Dance like nobody’s watching: how more and more Manchester clubbers are embracing sobriety

A new wave of alcohol free spaces have opened in the city. But how exactly are people enjoying nights out without the booze?

In a dark basement club on the edge of Manchester’s iconic Gay Village, around a hundred people strut together as the live girl band plays catchy 90s tunes. 

One clubber is dressed in a thong bodysuit, face daubed with neon paint as he moves on the podium with an enviable level of confidence. Huddles of strangers chatter while waiting in line for the bathroom and plastic pint glasses filled with pale ‘cider’ are accidentally spilled on the bustling dance floor. 

It’s difficult to move as arms and disco ball balloons are gleefully thrown up in the air. The saxophone player begins her solo and a hen party leads a conga line as the bride-to-be’s white novelty veil flies freely behind. 

It’s a scene like scores of other clubs, with one crucial difference; not a single drop of alcohol has been consumed here. 

“It’s the first time I’ve felt safe on a night out,” said sober-curious Jade.  

“I wasn’t worried about people bumping into me while I was dancing and it escalating into a fight. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

But make no mistake – there are no ‘primary school disco’ vibes or people sitting around in chairs sharing quiet words of support at this sober gathering. 

Reveller Olivia* said: “It was honestly the best time I’ve had in years. I didn’t know I had sober confidence until then – absolutely brilliant.”

Flamingo AF is the brainchild of Stef Smith and Lily Quek, who met via TikTok where they candidly shared their respective journeys of sobriety and alcoholism. 

They quickly realised there was a gap in the market when it came to safe and inclusive spaces for people who enjoyed a ‘classic’ night out but didn’t want to drink alcohol for whatever reason. 

So the friends launched their first sold-out sober party in February 2023 and since then,their business has rocketed with a string of other successful events and a TikTok following of more than 96k.

Stef and Lily wanted to grow an even wider sober social offering so created community group The Fresh Flockers’, with various meetups taking place alongside the Flamingo AF parties. 

It now has more than 4,000 members who attend virtually and in person to go on walks, take part in cold water swims, enjoy meals and join book clubs across the UK.

Co-founder Lily said: “I wholeheartedly believe that Flamingo AF has helped me overcome my anxiety. If you can dance completely sober and have an amazing time doing it, then you can honestly do anything! 

“When I first stopped drinking, I thought I was giving up something so special but the truth is, I gave up alcohol to gain so many other incredible things and experiences instead.”

The party in full swing at Flamingo AF Manchester in May 2024

They are not alone as more sober spaces are popping up across Manchester. As well as club nights, the city’s second dedicated sober bar, Hinterland, opened its doors on Turner Street on 18 June. 

When Manchester’s first dedicated alcohol-free bar, Love From, launched last year, one person commented on the brand’s TikTok post, ‘Think it’s brilliant what you’re doing, wish you had one here in Benidorm.’ while another said that the bar would be ‘shut in six months’. 

More than 18 months later, it appears that the bar has gone from strength to strength since its initial conception, having just launched its own low-alcohol canned beverage, cheekily named ‘Boring AF’ in response to some of the more sceptical comments.

They were also commissioned to host the first ever alcohol-free bar at the 2024 Parklife music festival, offering a more sophisticated alternative to fizzy drinks. 

Drinks at Love From – Manchester’s first dedicated alcohol free bar

In the corporate world, attitudes are slowly shifting too.

Manchester-based investor, keynote speaker and author, Dominic McGregor, 31, frequently shares his own lived experience of sobriety on LinkedIn, challenging ‘toxic’ workplace practices and cultures. 

The Social Chain co-founder hosted the launch of his new book, I’m Never Drinking Again, at Love From last month. 

Dominic said: “I first made the call to go sober when I was about 23 years old. I didn’t really feel like there was much in my life other than drinking and going out. 

“I ended up in a destructive spiral and realised that I was not only hurting myself, but also hurting people around me. I felt isolated at first, from my social circles and also in professional environments where suddenly I stopped fitting into the ‘norm’ by not drinking. 

“I did Coachella sober about nine months after I stopped drinking and that was a real light bulb moment, that I could go to a festival of that scale and still have a really good time with people I care about. 

“Now, every day I’m waking up with a new personal best on some level and for me, that’s a blessing. The first time I did something new and realised that I didn’t need alcohol to do it was very special.

“It used to be that the working week was all about getting to Friday and going out on the p*ss. The reality is that now you’ve got a certain demographic of people in their early 20s who aren’t really doing that anymore – they’re more about doing a boot camp on a Saturday.

“People are prioritising their life and looking after themselves better with things like exercise and healthy eating – cutting out booze becomes a natural part of that story too.“

In the midst of glow sticks, pretty booze-free cocktails and positive affirmations, it’s almost too easy to forget that sobriety isn’t optional for everyone. 

The impact of alcohol addiction can be devastating. 

Recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that alcohol-specific deaths in England increased between 2012 and 2022. 

The North West had the highest number of overall deaths with 1,030 reported in 2012, rising to 1,334 in 2022. 

But it was the North East which saw the fastest rise with an 85% increase in deaths during the same ten-year period, growing from 312 in 2012 to 576 in 2022.

When referring to these statistics on their blog, the UK’s leading alcohol charity Alcohol Change UK said: “Each one of those deaths is a tragedy, representing a person who has had their life cut short and has left behind people who are grieving and miss them every day.

