Article Thumbnail

An Endearingly Earnest Chat With Three of Those Dudes Who Do the Light-Up Glove Hand-Dancing Thing for High People at EDM Shows

Lesson one: ‘Gloving’ is definitely not just for high people at EDM shows!

“As a child, I was always interested in the astounding,” says Joshua Pilla, 26. “I was fixated on anything that could stimulate a reaction of wonder and amazement. Skills and talents, like object manipulation, cardistry and sleight of hand became my childhood muses; the latter even developed into a sort of career in my teen years. One of the magic routines I’d perform involved the use of colored thimbles, little finger caps that I’d manipulate to appear, disappear and multiply. Since the very beginning of that, it was set to music and very choreographed, like a dance.”

It was only natural, then, for Pilla to become engrossed by a high-school friend who would walk between classes, blasting electronic music on a portable speaker while performing a dance move known as the liquid wave with his arms and hands. So, he picked up some simple hand manipulations from the internet, and incorporated them, along with electronic beats, into his magic routine. “I performed this combination of liquid dance and magic conjuring to electronic music until, around 2010, a friend told me that what I was doing looked just like gloving.”

Gloving, unbeknownst to Pilla at the time, is a form of dance that involves the use of luminous fingertip diodes. If you’ve ever been to an EDM show and witnessed neon-handed magicians performing mystical hand movements, causing everyone in the immediate vicinity’s MDMA-soaked brains to start dripping out of their ears, then you’ve seen gloving.

Pilla was immediately sold on both the craft and community. “I bought a set of pre-wired gloves and went to my first rave at 18 years old,” he explains. “That night, I wasn’t more than a handwaver who could do very basic liquid dances, but it was the night that created my drive to understand the nuances of how hands can move.”

This understanding became even more complex when Pilla went to Ripon College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, where he learned about Mudra — ancient ritual gestures, often executed with the hands and fingers, frequently performed in conjunction with yoga. “In short, Mudra are hand gestures used for both meditation and dance,” he explains. “These gestures are a language for dancing, while also being a healthy body-and-soul-aligning stretch for the hands. This information empowered me to take light shows seriously as an art form and a worthwhile endeavor. After all, if hand gesture dance was good enough to survive through the ages from the time of ancient Sanskrit, there must be something to it that’s a fundamentally moving and memorable experience.”

Next, Pilla practiced. And practiced. And practiced. “Practicing gloving is something that happens anytime and anywhere, as your props are constantly on-hand,” he explains. “However, serious practice should be split into different sessions — creative play and focused drilling. In order to be a creative glover, one must find new and creative ways to make their hands hurt. Finding movement types and figuring out new combos is a vital part of staying on top of the gloving game, but inevitably, these new techniques will need to be fleshed out and cleaned up to reach their maximum aesthetic value.”

Now, after eight years of expertly wiggling his fingers about, Pilla is considered to be a veteran glover; he goes by the gloving name Jest and is sponsored by a top gloving company called EmazingLights. His passion for gloving has even motivated him to start writing something of a dissertation on the history and foundations of this unique form of dance.

That said, since Pilla started gloving, the EDM community — and by proxy, the gloving community — has been through a series of ups and downs. The early 2010s, when Pilla was first exposed to gloving, were thoroughly saturated with the sounds of EDM, particularly dubstep, squealing synths, bloated bass burbles and delirious samples, often of someone screaming before even more bass burbles. 

Such discordant, yet curiously unifying sounds, it seemed, would be the interminable voice of our highly anticipated digital future — and they were, for a while. According to Google Trends, internet chatter about dubstep peaked in 2011; DJ Calvin Harris made an estimated $43 million blasting electronic tunes about love and feeling high in 2013; and even Saturday Night Live focused in on the ridiculousness of prolonged bass drops with a sketch featuring rapper Lil John in 2014.

Then, it seemed like the bass quite literally dropped. In 2015, the Zac Efron and Emily Ratajkowski EDM drama We Are Your Friends bombed on its first weekend, breaking a record as the worst opening for a wide-release Hollywood studio picture; in 2016, SFX Entertainment, the company behind numerous large EDM festivals, including Electric Zoo, Tomorrowland, Mysteryland and Stereosonic, filed for bankruptcy; and in 2017, decidedly wrote, “The EDM bubble has burst. The American love affair with EDM is over.”

There were also several drug-related deaths at prominent EDM festivals, and glovers in particular were somewhat blamed and punished. Specifically, laws were passed that placed new restrictions on electronic dance music festivals, and LED gloves, deemed drug accessories, started being blacklisted from many of these events.

