In his regular life back in Ohio, Alex Bialko has a serious job and serious responsibilities. He’s an emergency medical services and fire-rescue worker.
Once a year, and one 18.5-hour drive later, the 26-year-old gets to don a cutoff shark onesie and colorful, chunky beaded bracelets and be someone else.
A bunny-hopping, dance-music freak at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami.
“This is my escape,” he said, pointing at the sea of barely dressed and dancing people at the stage behind him, which included his friend Ben Inman, decked out in pink suspenders and bunny ears. “This is the one time of year I get to experience life without worrying about bills or responsibilities.”
Bialko and several thousand of his fellow electronica-fanciers streamed into downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park as the gates to the sold-out 18th edition of Ultra got underway at 4 p.m. Friday under overcast skies and the threat of on-and-off rain.
There was glitter and banana suits aplenty as some of the world’s most popular DJs cranked up their mixing boards to ear-splitting volumes that cut through steady winds strong enough to bend the crowns of palm trees in the park.
No matter. It was time for the three-day bacchanalia some Ultra-goers have been looking forward to all year, ever since the last one.
This is the third Ultra for Caitlin Lowden, a 21-year-old University of Miami student. She was here with friends, with ribbons of rhinestones glued over their brows and under their eyes.
The thumping music unites people from across the globe, Lowden said.
“You're just so accepted here,” she said. “It's a tribe of happiness.”
Except for one grumpy bunny, perhaps, who complained on Twitter it took him 90 minutes to get in.
Florida Department of Health employees, some of them decked out in condom crowns or tiaras, were handing out prophylactics and bug spray packets. They were trying to educate Ultra-goers about Zika prevention. Unclear if the lessons got through. Some of those condoms got turned into balloons and were bouncing around on top of the dancing crowds.
It’s not fun ‘n’ games for everyone at Ultra. Eight stages, each equipped with surround-sound and LED panels displaying intricate light shows and, create a pulsating sound within the park. Someone’s got to build them, and one of those someones is veteran stagehand Tim Frasch, busy with finishing touches just before the gates opened.
“We've been working for 15 days straight,” said Frasch, who is originally from Wisconsin and has traveled the world constructing stages for Ultra’s festivals in other countries. “You won't believe all the work that goes into building these stages.”
Sandra Merino, 28, stood in front of the main stage by a stranger wearing a fur hat, basketball shorts and little else. He held one foot out and then hopped on it, moving smoothly into a jumping, rhythmic dance.
Under other circumstances, he might be someone to avoid. Not at Ultra. Though it was Merino’s first time at Ultra, she felt so at ease that she asked the man in the fur hat, basketball shorts and little else to be her dance tutor.
Merino tried to follow, but her movements weren't as graceful.
“I just can't get it," she said, laughing. “You're just a good dancer!”
Eventually, Merino, who’s from Mexico City, told her tutor she'd eventually get it. “I have all weekend to practice,” she said.
Hopping around with odd strangers is all part of what makes Ultra, uhm, ultra special, she suggested.
“These people are all part of the culture,” she said. “I want to be here to dance and move and soak up all the culture.”
Yes, come to Ultra and become “of the body.”
As Armin Van Buuren performed on the main stage, 28-year-old Aleks Markovic nodded his head and skipped around to the pulsing beats.
“Music is the transcendent language,” the Canadian corrections officer said. “It's unity. It's ego-dissolving.
“You come here and everything melts together.”