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It’s Lunchtime: Let’s Dance

Robert Daly | OJO Images | Getty Images

When lunchtime comes around, Laurie Batista often grabs a salad near the Flatiron ad agency where she works as an executive assistant and eats it at her desk.

But shortly after noon on a sunny, 65-degree Friday in April, Ms. Batista, 31, jumped into a cab with three co-workers and headed west to Marquee, a nightclub on 10th Avenue. After waiting in a line that wrapped around onto 26th Street (and attracted the attention of the police, who wanted to know what was going on), she redeemed a drink ticket for a free cocktail of vodka and fruit punch. A half-hour later, she was wearing purple lensless Wayfarer-style glasses, waving a foot long foam glow stick and mouthing the words to Warren G's "Regulate."

Around her, hundreds of other revelers did similar things: a guy in Chuck Taylors moonwalked across the dance floor, a man in a hoodie threw up his hands to form the "W" that stands for the rap group Wu-Tang Clan. Strobe lights bounced off a giant disco ball. Sweat glistened on foreheads. "Gin and Juice" thumped. Cheers erupted. It was midday, but inside Marquee, it could have been 2 a.m.

Ms. Batista was one of more than 300 people who attended the latest Lunch Break, a free midday party series whose hosts are Flavorpill, the online culture guide, and Absolut vodka. Introduced last summer, it is the most raucous of a group of lunch-hour dance parties starting up in New York City and around the world. The goal: get the screen-addicted masses to move and groove, often with the lubrication of alcohol. But don't get drunk: this is not the three-martini lunch of yore (or lore), ending with secretaries being chased around a desk. And please, leave the business cards at the office.

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"Networking is fine, I'm a big networker myself, but it's work," said Sascha Lewis, a founder of Flavorpill. "Let's just call this what it is: a fun, daytime party for people to enjoy themselves for an hour."

A workday dance party presents certain challenges. There are wardrobe issues ("Will I sweat through my Brooks Brothers button-down?" "How low can I go in a DVF dress?") and, for those who usually eat lunch at their desks, excuses to make. (At a Lunch Break in February, a reporter for a local tabloid was overheard saying that she told her bosses she was stepping out to meet sources.)

And how do you get young professionals, who find out about these parties online but often arrive without knowing exactly what they've gotten themselves into, to get down the moment they get in the club? At Lunch Break, the free cocktail helps ("It's just one drink, it's not like you're going to get hammered," said Kiran Sachdeva, a student at the New York University Stern School of Business) but the D.J. carries the bulk of the burden.

"They told me, right off the gate, get the party started," said Ahmir Thompson, the D.J. and drummer of the hip-hop and soul band the Roots. Known as Questlove, he's provided the soundtrack for three Lunch Breaks, amping up the crowd with a mix of '90s hip-hop and pop culture non sequiturs (a sample of the theme song from the 1980s cartoon "Inspector Gadget" elicited yelps of approval at Marquee). He also requests as little light as possible, a canvas of darkness for the glow sticks and strobes.

"People dance more when they know they're not being watched," he said.

Another party series, Lunch Rocks, draws up to 100 attendees. It was started last year by Thomas Rudy, 31, a hedge fund manager who said he used to sneak out of his office to dance at the Abercrombie & Fitch store on Fifth Avenue, and his wife, Amanda Tan, 29.

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At venues like the Caulfield and Whiskey Trader, they put together a cash bar, dancing and food, and charged $15 a person, which allowed them to "make a little profit," Mr. Rudy said. They have not yet organized one this year. (Ms. Tan blamed the stunted spring: "When it's cold, people don't want to leave their offices.") The couple are thinking about how to revive and even expand their venture.

"There could technically be Lunch Rocks every 10 blocks," Mr. Rudy said.

As for Lunch Break, it began in August at Le Bain, the nightclub atop the Standard hotel, after marketers for Absolut, a frequent partner in Flavorpill events, told Mr. Lewis about a midday party series that was doing well in Sweden, Lunch Beat. It was founded by Molly Range, arguably the mother of this mini-movement. Ms. Range, 29, whose other day job is developing smartphone apps, said she was inspired by "Fight Club," David Fincher's film about white-collar workers who form secret societies to tear one another up.

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"In the beginning, I dreamt of it developing into a 'secret order,' " Ms. Range wrote in an e-mail. She pictured "men and women sneaking out of garages, closed nightclubs and underground bars, glowing with dance floor sweat and returning to work at 1 p.m." holding brown paper bags.

