This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife in New York City.
CJ Milan was running around a yacht just after midnight on Sunday, handing out hundreds of foam glow sticks.
“When the boat starts moving, we play soca music,” she said with a mischievous smile, pausing for a moment to watch the dance floor. “It gets everyone up.”
Ms. Milan ran Yacht Fete, a 1,000-person reggae, dancehall, soca and afrobeats party that takes place monthly on the Hudson River.
The yacht is just one of the venues she uses to host her recurring Reggae Fest dance parties, which she started hosting in New York City in 2015.
Dancehall, a byproduct of reggae music with faster tempos and the cadence of hip-hop, emerged from Jamaica in the late 1970s.
And New York’s dancehall parties, which are often hosted by and for the city’s large Caribbean communities, bring people together on blazing dance floors where they can whine, stab, line dance and split in two.
Ms. Milan, who estimates she’s drawn more than 170,000 people to New York’s Reggae Fest events over the past seven years, has since expanded parties to Washington, DC, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
But even as she expands her reach, she still seeks to satisfy New York’s picky crowds.
“New York is a different kind of tour,” she said. “We have so much more to cover musically because our city is so diverse.”
She said that at each of her parties, she tries to have a DJ team ready to play the type of music that the crowd reacts to most strongly that night.
Marvin Smith, known at Reggae Fest as DJ Legend, said he plays everything from reggaeton to dancehall to get people moving.
“When I see hairstyles sweating, when I see people looking around like, ‘Where are my keys? Who’s got my phone?'” Mr. Smith said. mission accomplished.”
And Ms. Milan said they try to put something in the mix for every type of listener.
“Dancehall has different levels – some are hardcore,” she said, which often appeals to a younger generation. “But then you get the older generation that wants to hear Mr. Vegas or Sean Paul.”
She added: “Then you have others who say, ‘I want this sexy thing’ – they want to hear what women have to say”, referring to artists like Spice.
However, some shows attract dancehall lovers of all kinds. As Sean Paul performed at Elsewhere in Bushwick on April 25, the crowd reflected his fanbase, spanning an international and cross-generational mix.
Paul, 49, a sweet and singular figure who brought dancehall to American radio stations in the early 2000s, said his earliest memories of Jamaican dancehall parties date back to the age of 14.
He would sneak out with friends to a street party called Frontline, where they would often spot dancehall legends like Tiger and Shabba Ranks and dance under the open night sky.
“That was the only thing I didn’t like about clubs here at the start,” he said. “You can’t see the stars. You can’t feel the moon, there’s no island breeze blowing in your face as you listen to real, authentic rumbling bass lines.
But when he started coming to New York in the late 1990s, he discovered a dirtier dancehall scene with an audience for every niche.
One of his favorite places in the early 2000s was a two-story warehouse in Brooklyn where the floors moved “at least a foot” while people danced.
“It was the only city I knew at the time where I was able to go to four clubs in one night,” he said before listing the places he would visit.
“Two clubs in Jersey – one is a Jamaican club, then the other is a Guyanese club,” he said. “And then one in Brooklyn, which is a hardcore hip-hop type vibe, and the same thing in Manhattan.”
But many of the clubs Paul remembered are long gone. And while smaller spaces that play Caribbean music are still scattered around the city, there are only a handful of parties and shows that consistently draw thousands of people.
Cathy Rodriguez, 25, who was at Ms Milan’s yacht party last weekend, said she has been coming to Reggae Fest parties for years.
Often traveling from the Washington area, where she now lives, Ms Rodriguez said she sometimes plans her trips around the holidays.
“I’m legitimately going out of town for Reggae Fest,” she said. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I’ll go see my family, of course. But I’m going to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to New York and we’re going to Reggae Fest.’ »
Ms Rodriguez said one of the main draws of the event was the chance to hear her favorite music.
“Dancehall will always be my first baby,” she said. “Growing up in New York, especially in the Bronx, dancehall has always been a big part of my life. Like my mom listening to dancehall on Sunday mornings when she’s cleaning.
And even beyond her favorite songs, what keeps Ms. Rodriguez coming back time and time again is the lively dance floor.
“In the Caribbean community, we say ‘stush’ a lot, and stush basically means, stand still,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a regular nightclub in New York, but people are like standing still, smoking hookah – you know, they’re not really having fun with the music playing.”
“CJ’s vision for Reggae Fest is, ‘I want people to come, I want people to show up, but I want people to come. Dance,'” she continued. “That’s why I keep going to his events, because I’m guaranteed to dance like crazy all night long.”