Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Radha Agrawal, inventor of Daybreaker early-morning dance parties, wrote a book on how make more friends in an isolating world. I tried to follow her advice.
As the sun peeked over the Washington Monument, the bodies on the roof of the Watergate building moved as one. A hundred-odd backs—many clad in nautical-themed workout attire, as the email inviting us all here had requested—arched in vinyasas, and 100-odd heads wearing glowing headphones dipped to the floor in downward dogs. “No one can hear you,” the yoga instructor told us, whispering directly into our ears through the headsets. “So breathe.” We all exhaled. It was loud, ugly, and unabashed. Everyone could hear everything.
We’d arrived in pre-dawn darkness to participate in a Daybreaker event, an early-morning substance-free “party” held about once a month in 25 cities across the United States. Most of them start with a yoga class, transition into a dance party, and end with an intention-setting ceremony and a performance by a local musician. Part work-out, part mixer, part meditation session, Daybreaker events are like the compression shorts of Millennial experiences: Sort of uncomfortable, but also uplifting.
We all wore headphones, silent-disco style, because D.C.’s sound regulations prohibited the planners from blasting music downtown. So I watched as an almost-silent saxophonist played to a sea of almost-silent people, who were jumping to a beat being pumped into their skulls. Behind them, bartenders in sailor hats handed out dried chickpeas and kombucha. Everyone beamed. One pony-tailed woman congratulated her first-timer friend: “Welcome to the Tribe.”
The events are the brainchildren of entrepreneur Radha Agrawal, who first rose to prominence for founding a company that sold period-absorbent Thinx panties (a brand that inspired some of the first Millennial-pink ads of the 20-teens). In Belong, a new book published this fall, Agrawal outlines her path from troubled, lonely college grad; to troubled, lonely underwear mogul; to fulfilled, supported social entrepreneur.
“In my 20s I was really sleepwalking,” she told me, from her hindsight as a now-39-year old. “I was still in the kind of fratty scene, wanting to be a version of myself that I thought was what the world wanted. It was emptying.” Screens alienated her; alcohol blurred her judgement. She woke up one day, and realized she, like nearly half of adults nationwide, was lonely.
So she sought what she figured would be the opposite of loneliness: belonging. To find it, she writes, she simply identified her values and interests, and then surrounded herself with the people that share them. She leaned on her “soul sisters.” She turned comparison into inspiration; perfectionism into gratitude; and judgement into curiosity. “The result was that I went from feeling alone, to being a part of a thriving community that … gave me the safety and the courage to create and pursue [my] dream,” she said.
And then she wanted to open a space so others could, too.
In terms of shared values, Daybreaker casts a pretty wide net: Agrawal describes the target cohort as “adventurous” people who “share the common interest of waking up at 6 a.m. to dance.” Most attendees are between 25 and 45 years old; a fact sheet provided by the Daybreaker team says the demographic breakdown is 68 percent women, 32 percent men, and “100 percent human.” Forty-seven percent are single.
Agrawal can vouch for the effectiveness of her system: she met her now-husband on a Daybreaker dance floor, a man 13 years her junior.
I expected Agrawal’s book, and her praxis, to be a little too kumbaya for my own community-building needs. But, on paper, I’m an extremely viable Daybreaker candidate. I’m more than a year out of college, starting my second year in a still-unfamiliar city. I’ve got a neat little circle of friends and roommates, and am happy with the general degree of belonging I’ve found. But I’d stopped the concerted effort I’d been putting into making new friends several months ago. Then, many of them moved—D.C. is a city of transients, people often to say. The House flips. Friends get new jobs. I get it! And here I am. Fine, though maybe somewhat less than “totally.”
But finding zen by paying to party with strangers on the roof of my office building (conveniently, I also work in the Watergate) seemed a little painful and inauthentic. Agrawal says she understands. “The word community has been kind of bastardized already,” she told me. “It’s just another word for ‘users’ by marketers.”
But with Daybreaker, she’s tried to cut through the bullshit. The “belonging” the brand creates isn’t a commodity, she says, nor is it a coincidence. Each event is carefully designed to give participants their daily D.O.S.E.—an acronym Agrawal coined to describe the “happy brain chemicals,” dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. They’re released by things like pleasure, touch, rest, and activity. But instead of, like, drinking a bottle of Pinot, she suggests you try “getting high on other people’s energy.” Instead of watching internet porn, try “hugging someone hello.” Instead of soliciting Instagram likes, try “feeling grateful.” They’re the same. Basically. “Imagine if we could go to a Mind Gym,” Agrawal writes. Go there.
I decided I would try.
The biggest hurdle for a skeptical Daybreaker to overcome may be the ungodly hour at which it’s held. But that’s also one of its major draws. Today’s fad Habit of Highly Successful People is “waking up extremely early.”