Pilla assures me, though, that EDM and gloving have survived, and that both the music and dance are perhaps even thriving without the dampening pressure of mainstream appeal. Festivals — particularly smaller, less gaudy ones, where glovers can move their fingers all day long — continue to dot the landscape. Not only that, but if EDM were to completely dissolve, he promises me that glovers would bring their passion for light shows into other genres, too.

Proof of this can be seen by the emergence of a new generation of glovers. “I was first introduced to gloving in December 2018 at a first-year music festival in Philadelphia called HiJinx,” says Nicholas Frantz, 22. “It was there that I received my first light show, and I was extraordinarily moved by it. There was just something about someone using gloves with lights in the fingertips to enhance the experience of others and tell a story with light, music and their own two hands.”

“I bought a pair of gloves soon after,” Frantz continues, “but found it to be more difficult and in-depth than I’d realized. They sat in my closet for months until this past June, when I went to Bonnaroo, a huge music festival in Tennessee. It was there that I found the courage to finally give a few light shows, even though I knew next to no techniques. Those shows were terrible and sloppy, but the people who received them gave me nothing but smiles and positive feedback, and I was inspired.”

Since then, Frantz, who goes by the glover name Tics — an ode to “the fact that I have Tourette’s Syndrome, and gloving helps me control that disorder, as well as get out the twitchy energy that comes with it” — has been practicing on a daily basis. “My practice routine — we call practicing ‘labbing’ in the gloving community — generally consists of warm-ups and finger stretches, followed by drilling the basics, such as finger rolls, liquid and whips,” he explains. “This is all done with the gloves off, after which I’ll throw the gloves on, blast some music and flow.”

Like Pilla, Frantz believes that gloving is a budding art form. “The modern gloving scene is growing, and gloving is becoming more accessible,” he explains. “There are large social media communities devoted to gloving, such as r/gloving on Reddit and Glover’s Lounge on Facebook, where aspiring glovers can find inspiration and post videos to get constructive criticism and hone their skills. Competitive gloving is also a thing, with in-person competitions, such as IGC and BoSS. Lights On! is an online competition sponsored by EmazingLights, the largest gloving company around. There are even gloving teams, such as AYO? and VOID, that consist of some of the best glovers in the world.”

Despite this healthy scene, gloving has yet to gain more mainstream acceptance — as far as much of the general public is concerned, gloving is still just something that rolling ravers drool over. “Very few people in higher society look at gloving with any sort or fondness or value,” Pilla confirms. “Many glovers aren’t taken seriously in regards to being actual artists, rather than spunions playing with finger toys.”

Frantz believes, though, that gloving will continue to push outward. “I think it would be fair to say that the roots of gloving lie in the EDM drug culture, and yes, particularly MDMA,” he explains. “However, as gloving has grown as an art form, I feel that it’s been able to move away from that. I personally prefer to glove sober, and I’ve traded with many other glovers who were also sober at the time. I enjoy receiving light shows sober as well — I can appreciate the intricacies and technicalities of a light show much better that way.”

“That said,” Frantz continues, “of course drugs are still widely used in the scene, but are they vital to it? No. Gloving is self-expression, and it can be enjoyed sober or otherwise.”

Nicholas Falkenstein, a glover sponsored by Futuristic Lights who goes by the glover name Flakenstack, agrees. “You don’t need to be on drugs to enjoy a good light show,” he says. “I also don’t believe that the gloving community promotes abusing any drugs, since you must have control of your motor functions to give a good light show and have a decent memory to keep advancing in the skill.”

As glovers attempt to push gloving beyond its druggy roots, they promise to bring their metacarpal dance move to new scenes in the process. “EDM is definitely important to gloving, and they complement each other very well, but you can glove to anything,” Frantz says. “I’ve seen people glove to hip hop, psychedelic rock — really, any genre you can think of. I actually gave a few light shows at a Mac DeMarco concert, if that says anything. It’s the same as with its relationship to drugs: Gloving may have arose from EDM, but it’s certainly not confined to it.”

“If you can dance to it, you can give a light show to it,” Falkenstein emphasizes. “Some genres might be a little weird to give a show to, but ultimately, the art form is a platform to express how the artist feels in any environment. I’ve received a few light shows in silence that blew my mind. It’s just dancing with lights and isn’t bound by any music.”

“Gloving is the inevitable result of a culture that ‘mashes’ everything together,” Pilla concludes. “After almost 20 years of exponential technological advancement, humans have found a knack for combining completely unrelated and reasonably unexpected things, creating something completely new and exciting. Gloving is the perfect example: It combines technology, dance, sleight of hand, music and even a level of one-on-one intimacy to create an artform that’s an unforgettable experience to behold. For this reason, gloving isn’t going away any time soon.”