It doesn't take much to get the natives gossiping in South Beach. -- celebrity indiscretion. A few bounced checks. A new designer drug. So it should come as no surprise that the SoBe rumor mill has been churning for the past two months over a club promotion known as the foam party.
As the name implies, a foam party features gallons and gallons of soapy foam, which is pumped onto an enclosed dance floor, creating what amounts to a giant bathtub in which revelers are encouraged to slip and slide and bump and grind to their hearts' delight. To facilitate the process, the participants are likewise encouraged to strip down to bathing suits or underwear.
If you believe the stories making the rounds, bumping and grinding is the least of the risque behavior that transpires at the thrice-weekly parties. Particularly at the gay-oriented nights, which are held Saturdays at the Warsaw Ballroom, located on the corner of Collins Avenue and Espanola Way, and Tuesdays at Amnesia (136 Collins Ave.). Amnesia offers a straight night on Thursdays, as well.
Among the tales told by various veteran Beach partiers:
"I saw five guys having sex in a conga line."
"My friend came back from one and told he'd come three times."
"From what I could see, the whole thing is basically an excuse to get fucked in public."
One AIDS outreach worker, who like others interviewed for this story demanded anonymity, says he enjoyed his first foam party. "But at the second one, things just got too raunchy," he reports. "I left when I was propositioned to have sex. Fifteen years ago that kind of recklessness was no big deal. Today it's like a death sentence."
As scandalous as it all might seem, the truth is, as usual, a little less lurid. The events are not orgies -- not, at least, to judge from visits to four recent foam parties, three of those on gay-oriented nights.
On the other hand, these aren't Boy Scout campouts, either.
The scene generally features several hundred scantily clad bodies packed onto a dance floor and writhing to bone-rattling music under strobes and colored lights. Nothing new, right? Until suds come gushing out of a machine suspended over the dance floor.
As if on cue, various forms of passionate embrace begin. Kissing. Petting. Rubbing. Because the foam froths up waist high, it acts both as a lubricant and camouflage. Mutual masturbation is an occasional component, generally beneath the cover of foam. As the evening wears on, a few men pair off and sit together in the foam that builds up outside the partitioned-off area. Nearly all the male participants are topless by the end, as are a few of the randier women.
The man chiefly responsible for bringing foam parties to South Beach is Yves Di Lena. The 41-year-old Frenchman, who bought Warsaw eighteen months ago and also rents Amnesia specifically to throw foam parties, traces the concept back to the mid-Eighties, when espuma (Spanish for foam) parties were first thrown on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, a legendary hot spot for jet setters.
The bashes have surfaced more recently in Paris, where Di Lena owned a restaurant before settling in South Beach. "I'd been planning to start a foam party here for more than a year, because I knew it was going to be a hit," the club owner says cheerily. "So I waited until we needed a boost. I was, as we say in France, saving an apple for my thirst. There is also in America this situation with everyone suing everyone else. So that was a problem. I didn't want a million people suing me because they slip in the foam or get wet clothes."
Di Lena's solution was a disclaimer all patrons must sign before entering. "You are put on notice that you are entering these premises and participating in the 'Foam Party' at your own risk, which you voluntarily assume," the form states before going on to warn: "All persons should avoid eye contact and taking foam internally. When engulfed in foam, you may experience disorientation."
Di Lena freely admits that the foam extravaganzas have become wilder than he expected. "We thought it would be more just people playing around. So we got kind of caught by surprise. In the beginning, it's true, people were going a little crazy."
Crazy enough, in fact, that he has taken precautionary measures. Di Lena has considerably brightened the lights that illuminate the dance floors at both clubs, and last week he added a pair of "Safe Sex Lifeguards," beefy monitors who stroll around, armed with squirt guns, ready to cool off those who get too steamy.
"The foam is a way for people to meet each other, and sure, it makes people more friendly. But we're trying to control the environment because we don't want things to degenerate into a sex party," Di Lena says. "Playing is one thing, and sex is another. There's a line in between the two that's easy to understand. Obviously we are concerned about socially transmitted diseases and AIDS, and our parties are not the place to increase that risk.
"People will always talk and exaggerate," he adds, in reference to the swirling gossip. "The best solution is for these people to come and see for themselves."
Di Lena says he has received no complaints about his new promotion from anyone in the AIDS outreach community.
"There are definitely some people who have been alarmist about the foam parties," says Keith Cromley, an assistant director of Health Crisis Network. "We've heard anecdotal reports of risky behavior, which always concerns us. But as an official AIDS prevention group, our response is that it is every individual's responsibility to exercise proper precautions to prevent becoming infected or infecting others. We are not in the business of clamping down on specific clubs. The issue is bigger than that."
Cromley says he worries that the brouhaha about gay-oriented foam nights reinforces an insidious mindset. "AIDS is still misconstrued as a disease of gay men," he observes. "There is an assumption in the heterosexual community that 'this is not a disease that affects me,' when the fact is more than half the new cases we're seeing are heterosexuals."
The person perhaps best qualified to comment on the foam parties -- at least those held on Tuesdays at Amnesia -- is drag queen Kitty Meow, who serves as emcee, surveying the dance floor from a raised platform and occasionally screaming exhortations into a portable microphone. "This is about fun, about a community gathering," he stresses. "I hear all that talk about unsafe sex, but I honestly wonder, if this was just a straight phenomenon, would anyone be raising questions about safe sex and responsibility and all that?"
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Di Lena says he believes some of the complaints about foam parties are being spread by rival promoters jealous of his success. Indeed, that success is undeniable. Di Lena reports that attendance has been running at 1000-plus per night. (The clientele at gay-oriented nights is almost exclusively male, while the numbers are roughly 50-50 on Thursdays.) Di Lena says he even plans to fly his foam machine to Atlanta and possibly New York in the coming weeks, to throw parties at clubs in those cities.
"I heard about the foam and I figured I had to check it out when I came down for Memorial Day," gushes Jimmy Skinner, a 25-year-old Manhattanite who showed up at Amnesia one recent Tuesday clad in a pair of red Chuck Taylors and a jockstrap. "This is my second foam party in four days. It's just sensational, like slithering around in a giant bubble bath."
Bouncing to the house music, the goateed Skinner concedes that he does feel some discomfort at the parties. "But see, that's because I came with someone who I was supposed to be with. So obviously when things get wilder, it gets annoying to have all this temptation around. If I was alone, it might not have been so bad."
With this pronouncement, Skinner departs for the dance floor, his conspicuously naked tush vanishing into the foam.