“Get snuggly by 9 p.m.,” the Daybreaker team had suggested via email the night before I arrived on the roof. “So when the alarm clock goes off, the snooze button is a thing of the past.”
According to a series of recent essays and pseudo-scientific surveys, the ideal alarm clock goes off between 4 and 6:30 a.m. The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” series features lady bosses rising with the literal crows, getting a deep tissue massage, writing in gratitude journals, and only then heading into the office. The New York Times’ Smarter Living columnist claims he interviewed 300 “high-achievers,” whose average wake-up time was 6:27. An HSBC executive featured in a much-discussed Business Insider post wakes up at 5:30 to meditate, Facetime internationally, and play tennis, only to end her day discussing “key wins” with her boyfriend. Mark Wahlberg’s demented workday begins at 2:30 a.m.
This is all a capitalist ploy, argues Rosie Spinks in Quartz—a product of our hyper-productive rat-race machine that values doing more work, more of the time. Daybreaker isn’t exactly about productivity in the typical sense of the word, but it is definitely about time maximization. When we rose, we wouldn’t try to get to inbox zero, or read the morning wires, or meal-prep zoodles. We’d work, but on making friends! Forging connections! Getting a head start on finding community—before our social rivals are even out of the house.
“We’re actually redefining a whole sliver of time,” Agrawal said. “You get a dopamine rush for waking up before everybody else does. You’re just like, oh shit, I got something done!”
Daybreaker does face competition for that 6 to 9 a.m. slot—from dozens of other branded workout classes that specialize in semi-social self-care. An estimated 50,000 people go to SoulCycle a week. Crossfit now boasts about 4 million users and 10,000 gyms. The “cult-like loyalty” some of these fitness regimes inspire has meant that “spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience,” say researchers from Harvard Divinity School who study community. As Millennials turn away from organized worship (a third of people under 30 reportedly belong to no religion, and only 10 percent are looking for one), workout classes have started creeping in to fill the spiritual gap.
At a Daybreaker event, you may burn fewer calories than at a spin class. But it, too, has a quasi-religious dimension. That’s intentional: “We’re building the 2.0 version of a gathering space that was once the fireplace, that was once a church,” Agrawal said. “We’re rebuilding the community center.”
Events recur monthly (bimonthly in New York City, based on high demand), so they feel ritualistic. They’re also themed, usually (the one I went to was called “Nautical Sunrise,” for its desired sailor aesthetic) so the group feels unified. Tickets range from $25 to $45, depending on the city and the package. (Disclosure: I got mine for free.)
Arriving only 15 minutes late, I dressed for the occasion in a borrowed white LuluLemon tank—my lazy sailor costume. Ascending the elevator with me was another, older truant. It was her third time Daybreaking, she said. “Everyone is always so happy!”
And they were. As we walked onto the roof, no one shamed us for being tardy, as many a yogi has in the past. A smiling bouncer simply passed over a pair of headphones and a towel, and let us take our places on mats. (Later, Agrawal told me we must have missed the “hugging committee.” Usually, participants get a squeeze from the greeter to release some oxytocin even before the event starts).
Despite some technical difficulties with the headphones, the yoga itself was pretty meditative. I locked eyes with my neighbor, a guy wearing anchor-print socks, a few times, and made a mental note to talk to him when the class ended. But as soon as we did our sun salutations, everyone seemed to cluster near the people they’d arrived with.
For an event designed with building new communities in mind, it seemed like most people were sticking with their old ones. And the headphones made engagement tricky: Though we were all listening to the same music, we weren’t listening to it together, really. Concerts aren’t just about the contact high, they’re about the sound reverberating off bodies and into and out of ears. Here, we were hooked up by bluetooth, not by skin.
As the two-hour “dance” “party” continued, things warmed up a little. Ice-breaker style, we were asked to turn to our left and introduce ourselves. I met Austin, a bearded man clad in sailor-white who looked to be in his 30s, who had been to multiple Daybreaker events in multiple cities. “It’s a way to clear your mind, and be yourself,” he told me. His girlfriend sidled up to us, and together they wriggled away.
Haile Supreme, the MC-slash-singer whose Soundcloud page describes him as “a conduit of ancient vocal techniques,” rapped and crooned over an ambient beat, colorful coat swinging. People danced, awkwardly at first, then less self-consciously.
I thought about how much easier it is to meet people when you already know people. I thought about why these kinds of engineered-bonding events feel artificial. I thought about how community, to me, is speckled in difference, not nautical-themed. I thought about how I was overthinking things. Jumping together just felt good.
“If you have enough money in your pockets to pay your bills, get the fuck down!” Supreme riffed.
Most of us had paid close to $40 + a $3.20 processing fee to be here. We got the fuck down.
Kia and Maryanne clung to the rail for much of the party, chatting with their headphones hanging around their necks. Kia had been going to the events for awhile, and brought Maryanne along as an excuse for the pair to catch up.
