Educating America's Youth

Dance culture has seeped inescapably into mainstream culture over the last decade. Whether it’s a commercial trying to sell a Ford Focus by making allusions to Detroit techno, or “”60 Minutes”” covering drug use at raves, the national focus has turned toward the analysis — and sometimes the deprecation — of dance culture and everything remotely connected with it. As the media sounds a cacophony over all things rave, some work in the background to ensure that those in the middle of the tug-of-war get the information they need to make informed decisions. DanceSafe answers to that description.

DanceSafe is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to harm reduction and education in the rave and club scene. Its members distribute potentially life-saving information at parties, giving partygoers an objective and nonjudgmental source to which they can turn for assistance. Headed by a national office in Oakland, Calif., DanceSafe chapters around the United States and Canada establish their presence in various cities, working to make the rave scene safer for people who choose to compliment their experience with substances.

DanceSafe representatives go to parties and clubs, handing out free information and resources ranging from substance information and earplugs to candy bracelets and condoms. The emphasis is on peer support and education, and all work is done by volunteers.

Though DanceSafe has been notorious in the recent media for its pill-testing services, members of the organization do much more than spend all night at raves telling 16-year-olds what their pills contain. However, DanceSafe has ridden to phenomenal success based upon the usefulness of this service, especially since MDMA, a psychotropic substance commonly known as ecstasy, has shot into popular use, and the fact that it is the first truly nationwide organization that effectively provides harm-reduction education to people.

New chapters spring up all the time. According to the organization’s Web site,, chapters have recently opened in New York City, Philadelphia and Calgary.

Last summer, DanceSafe gave its name to a chapter in San Diego. The chapter began as an organization called San Diego RaveSmart, covering its first event in July. In October, the group received approval to carry the DanceSafe name.

Since its inception, the San Diego chapter has met with success and positive reactions at every turn. Director Melissa Martin attributes this triumph to the chapter’s warm reception from the rave community and law enforcement.

“”The rave community in San Diego has opened [its] arms and embraced us,”” Martin said. “”We have become an integral part of the rave scene in San Diego. Out of all the chapter directors that I’ve spoken with around the country, we have had the most welcoming and easiest time of it. We’re so grateful to the rave community in San Diego for that.””

Law enforcement, too, has been welcoming to the group, showing temperance in spite of the recent hyperbolic media frenzy over the rave scene, particularly concerning substance use at parties.

“”Law enforcement has been nothing but supportive of DanceSafe, and we have not had any negative experiences with them [in San Diego],”” Martin said. “”They understand that we’re on their side. We’re there to help them do their job.””

The San Diego chapter covered its first event last July after approaching a rave promoter, who responded favorably to the idea of having a DanceSafe booth present at the event. Subsequent DanceSafe coverage has been prompted at the request of the promoters themselves.

“”We have to be invited,”” said San Diego chapter Event Coordinator Lance Kett. “”We can’t just go to a party and say ‘Hi, we’re San Diego DanceSafe. We’re going to set up now.’ The promoter has to want us there.””

The chapter typically covers one or two events per week, but its activity level depends on the activity level of the San Diego rave scene at any given time.

“”It really depends on how the rave scene is going,”” Kett said. “”Sometimes you’ll get a lot of raves going on, sometimes none for three weeks.””

In its busiest weekend to date, Kett said, the chapter covered four parties on four consecutive nights.

The challenges in maintaining a successful DanceSafe chapter, both in San Diego and nationally, have come in trying to eradicate stereotypes and misconceptions associated with the work that DanceSafe does.

In the last two weeks alone, “”The New York Times Magazine”” and “”U.S. News & World Report”” have run lengthy pieces dealing with ecstasy usage, and tangentially, the rave scene. In the last six months, “”60 Minutes,”” “”48 Hours”” and MTV have covered the rising trends of the use of ecstasy. The media has promoted awareness and misunderstanding alike.

Due to heightened interest in the trends surrounding ecstasy use — U.S. Customs officials seized 2.1 million tablets in Los Angeles last summer in a highly publicized bust — more heads are turning and more fingers are being pointed. As an organization squarely in the middle of some of the most heated controversy, DanceSafe has had to clarify its position on more than one occasion, due to false impressions spread by the media.

“”There are a lot of misconceptions about DanceSafe out there, like that we condone drug use, that we enable drug use, that we even promote drug use,”” Martin said. “”We don’t. We are a public health education organization. We are there because we’re the only ones around who are giving kids the information they need. Not only do we give them the information they need and want, we give it to them at the place where they need it the most — a party or a club — at a time when they’re most willing to listen.””

DanceSafe volunteers place emphasis on the fact that they educate the public, but they are not there to make decisions for people. Volunteers will test pills for substances, but they will not tell pill owners what they ought to do with that information.

“”We’re not there to tell them, ‘Don’t take drugs, they’re bad,'”” Kett said.

Martin addressed the common controversy that surrounds the organization.

“”The controversy comes in the fact that we give the pills back prior to doing the test,”” Martin said. This action ultimately leaves the discretion with the pill owners, who can decide whether to take the pill — ecstasy-like or not — based on the results of the tests and their own judgment.

In fact, testing methods are not specific enough to reveal many aspects of a pill’s composition. Testing will determine whether a pill has an ecstasy-like substance, but these also include MDMA’s cousins MDE, MDA and MDEA. Testing will not reveal how pure a pill is, nor whether it is safe to take. DanceSafe volunteers can tell people the facts about their pills, but they cannot decide for anyone whether to take the pill.

Pill testing has put DanceSafe at the forefront of a media storm, especially due to recent deaths across the United States associated with people who took a pill they thought contained an ecstasy-like substance but which was, in fact, something else.

Two common adulterants include DXM, a constituent of cough syrup, and PMA. Though some people enjoy the highs these drugs can provide, those who take them and expect an ecstasy-like reaction can run into difficulties taking care of themselves. The body’s reaction to these drugs is different than that of MDMA, and an unknowing user may face dangers such as heat stroke. Even more dangerous is the ingestion of MDMA and one of these substances simultaneously. Pill testing can help determine whether a pill contains a drug like PMA or DXM.

For those who do not venture out into the rave scene but who stand to benefit from the information DanceSafe provides, its Web site is a wealth of nonjudgmental assistance. Sheets decorated to look like flyers, available on the site, give factual information about the effects and legality of many substances, legal and illicit. These include substances from the commonly available on upward, such as MDMA, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, GHB, ‘shrooms, LSD, nitrous oxide, speed and cocaine. Information is also available detailing the effects of drugs marketed as ecstasy, such as DXM and PMA.

DanceSafe sponsors a nation-wide pill testing service. Users can mail in a pill anonymously and legally, and it will be tested by a Drug Enforcement Agency-approved laboratory. The results of these tests, which include a photograph, pill dimensions and substance content, are regularly posted to the Web site. For a donation of $25 or more, visitors can have a pill testing kit mailed to them.