A shirtless gentleman wearing too many glowing bracelets smirks at me as I emerge bewildered from a sweaty crowd of dancers onto an unlit, tree lined bike path. It’s the mainline connecting Cherry Beach proper to the wooded enclosure that hosts Promise, Toronto’s weekly electronic dance music party that over the years has found a special spot in the hearts of EDM lovers. This is my first time here and my general air of naivety is exposing me as a newbie to veterans like bracelet guy.
From 3 to 11pm every Sunday (or Labour Day Monday, in this case), DJs and producers come here to cap off the weekend to hundreds of fans. To those in the know, Promise is seen as one of the shiniest gems in the city, earning big clout for its unique atmosphere and occasionally pulling in big names like Skrillex. On this final party of the year, the lineup includes St Mandrew, hugsnotdrugs, Tricky Moreira, Martin Fazekas, and others popular in the underground techno and house scene. It makes for a less aggressive, but still thoroughly intense vibe.
A mix of beach bohemia and nightclub raving, Promise highlights a disparity in EDM scenesters – between those who come for the music, and those who come for the party. It does this while mushing both groups together into one sticky, messy, kickass night of dancing.
Promise organizers David Macleod and Irving Shaw don’t advertise the party as a way to continue the over-indulgence of Friday and Saturday night. To many here, Promise is way to unwind at the end of the weekend. Kids are welcome and there are more than a few to be seen throughout the crowd of hundreds. I even spot baby strollers. One woman clutches a small dog that is utterly freaked out by the lights and music. Glowsticks are everywhere.
The hippie contingent – the sort of people who are open to bringing their babies to an underground electronic dance party, turn out to be some of the friendliest in the crowd. Three friends sitting in a circle by the water tell me they come here every week. I ask one of them, a girl with dyed-orange hair introducing herself as Amy, if she’ll be drinking as Promise ramps up.
“No,” Amy says. “We just come to dance.”
The family-friendly atmosphere doesn’t encompass the entire party, though. Walking along the bike path away from the beach, bass can be heard thumping from a distance. Two 20-something guys pass me – one is asking the other for drugs. In the parking lot there are scattered groups of people hanging out; some are boozing openly.
Walking over to meet one of these groups, a guy named Ali loudly explains to his friend and me how “shit gets fucking bomb” after nine o’clock. They’re both taking occasional swigs from tallboys.
So on one hand, Promise has this crowd of flower-children that are easy going and free spirited. They bring their kids, chill on beach towels, and dance in the shallows of the water if they’re not enjoying the music front and centre. They dance because they’re feeling it and don’t need any chemical encouragement. In light of this, the rougher side of the dance scene becomes easier to spot: the hardcore partiers drinking in the parking lot; the muscle-heads swaggering in with clear intentions of picking up; the disheveled-looking guy dancing his face off in a corner by himself. I’m not certain the last one is indicative of drug use, but it’s probably indicative of some damn drug use.
I don’t want to emphasize the negatives. Mostly what you’ll find at Promise is great EDM and good people having fun. Many are just like me, checking out Promise for the first time and witnessing the cool factor first hand. The organizers do a good job of filtering trouble at the entrance, letting the rules be known, and running the night smoothly week after week, year after year. Its reputation overall is a special one. And that definitely rings true, if you don’t mind dancing around the seedy bits that are very much a part of the electronic music scene.
In any case, it’s a hell of a way to “unwind” before another week of work.
While Promise may be done for 2014, you can head to Dave and Irving’s upcoming Harvest Festival on Sept. 12-14 to get your dance fix.