“It’s a way to dance without going to the club at midnight,” said Kia. “My husband can put the kids on the bus,” Maryanne laughed. For them, Daybreaker events were fun, pure and simple. And they, like a surprising percentage of the crowd, were middle-aged: Kia was 42.
That’s significant, because, if loneliness is a nationwide epidemic, it’s particularly pronounced among older people, says Agrawal, based on observations she made on her book tour. Almost a third of Americans over 45 are socially isolated, according to AARP. “Many people in their 60s and 70s came to my book event to share their feeling of loneliness,” Agrawal said. “And how—to quote their words—invisible they feel.”
Loneliness is no less of a threat for the young, however: A recent Cigna study found that, of the almost 50 percent of American respondents who reported feeling lonely, Gen Zers led in numbers. Among youth, suicide is the third-leading cause of death.
What sets Daybreaker apart from other branded party circuits may be its potential for breaking age barriers. It’s super-sober, relatively affordable, and not overly rigorous (you can even save $10 and skip the yoga). And it doesn’t get in the way of work or an early bedtime.
The generational separation in America is artificial, and commercially driven, Agrawal says: “Millennials are so segregated because of marketing needs. Like, I’m going to market to Millennials and Gen Zs and Baby Boomers, and I have to specifically segment them, so I’m going to separate them and create more isolation.” Daybreaker’s branding may be Millennial-friendly—lots of hashtags—and, indeed, according to Daybreaker’s demographic data, only 3 percent of attendees are 51+ (and “babies”). But it’s not supposed to be Millennial-exclusive.
“When I’m 75 I don’t want to hang out with someone who’s just 75,” Agrawal said. “I want to hang out with 25-year-olds.” Jane Goodall, famed primate researcher, showed up unannounced to a party earlier this year, apparently. She turns 85 in April. “I think she was like, sort of studying a different set of apes, ” Agrawal said.
When I tried to describe the tension that I felt, even as a Millennial, at the party—how I felt alone, in a space where I was supposed to feel deeply at home—Agrawal told me that only active participation breeds community: “You can’t belong if you only take.” I was taking a lot (notes), and giving mostly judgement. The other key, she suggested, is to keep showing up—just like how you have to keep going back to church, or Crossfit class, to get the benefits.
That’s obviously convenient when, in order to buy in, you have to buy what she’s selling. But people are: Based on Daybreaker’s last data analysis, each event brings about 60 percent new community members, with 40 percent returning. (That’s a great mix, Agrawal says, so regulars “can really indoctrinate” and support the first timers.)
Supreme, the emcee, was a Daybreaker regular himself. He’d spent years doing the “rock star life,” he told me. “Most people in their offices drink coffee. My office substance is alcohol.” But at Daybreaker events he didn’t have to take a shot of liquid courage before getting onstage. Here, he said, “I can be a rock star without drinking.”
Kelsey, another woman I met, had been to seven or eight Daybreaker events in D.C. While she came with a friend this time, as she usually does, she’s starting to see the same people from the Daybreaker tribe month to month.
The reality is that, despite Agrawal’s best intentions, Kelsey—like me and her friend and 69 percent of her attendees—are between 18 and 35 years old, and they represent a certain income and education bracket: 60 percent of them make over $75,000 a year; 95 percent have a college degree. They crave iced matcha lattes. They own their own yoga mat. They live in the pricey winner-take-all metro areas where Daybreaker travels, like San Francisco, L.A., D.C., and New York. They listen as a local D.C. artist performs spoken word poetry about Failed Intimacy in the Internet Age, and really get it.
So I pressed. Doesn’t seeking sameness, I tried to suggest, just breed more of the same? Didn’t sorting ourselves into bubbles and silos have something to do with our current state of toxic political polarization, or something?
Sure, but everyone has to start somewhere, Agrawal said. “I think it’s when you just go, blanket statement, ‘Everybody throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,’ that’s when we end up feeling disenfranchised and lonely and misunderstood.”
According to the Belong ethos, throw these alike people together, instead, and you get a community. Take a sliver of the morning to brush shoulders with other human beings—not to type or talk, just to sweat—and you will get a therapeutic ritual. It doesn’t matter if you don’t immediately connect, emotionally. Physically being together is supposed to be enough. It’s certainly better than the alternative. Maybe that’s depressing. But maybe that’s life.
“Netflix is fucking up my sex life,” the poet sang. “I look better online than in real life.” We—the Daybreaker Tribe—sat together, cross legged, meditating on the duplicitousness of our online and IRL existences, setting our intentions for the day, listening to our stomachs digest spa water. Afterwards, we stood and chanted a quote about the magic of dance.
I got up, stretched, and checked my phone. It was 9 a.m. Time for work.
This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.