With action momentarily stalled on Orlando's anti-rave ordinance, all eyes and dancing feet turn west this weekend – not toward Tampa, where media reports of rampant drug use helped fuel last spring's imposition of a statewide crackdown on late-night dancing in liquor-licensed clubs, but to Polk County, where an event is taking place that proves the law to be a waste of legislative zeal.
If anything points out the capriciousness of Florida's -- and, perhaps soon, Orlando's -- attempts to shut down the rave scene, it is the Zen Festival, a cultural awakening and on-into-the-morning dance party that expects to draw as many as 20,000 people to the Polk County Fairgrounds. Unlike bars that have felt the brunt of the scrutiny, the privately run fairgrounds is not licensed to sell liquor, and none will be sold at the event. Thus, its operators are not regulated by the anti-rave state law that presumes to curb parties by pulling the plug after booze sales stop.
Naturally the late-night crowd sees Zen as a test case of sorts, though the immediate battle -- over a new Polk County teen curfew that threatens to bar anyone under 17 from later portions of the festival, which is open to ages 16 and up -- is not directly related. But a fight is brewing. Tucked inside the back flap of 150,000 slick, 12-page brochures promoting Zen is a call to arms in the form of a petition urging a stand on behalf of the First Amendment and its guarantee of "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
"It is our decision and our right as citizens of the United States to dance all night," it states. "We must never lose our ability to choose."
It certainly appears that Zen is in the crosshairs. And its lineage has roots in the struggle. Bevin O'Neill, the 24-year-old co-founder and executive producer of the festival, is also a co-owner of The Club at Firestone, the landmark dance club that is the singular target of the Orlando City Council. First held two years ago at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, and repeated last year at the Volusia County Fairgrounds, Zen has never before run into challenges. But this year there have been "all different kinds," says O'Neill."I don't even want to talk about it."
But he does want to talk about the music -- performers from as far as England and Germany, with 40 dance DJs supporting the live acts on two main stages. MTV, on which Zen advertised this year, will be there. So will recording labels scouting electronica talent. Numerous corporate sponsors -- Reebok, Warner Bros., Sony Playstation -- have signed on, breaking down the promoters' previous resistance. ("Up until this point, we haven't found a company that we can be comfortable with their politics," says O'Neill. "It is a youth movement, and as we see with cigarettes, youth movements can be led in ill directions.") There is even talk that this independent event, which will outdraw the larger summer package tours striving to market electronica to the mainstream, will get a tour of its own next year.
Of course, along with it would go the heavy spiritual component -- from pre-recorded video of Timothy Leary, to "guided meditation" from the founder of the Institute of Holistic Yoga, to instruction in "Cosmic Consciousness" by Hunbatz Men -- that allows O'Neill to state, "This is as much a case about freedom of religion and free space as anything.";;By declaring as off limits any late-night venue that might want to host similar "educational entertainment," governments are telling people that they can't learn "at 3 or 4 in the morning," he says. "What if you don't get off work until midnight? What if you're a night owl? It just so happens that we want to learn about different kinds of religions and cultural activities at 3 in the morning.";;On the other hand, what if you just want to dance? Until Sept. 8, when the Orlando City Council is scheduled to act on the local ordinance that would wrest control of his building from Jon Marsa and shutter The Club at 3 a.m., you can still do it late at night downtown. And, at least for now, you can still do it on Sunday night and Monday morning at the Polk County Fairgrounds..;;Whether you'll be able to do it much longer, however, is anybody's guess.