From 2012 to 2013, a small bunch of enterprising Dunedin promoters opened a new nightlife frontier in the city: club nights for teens, held in adult bars with minimal adult supervision. But should 13-year-olds really be clubbing? Caroline Moratti reports.
Underage clubs have a long and questionable history, as anyone who remembers overpriced glow sticks and the stench of Cool Charm wafting from gymnasium bathrooms can tell you. But while teen “nightclubs” usually come in the guise of chaste school socials and Blue Light discos, for a short time in Dunedin they were ambitious commercial events – and dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’ with your mates suddenly became a lot more exciting.
In 2012, Daniel Chew was a club photographer with connections throughout the Dunedin club scene. Realising that high schoolers were a largely untapped nightlife market, he founded The Nightclub Experience with a plan to create ticketed, alcohol-free parties where pre-teens and teens could party in safety. Chew wasn’t the only one with this idea; similar companies around the same time included Dunedin Socials, Blackout and 18UNDER. The latter was originally launched to help fundraise following the Christchurch earthquakes, only later becoming an events business aimed at teens.
The parties these companies held quickly became legendary. Hundreds of 12 to 15-year-olds would crowd into adult nightclubs like Sammys and The Break, Jason Derulo blaring through the speakers, the floors sticky and laden with cans. Sometimes a foam machine sprayed the crowd, or UV lights were switched on to give white clothing an otherworldly glow. It was messy and sweaty, but thankfully dark. Photos of the events posted on Facebook were a golden ticket to popularity. Girls in bright neon dresses and freshly-straightened hair plastered newsfeeds, the photos declaring you were there, you were cool. Curling a peace sign around your eyes in photos was, well, a thing. Stories of hook-ups and wild nights circulated through high school hallways. In Dunedin in 2012, it was, without a doubt, the place to be.
“If you wanted a snazzy new DP (profile picture) or a chance at getting your first hookup, this was where you were gonna get it,” Chew says. “After all, there was no Tinder, Instagram was barely a thing and most kids didn’t even have cell phones.” While some events were held as fundraisers to help sporting or dance groups compete nationally, at $10 a ticket Chew was making a good living from the increasingly popular parties. As the events gained momentum, they became more ambitious. DJs were flown down from Auckland, and big companies including Skinny Mobile and Mother Energy drinks came onboard as sponsors.
For teenagers like Sonia*, the parties were a rare chance to get dressed up, to dance and to meet kids from other schools. She was a student rep for 18UNDER, which meant she got a free ticket as a perk of promoting the events and selling tickets to her classmates. While students were encouraged to apply to be a rep – a coveted role awarded to those with an unusually high number of Facebook friends – some reps were forced to sell tickets in secret after schools implemented bans.
The parties might have been a social highlight for the teens of Dunedin, but they were hardly uncontroversial. While Sonia didn’t drink at the club nights, “all my friends from other schools would turn up wasted”, she says. Other attendees The Spinoff spoke to claimed “pre-loading” was common, the alcohol often sourced from older friends or siblings. Chew admits underage drinking was a regular problem, and that kids were always attempting to sneak alcohol into the venue. “Fortunately we had professional bouncers that actually worked in nightclubs, so we could spot that a mile away,” he says. That being said, just as in an adult club environment, intoxication could be hard to detect at the door. Chew recalls finding a girl aged around 14 passed out in the bathroom, having consumed half a bottle of tequila on the car ride there.
Emma*, who attended events at around the same age, says they were far “saucier” than her regular school socials. “I remember having my first tongue-to-tongue hook-up at one, which was traumatic and disgusting but really did feel like a nightclub experience. I also had my ass pinched numerous times which… would never would’ve happened at our school socials.” Several other women The Spinoff spoke to recalled similar groping experiences at the events. “Everyone was clearly drunk,” says Andrea*, who remembers “all the cool kids… in the corner sitting on boys’ laps making out. It was clearly just a hookup fest.” Sonia says the venues, particularly Sammy’s, tended to have lots of “nooks and crannies to sneak away to” and remembers the events as “very sexual in a way – you’d always hear stories after about the naughty things people did”.
So how much adult supervision actually occurred at these events that were marketed as safe spaces for young teens? Next to none at all, claims Sonia, who says she remembers “no teachers present – or adults for that matter. The only supervision was the security at the door – so a maximum of four of them – and apart from that, the DJ and photographer were adults, and that’s it.”
A former co-organiser at 18UNDER, the company formed in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, says that wasn’t true of the events they ran. “Unlike some of our competitors in the youth event space, we placed a strong emphasis on security and the right agencies being involved throughout the process.”
The 18UNDER employee, who asked not to be named, says their events included more security than the recommended event ratio, street patrols around the venue, bag checks and breath testing on entry, non-alcoholic food and drinks for sale, a safe space for attendees, and parents/caregivers required to walk up to the event exit to collect their child at the conclusion of the event. The former owner of a bar where some 18UNDER events were held confirmed that levels of security and care were high.
However, the attendees The Spinoff talked to for this story didn’t recall being breath-tested at 18UNDER events. Posts on an events page for Reload, an 18UNDER sub-brand, advertised specifically that there was no breath-testing at the door. These posts were deleted after The Spinoff contacted the former 18UNDER employee.
In March 2012, not long after The Nightclub Experience was launched, the Otago Daily Times ran a news story headlined ‘Teenage Foam Party Concerns’. In it, the principal of Otago Boys High School wondered rhetorically if it was “appropriate to hold a function where 14- and 15-year-olds are squirted with foam while wearing white T-shirts” and called the event “inappropriate” and “lewd”. A newsletter had been sent to Boys High School parents warning them of the events and ticket-selling within schools, the paper reported. Defending the party in question, Chew told the newspaper attendees would be in fluoro T-shirts, not white, and that the event would be a safer environment than a private home where alcohol might not be tightly controlled.
Chew still believes that the controversy over the parties was overblown. “In retrospect, I think it actually had a positive influence on how these students grew up and acted in town later on in life,” he says now.
In April 2013, with the teen nightclub market reaching saturation point, Chew closed The Nightclub Experience. Its competitor UNDER18 became “the most popular and only remaining youth event provider in the market” according to the organiser we spoke to, but a decline in attendance and increased operating costs saw the last dance occur in August that year. And so the debauchery ended. Rome fell, replaced once more by a boring Byzantium of police Blue Light discos and youth club socials. Life went back to normal and peace was restored to Dunedin. Similar events were occasionally attempted in other cities but as Chew recalls, they were largely flops. The teen market had moved on.
So, were these events a safe space or an inappropriately adult environment for kids only a few years out of primary school? The jury’s still out. The teen parties don’t appear to have broken any laws, and they provided an opportunity to cut some moves with your mates in a (sometimes) supervised environment. Groping, smoking and underage drinking were common, but that’s the reality of youth partying wherever it occurs. Plus with a bop like Carly Rae Jepson’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ on the charts, the kids needed to dance! At 13, kids are old enough to want to dance with their friends – and ideally also with the opposite sex – but still too young for house parties. The club events gave them a place to cut loose.
These days Sonia has mixed feelings about the events – but no regrets. “They were fun and enjoyable and a place for experimenting,” she says. “I’d let my kids go to them if they exist when I’m a parent.” Emma is still torn over the way the club nights introduced young teens to adult nightlife – and all the alcohol that goes with it – but acknowledges that teenage drinking is rampant regardless. Looking back at her time at the parties, “they were unsafe and probably inappropriate…but fuck, I had a good time.”
* Some names have been changed