There was a time, now in the distant past, when club dancing in Kenya was just that: club dancing. Disco lights. Few drinks. Songs and dancing until a rooster crows at dawn. By the time you went home, you had achy joints to nurse.
Then disco lights went out. Now, city clubs are crowded, turned into stuffy lounges with no dance floors.
What revellers call clubs today are akin to drinking joints where patrons sit huddled together around tables, eyes fixed on smartphones or engaging in half-hearted conversations over the loud music, with an endless cocktail of drinks.
From Déjà vu in Nairobi’s Westlands to The Tunnel along Mombasa Road, Bourbon Bridge in Ruaraka, and Whiskey River Lounge along Kiambu Road, almost every club in the Nairobi Metro area is a replica of the next across the street: multiple bars, a sea of tables, a restaurant or grilling area, and DJ music. But minimal dancing space. Or none at all.
One reveller tells BDLife the only difference between these joints is the depth of pockets of the patrons.
That few Kenyan clubs have enough room for dancing is a frequent complaint on social media. Calvin Onditi once said: “No dance floors. Just drinking tables every inch.”
Benedict Walubengo laments “we killed dance floors for lounges” and argues that this is why Kenyan clubs cannot measure up to their East African peers. In some African cities, clubs have no chairs. People go there specifically to dance.
Kenyan club owners say they are keen on investing in seating arrangements that can pack up as many patrons as possible, with a focus on the sale of drinks. Entertainment spots rely on revenue from alcohol sales to grow their businesses.
Daphne Wanjiru, the marketing manager at Switch Lounge in Nairobi’s Karasani, says having a full house does not always translate to high sales.
“It depends on what people are drinking. Sometimes you have a busy weekend but when you go back to your numbers, you realise you did not make much or even hit your targets.’’
“Also as a club owner, you want to have enough seating space for everyone who walks in,” she says, adding that “to compensate for the days when patrons only sit and drink,” Switch Lounge hosts artistes for live performances.
However, Alex Mwonga, the manager of K1 Klub House in Nairobi, argues that the choice of a club’s seating arrangement is driven by its business model.
“Some clubs target crowds. That is why they have more tables and chairs to sit many. At K1, we have a reputation of being spacious, which allows our customers to move freely. In today’s competitive club business, you gain or lose reputation based on the kind of experience you offer,” he says.
Dancing was a culture
Phyllis Wanja does not club these days. She says she finds it lonely.
“I was at a club in Westlands, Nairobi where nearly everyone was on their phone, either chatting or laughing at memes, taking selfies, and doing live videos. I disliked the fake and show-off behaviour. It was in 2019, just before Covid-19.” It was the last time she went out to a club.
She says she has been to clubs in Nairobi where she felt out of place “probably because I am older. People just sit, take pictures, and end up drinking a lot because you can hardly dance. Sometimes you do not even talk to people you are out with. You are left wondering: what was the point of leaving your house?”
Club dancing was a “culture” back in the day, she reminisces, adding that “energy levels were always high. My friends and I would make sure to show up.”
Chris Njagi, the manager of Willis Lounge in Kisumu, also argues that, like everything else, clubbing trends change with time.
“Dancing is more popular with younger people. Nowadays, older people with money to spend just want a place where they can enjoy their drink and some music,” he says.
The dilemma for club owners is attracting huge numbers of revellers who come to dance but do not spend handsomely on expensive drinks.
Chris says less dancing has business implications. “The more patrons dance, the less drinks they buy. When someone buys two beers and spends the rest of the night on stage dancing, this does not make business sense. At the end of the day, you need to make money.”
He explains that major clubs discourage youngsters “especially university students” because “all they want to do is to buy a bottle of cheap alcohol and dance.”
“We have had to withdraw some of the cheap gins popular with them. I would rather have in the club with adults who will buy a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whisky and enjoy while dancing by their table.”
Chris says the sale of expensive whiskies, cognac, and liqueurs is the mainstay of clubs. Johnnie Walker Black Label, Jack Daniel’s, Hennessy, and Glenfiddich are especially fast movers.
While the recommended retail price of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, for instance, retails at between Sh5,500 and Sh6,000 in most outlets, the same will sell at between Sh10,000 and Sh12,000 in a club.
It is for this reason that in some clubs, the admission age is 25 years and older. To most clubs, this demographic can buy “reasonable” drinks for a longer time.
There is also the issue of rising rent prices. Clubhouses pay more for bigger spaces and the more affluent the neighbourhood, the higher the expense on floor space. Chris says modern buildings are also smaller than before, making it harder for entertainment businesses to leave a lot of idle space.
“We are considering investing in a hydraulic stage for those who want to dance. When we are packed, we can collapse it and set tables,” he says.
Njeri Njoroge from Regent Management, a real estate company, says smaller dance floors in clubs are mostly a consequence of design factors rather than high rent, noting that landlords usually offer “shell and core” after which tenants redesign it for their purpose.
“A tenant pays for the space they need. If you want 9,000 square feet, for instance, that is what you are charged for.”
She does admit, though, that clubs that occupy older buildings in Nairobi that have been re-purposed for entertainment use often feature more floor space than those in modern buildings.
Is the rising cost of rent forcing clubs to limit floor space? Njeri says that real estate has become a buyer’s and tenant’s market in recent years.
“The price of floor space has been going down, both for commercial and residential purposes. Tenants have more power to negotiate with landlords for a lower rate.”
For the modern clubber in Kenya now, the weekend has been relegated to nursing hangovers and not aching feet.
To understand the place of nightclubs in the social fabric of Kenya’s yesteryears, music hits “Keroro” by Nonini and Jimw@t’s “Under 18” were filmed at Nairobi’s Zeep Club along Mama Ngina Street — now closed— to capitalise on its carnival sensation.
Popular in the day for music and dance, Florida 2000 (F2), Starlight Club and Tacos have all closed shop. Where some of them stood are now new businesses, while others have come down to pave way for “modern” structures, turning Nairobi — as writer Silas Nyanchwani puts it — more corporate and less artsy.
There were also weekend jam sessions for teens and dance competitions.
“This is where Kanda King and his sister Princess Faridah made their big break,” says Phyllis.
Years back, F1 and F2 clubs in Nairobi charged an entrance fee, which covered one for the night.
“We did not go to the club just for drinks. We went to connect with people and to enjoy the experience. You do not get any more of that these days,” she adds.
Mercy Mumbi, though, thinks the death of nightclubs and the lack of dance floors in modern entertainment spots has everything to do with today’s style of music.
“Music has changed over time. Few songs today are danceable. Today’s dancing has very overt sexual connotations.”
She adds: “During our time, you had no problem dancing with both men and women, even strangers because the dance was decent. Today, your partner on the dance floor could be anyone with all sorts of intentions, including snatching your phone away.”
During her college days, Mercy and her friends would commute from the Kikuyu campus of the University of Nairobi to Carnivore Grounds to party all night.
“We could afford to dance until dawn because we did not drink to extremes. How can someone dance today while they are intoxicated with alcohol and shisha?”
To her, the modern club owner is more aggressive about having drinks fly off the bar to make money. “Clubs do not care if you are enjoying the experience or not for as long as you are having drinks and tagging them on social media. It has been so long since I danced properly. Nightlife has become boring,’’ says Mercy.
With beverage makers now setting up online bars where consumers can buy a drink and enjoy it at home, the scene of club dancing is likely to transform even further.