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Photo by Celine Rahman

Syracuse resident Ryland Heagerty wanted a place to dance in Syracuse where she and her friends could feel safe and free of harassment. A space with explicit values that make everyone feel comfortable. But she couldn’t find a venue like this in Syracuse.

So she did something about it.

Heagerty created Dreamland Syracuse, which has recently begun hosting donation-based, monthly dance parties for the Syracuse community to safely enjoy at Apostrophe’ S art gallery. With a mission statement that declares the dance parties to be a place where everyone feels welcome, Dreamland shows people that they can dance and have fun on their own terms.  

And Heagerty thinks these dance parties are a great way to engage with the community. “It’s just kind of like this fun celebration of people coming together in a different way,” Heagerty said.

About three years ago Heagerty started a workshop series under the same name — Dreamland — where artists could share their skills, she said. Then, last year the workshop took another name called the Fem Works Collective where Heagerty organized the weeklong schedule of events, she explained. But she wanted to get the community involved in the missions of these workshops in ways that don’t have a strong presence in the city — dancing.

From that idea, Heagerty put the word out online and received an outpour of comments and messages of people who wanted to help or contribute, she said. Director of Apostrophe’ S Holly Wilson quickly reached out to Heagerty’s message, offering up her art gallery as a venue for the dance parties, Wilson said.

Heagerty attributes this strong interest in her project to the lack of spaces for dancing in the area outside of a bar setting, she added.

So far, Dreamland has hosted two parties, with the latest one occurring last month. The goal of these dance parties is to construct a safe space where people can be themselves and dance without fear of harassment or uncomfortable interactions, Heagerty explained. Dreamland posts its mission statement right as guests walk through the doors of Apostrophe’ S with phrases like “no unsolicited touching” and “respect each other.” And so many people feel that there isn’t a safe place to dance in Syracuse with clear boundaries, Heagerty said. Dreamland gives the Syracuse community another option.  

For Heagerty, a major deterrent for her to go out around the city to dance is that it often feels hypersexualized. “Sometimes you just want to go and close your eyes and act like a freak,” she said, “and not worry about being attractive to someone else or worry about somebody not respecting your boundaries, whatever those might be.”

Because so many of the people who attend these parties have a prior understanding of what behavior is not tolerated, there is a respectful, positive atmosphere to these events, Heagerty explained. It hasn’t been difficult to keep her dance parties a safe space, she added.

But to ensure that this inclusivity and safety sticks around for the entire night, Heagerty casually walks around the venue and makes sure that people are comfortable. She makes eye contact with those who are dancing with people they might not have come to the party with, she said.

For party-goer and artist Celine Rahman, a place to dance like Dreamland has been a long time coming for the city. “My first impression was, finally,” Rahman said. “Finally a place to dance.”

Rahman loves dancing for herself and by herself, but there’s always what she calls a “dark shadow” lurking in the background, she said. To Rahman, there’s such a prominent fear of unwanted touching and harassment when dancing out with friends. She feels that Dreamland is a small step towards a larger conversation in Syracuse, Rahman explained.  

For over ten years, Rahman and her friends have been going to the same bars to dance, and they just crave something more, she said.

Syracuse resident Amanda Eicholzer believes that Dreamland is that something more. “There hasn’t been a place that I felt comfortable to go no matter what,” Eicholzer said. “No matter who I am, how old I am, what music I like.”

Not only does this place to dance aim to give the whole community a safe night out, its decorations also separate itself from the rest of the Syracuse music and bar scenes. Party-attendee and Syracuse University student Sarah Bennett said it was a sensory overload when she walked into Apostrophe’ S at the start of the night. There was music playing, people dancing and lights illuminating the entire space.

Heagerty’s vision for Dreamland last month was that dancers would feel like they were inside of a cloud, she said. To achieve this immersive experience, Heagerty and her team set up projections, mylar and lights all over the walls, she explained. And they inflated white balloons and constructed lanterns with LED lights that were then wrapped with batting material and cotton to look like clouds, Heagerty added.

Bennett believes that there’s nothing in the city quite like these dance parties. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I’ve never seen another event as well-organized and exciting at the same time,” she said.

Along with its creative decorations, Dreamland’s music keeps Apostrophe’ S packed throughout the night. DJ Trumastr, who has DJ’d for both dance parties, plays music ranging from Cardi B to Queen and everything in between, Heagerty said. And with such a great turnout for Dreamland’s party in November, Rahman said she remembers the windows fogging up in the space because of all the people dancing.

Though many of Heagerty’s friends showed up to the second party on Nov. 23, there were plenty of new faces from the Syracuse community who showed up to dance, Heagerty said. She loves seeing people she doesn’t know come out to these parties. In November, the first three people who arrived were strangers who immediately took to the dance floor as people funneled in during the first hour of the night, she recalled. And they stayed for the whole night, Heagerty added.

To Wilson, it’s great that no one gets turned away from these dance parties and that her gallery is available to the entire community in a different way. “It’s a fun get-together, and everyone can have a good time,” she added. “It’s a little less high pressure than if you’re at a bar and have to pay $15 to get in.”

Bennett, Eicholzer and Rahman all recommend that people attend Dreamland’s dance parties, they said. “Everyone is welcome to come and be themselves,” Rahman added.  

The next one is already in the works for January at Apostrophe’ S, Heagerty said. But the theme is a secret for now. She thinks that the dance parties will keep getting bigger each month as more people in the community help her, she added.

Looking towards the future, Heagerty said she would like to have Dreamland move around like pop-up shows, just as she had originally envisioned. She’s also open to partnering with other groups and people who want to help her bring her vision to life, she explained.

And for Heagerty, it’s all about giving her community a secure, fun place to dance. “As far as I know, there aren’t really spaces for dancing that are talking about these things. That are trying to promote a feeling of safety and inclusivity and intersectionality,” Heagerty said. “That it’s safe to be who you are and not worry about being harassed.”