic, voodoo-like movements. Unfazed by the ominous face of the Wizard gazing right at us, I shout back with a challenge: “Who’s the Wizard now, bitch?!”

Doctor StrangeLamb and the League vs. Trap Master Grime

Highlights from RL Grime’s set

Although I remember Zomboy melting my face off years ago, I had lumped him in with the majority of dubstep artists who no longer really appeal to me. Yet I’m gradually opening back up to that arena again, latching onto adjacent styles and variations such DJs also inhabit. As Zomboy besieges the Emerald stage with an influx of drum and bass, electro house, glitch and trap combos, I realize what a deeper convergence of genre flavors UK dubstep generally mixes into its primary course. So I tune into the beat blitz and slash my way towards home base with the almighty strength of Excalibur.

While I’m recharging with Joey and Tommy, the League of Extraordinary Dancers assembles. At Electric Forest I recruited DJ, a cyberpunk warrior known as Faurien, and he leads his squad my way with the lightsaber he crafted and customized himself (like the real Jedi used to do). We enter the fray and secure a battle-ready position, whereupon the Rave Spider swings in and activates his LED poi nun-chucks. Trap Master RL Grime’s “I Wanna Know (feat. Daya)” soulfully stirs the hype and so begins the main event of the weekend.

Grime rides in on a bass-driven dub banger before unassumingly introducing himself, then lays a booming trap card with his edit of G Jones‘ “In Your Head” that explodes in a fierce barrage of sonic rockets. His future-bass build-ups send hair-raising chills and vigorous feels through the crowd while thunderously roaring drops like “Pressure” smash us all to glorious bits. Rave Spider proves his black-belt mettle like an EDM Bruce Lee, Doctor StrangeLamb attacks with an intensity akin to a “Soul Calibur” duel, and Faurien minces the competition like a skywalking ninja. Grime’s trap sensibilities still reign supreme, but it’s the surprising number of electro-house drops that bounce us into the beyond, solidifying this set as the most gratifying and electrifying of DFT.

We’re so blown away by the end that DJ, his crew and I spend an hour relaxing, recuperating and relishing the afterglow of the experience before moving on to the zesty, wangin’ bass house of Matroda at Lollipop. When approached by a trio of first-time festers in search of something deeper, Doctor StrangeLamb dishes ancient wisdom to help them understand this realm better and level up faster. 

“Think of music festivals like Dungeons and Dragons in a real-life environment. Present yourself as whatever character you wish to be. Go on wacky adventures with your party crew. Let your imagination loose, unshackle yourself from the limiting perspective of everyday society and create your own reality. This is where you shall discover liberation.”

Rave Spider and Doctor StrangeLamb take on RL Grime

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