“Years of inaction on alcohol harm has led to this, and it is heartbreaking that these deaths were totally avoidable.

“We must recognise that alcohol harm is far more prevalent than we realise. This harm is affecting thousands of families, communities and society. 

“This is why we’re urging the government to recognise the urgency to implement sensible preventive measures to stop as many people as possible from needing alcohol treatment services in the first place.” 

Across town on Whitworth Street, another gathering is taking place at Vision nightclub. 

At Dry Wave, the UK’s largest sober curious event, the vibes are quite different to Flamingo AF.

Founder Ben began his career as a club promoter and turned his life around after a three-year battle with addiction. He went on to work on music projects with hard to reach young people and Dry Wave was born.

With tribal house music blasting in one room, a smiling server offers party-goers alcohol-free shots from a round tray. The other side of the club looks like the inside of an arcade machine as the floor pulsates with harder garage vibrations. 

The clientele is a mixed group of all ages and genders, with most donning a traditional Haçienda-esque style of clubwear – think bucket hats, baggy trousers and smart trainers.

Crucially, as before, there are no substances or intoxicated guests to be found – the security personnel on the door carrying out rigorous searches make sure of that. 

Ben from Dry Wave at the May Manchester event

When it comes to the nightlife sector as a whole, it has faced major setbacks with Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) figures reporting that 396 night clubs were forced to close their doors between March 2020 and December 2023, accounting for 31% of clubs across the UK.

While the Covid pandemic undoubtedly played a part in the decline, could pivoting from ‘traditional’ club nights and providing space for those demanding a new type of sober experience be a financially viable option for the industry?  

Further south, Emma Barron is a co-founder of queer-led sober event The House of Happiness, based in London. Growing up in a remote Yorkshire village, Emma discovered the joy of clubbing in Manchester when she came of age in the late 90s. 

“I went to a monthly gay night called Flesh at the Hacienda and it was one of the best clubs I’ve ever been to,” she said. 

“It was a different era and I very much struggled when I first came out. 

“I got to Manchester and felt finally able to escape from the shackles of a small village. Alcohol and drugs were fairly normalised on the club scene. I looked at the older people and that’s what they’re doing so I did the same.”

Emma eventually moved to London where the new-found party lifestyle followed her. 

“When me and my friends would go out, it was all quite hedonistic. I worked in TV. I didn’t have to pay rent as I lived in my parents flat at the time. I was very lucky but I indulged massively and it got quite dark eventually. 

“Alcohol was this safety net, this constant that had been with me forever. I used to feel like as long as I’ve got alcohol, I’m going to be OK.”

This mindset continued after Emma met her partner almost 20 years ago and once they started a family later on. It was only after reading a book in 2016 – The Naked Mind by Annie Grace – that she began to change her mindset. 

“What enticed me about this book was that it wasn’t all about quitting, it was just about alcohol moderation. That was the key because if it was about how you rid your life of alcohol, I would have not been interested at all,” says Emma. 

After a series of ups and downs, she eventually stopped drinking for good but then faced the dilemma of potentially having to quit clubbing too. 

Until she attended her first ever sober rave. 

“People were dancing to house music completely sober and it was a game changer for me.” she said. 

“I’ve always loved music but had assumed that because I didn’t drink anymore, I couldn’t risk going clubbing.”

Emma bought some decks and learned how to mix house music, forging a successful name for herself as DJ Barroness and playing along household names such as Brandon Block.

She teamed up with friends Neil and Janey and directed her energy into co-founding The House of Happiness, where they have a regular slot at the Fire club in Vauxhall and will be making an announcement soon regarding the Manchester sober scene. 

“I just wanted to feel like I’m in a normal club. I wanted to see podium dancers in a grown up environment with banging vocal house music – so that’s what we’ve created,” she said. 

House of Happiness on TikTok

But why do we need these types of spaces?

Podcaster Lindzi Hargreaves travelled from Leicester for the Flamingo party, having attended two events previously.  

She doesn’t drink. Her friends usually do, however, they agreed to skip the booze and join her for a day of birthday celebrations. 

“I’m not trying to convert them or anything though,” laughs Lindzi. 

“We’ve had such a good time and it proves that it’s not about getting drunk – it’s about the energy that you bring along. It’s quite an empowering experience.”

Her friends nod enthusiastically behind her. 

“If you can dance in a room full of strangers while sober, it really makes you feel like you can do anything,” she added.

Sharing her own personal reasons for setting up Flamingo AF, co-founder Stef said: “I was only supposed to be taking a break from drinking, but it has completely changed my life. At first, I thought I was missing out on drinking, but now I don’t want to miss out on my sober life.” 

“I went into sobriety in 2021. I had zero confidence, was on anxiety pills and I was unable to speak in meetings at work. 

“Fast forward to 2024 and I’ve put the money I saved from not drinking towards a vintage VW campervan. I named it Ruby after my nan and now take Bertie (my nan’s dog) on camping adventures.”

Her fellow Flamingo AF co-founder Lily said: “Before getting sober, I was very much a lonely living room drinker. In the morning. my anxiety would be so bad that I’d hide away then too. 

“It was a very lonely existence but since getting sober, I’ve found myself surrounded by friendships and connections.”

If you or someone you know needs support, there is help available.

Alcohol Change UK
Website: alcoholchange.org.uk

Alcoholics Anonymous
Website: alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk
Phone: 0800 917 7650

*Name changed for privacy 

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