Young women sporting glitter on every visible part of their bodies bounced side to side. Shirtless young men showed off their best footwork to impress them. Some revelers, showing off for no one, danced with eyes closed, shut off from the world. The bass dropped.
It was Saturday in the park.
The mass immersive experience that is the Ultra Music Festival reached a thumping crescendo on its second day in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Thousands of closely packed electronic dance-music fans pogoed as one to famous DJs like Black Coffee, Dash Berlin and Steve Aoki — and to 1990s L.A. hip-hop stars Cypress Hill, whose Cuban-born Senen Reyes declared himself “thrilled” to be playing Miami.
They began streaming into the park and its eight stages when the gates opened at noon and by mid-afternoon seemed to fill every available spot. At the thronged main stage, event staff passed out ice cubes by the handful on a warm, overcast and windy afternoon.
Then intermittent, cold rains sent Ultra-goers dressed in not much at all scampering for shelter under covered stage venues. Temperatures dipped into the 60s as dusk fell, sending chills through the damp attendees.
No matter. The arm-waving, ecstatic crowds generated their own heat well into the gathering night as lasers, LED light effects and fiery pyrotechnics flashed from every stage. Hardly anyone budged as the skies opened up again during star DJ Tiesto’s evening main-stage set.
The crowd of bouncy and costumed people visibly skewed young, so forty-somethings Martin Cordero and partner Kara Cook, from Ohio, stood out. At Ultra, which electronic dance-music lover Cordero long had on his bucket list, they found a fountain of youth. Around them, younger ones pumped their legs against the pavement. Cook just swayed softly, dressed in a flowing, modest dress. Cordero, in a wheelchair from an accident, was here to listen.
The couple, who arrived at noon, intended to stay until the last set ends at midnight, return Sunday and hang with the youngsters till the sweet end. Ultra is all about acceptance, they said.
“Ultra is not about judgement. You can be young, you can be old, you can be a different color, a different ethnicity or whatever, and this is the place to come,” Cordero, who is 47, said.
Added Cook: “I'm like, screw all you other 41-year-olds, we're the cool ones!”
It appeared to be a mostly well-behaved audience at an event that in past years was plagued by arrests, many of them drug-fueled. A decision by the promoters to impose a minimum age of 18 contributed to a halving in the number of arrests last year. But a decision by Miami Police not to release arrest numbers until Monday, after the conclusion of the three-day festival, meant there was no way Saturday to compare this year’s edition to previous years.
“Honestly, today is so far, so good,” said Miami Police spokesman Officer Christopher Bess by phone from Ultra. “Everyone’s just enjoying themselves.”
On Friday, the festival’s opening day, there were 48 calls for medical assistance and 15 people taken to local hospitals, said Miami Fire Department spokesman Lt. Ignatious Carroll. But none were serious medical emergencies, he added.
There was glitter and banana suits aplenty on opening day as some of 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.
Ultra’s international appeal was very much in evidence: Many festival-goers brought their national flags to wave or wear like capes, from countires like Mexico, Chile, the Bahamas, Norway, the United States and well beyond.
On Friday, Ben Inman, 26, decked out in pink suspenders and bunny ears, said he loves wandering around the different stages and meeting people from around the globe. Less than an hour after the park opened at 4 p.m., Inman said he’d already met people from Colombia, Kenya and Japan.
“It’s awesome,” he said, grinning.
Next to him was his friend from Ohio, Alex Bialko, who 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 cut-off shark onesie and colorful, chunky beaded bracelets and be someone else.
A bunny-hopping, dance-music freak at Ultra.
“This is my escape,” he said, pointing at the sea of barely dressed and dancing people at the stage behind him. “This is the one time of year I get to experience life without worrying about bills or responsibilities.”
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.”
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. It was unclear if the lessons got through. Some of those condoms got turned into balloons and were bouncing around on top of the dancing crowds.
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!”
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.”
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.”
Herald Staff Writer Alex Harris, Herald writer Ismael Moreira and photographer Matias Ocner contributed to this report.