Her first event was in a Stockholm garage in 2010; 14 people came. Today, she presides over more than 50 Lunch Beat chapters around the world, including one in New York, which held its first Manhattan party on a Wednesday in late April.

Ms. Range discourages alcohol at her events, to "make sure you come to Lunch Beat with the intention to participate, not to be a spectator." (Indeed, if you walked into a downtown club on an average Saturday night, you'd probably see more people clustered around $400-something bottles of vodka than fist-pumping to Macklemore.)

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Lunch Beat is nonprofit, and Ms. Range has thus far rejected sponsorship offers. Most Lunch Beat franchisees are night-life industry neophytes who volunteer their party planning services and maintain day jobs, like Sarah Reynolds and Isha Toor, who organized the April party at Slate, a bar in the Flatiron district

Ms. Toor, 25, is a business analyst at a software firm in Murray Hill. At the start of the latest Lunch Beat, she bustled around Slate in an Aztec-print miniskirt, black tank top and bright red lips, making sure people who R.S.V.P.-ed got in and got out on the dance floor. Asked if she planned to go back to the office in that outfit, she laughed and said, "I have my other boring clothes for work."

People in their 20s and 30s throng these parties. Eyeing the 100-plus attendees writhing beneath Slate's candy-colored disco lights, Stephanie Cooper, 25, noted the difference between this dance party and the ones she usually goes to.

"Well, we're not drunk," she said. "That changes it a little bit."

Ms. Cooper's co-worker Miranda Manganaro, also 25, appreciated the lack of male hangers-on, a species common at nightclubs in their prime hours.

"I think it's less creepy of a scene," she said.

But because of their timing, these events also attract a demographic normally absent from Manhattan's club landscape.

"I just happened to be walking by and a young lady gave me a flier and I said, 'O.K., I have nothing else to do for lunch,' " said Dorothy Vazquez, a 68-year-old resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, who happened on the latest Lunch Beat. Ms. Vazquez said she normally dances at her local seniors center. She smiled, surveying the people filing into the club. "I'm looking forward to boogieing," she said.

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Another newcomer, Gertrude Cruz, described her age as old enough to retire. She arrived at Slate with 11 people from her office at the United Nations Development Program. As the group laughed, clapped and shimmied in a loose circle, Ms. Cruz predicted they would be back.

"It's a good way to unwind office tension," she said, grinning and putting her hands to her temples.

Though these parties start with the word "lunch," food is largely an afterthought. At Slate, trays of lukewarm pasta, quesadillas and salad sat away from the action, mere fuel for the dance floor. Flavorpill hands out brown bags with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit and a snack bar at the end of every Lunch Break.

"We didn't want to have this grand buffet because that would distract from the fact that this is a dance party," Mr. Lewis said. "It's not, grab a free lunch and, you know, sit and eat a big plate of food."

All of the organizers declined to say how much it costs to give a party. Lunch Beat recoups the money spent on the D.J., food and site with ticket prices, generally $10 to $15. Ms. Range said neither she nor the local organizers receive monetary compensation.

Maxime Kouchnir, vice president for marketing for Pernod Ricard, which owns Absolut, described the company's investment in Flavorpill's party series as "not huge," adding that it's a good platform to test new vodka flavors like hibiscus and cilantro.

"The crowd that comes to a party like this is very open to trying out new things," Mr. Kouchnir said.

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Flavorpill partners with a different charity for each event and encourages attendees to donate. (A Lunch Break held the week after Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Lewis said, raised more than $2,000 for the Food Bank for New York City.)

But the primary purpose of the parties, he suggested, is to counteract the numbing effects of an increasingly digitized culture.

"It brings to life what our mission is," said Mr. Lewis, adding that the company plans to expand the party to five cities this summer. "Get off the couch, get away from your computer and go have experiences."

Which Lauren Tempera, 26, who works in the food department of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, was certainly doing the other day when she skipped her usual midday routine (scrounging around the test kitchen) to go to Lunch Break with a co-worker, Caitlin Brown.

"No one was here today, so we snuck out and left our intern with the phone," Ms. Tempera said. "Free peanut butter sandwiches, Absolut and Questlove? You really can't beat that."

Another reveler, Ryan Manill, publicly summed up his appreciation for the midday gathering as Questlove wound down his set. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he screamed a word that would make many human resources managers cringe, followed by "work!"

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