At a rave called Beyond Wonderland, in San Bernardino last March, Christopher Cheng is giving a light show. Cheng, a clean-cut 24-year-old known to his fans as Munch, wears tight-fitting white gloves, like a butler preparing to serve high tea. He moves his hands back and forth across the face of a younger kid who sits opposite him, transfixed. A group behind him gathers, eagerly awaiting an individual performance from one of the best-known "glovers" in the rave community.
On one of Munch's fingertips, a single blue light sparks to life — he makes it dance. Then as if by magic, it bounces from one fingertip to the next, then seemingly in and out of Munch's mouth (this is actually just a sleight-of-hand trick known as "conjuring"). A second light joins it, then a third, until all 10 of Munch's fingers are illuminated and undulating like the tendrils of a sea anemone. Even if you're not high (and let's assume the kid watching isn't), it's a dazzling display.
Gloving is the latest twist on the light show, an old rave tradition. Anyone who's been to an electronic music festival has likely been the recipient of one. Back in the day, they usually consisted of a pair of frantically waved glow sticks. But in recent years, the preferred delivery method has become gloves, typically white, with an LED light in each fingertip.
Some naysayers believe gloving emphasizes the illegal aspect of rave culture — the drugs — and would prefer it went away. One of the country's largest rave promoters, Insomniac, has banned it altogether.
But the best glovers, like Munch, have become celebrities in the rave community. The most popular YouTube videos from two other top glovers, Gummy and Skittles, have more than 2 million views apiece. (These folks often have goofy nicknames; others include Mimik, Kushion and Ice Kream Teddy.)
"It's crazy," says Brian Lim, owner of Emazing Lights, one of several national retailers of gloving supplies. "When you see Mimik or Gummy at an event, you have a line of people waiting to get a light show from them."
Since starting Emazing Lights three years ago by selling gloving sets and LEDs out of the trunk of his car, Lim has become the scene's shrewdest promoter; he likens it to the early days of breakdancing. At his West Covina store, one of three Emazing retail locations in Southern California, Lim hosts a monthly gloving competition called Battle of Supreme Swag (BOSS), which is ground zero for serious gloving practitioners. On a recent Saturday there, nearly 100 competitors vie for the BOSS title, which includes a $250 cash prize and bragging rights.
"Gloving at first may look silly," the West Covina native admits. "But these kids practice every day, all day."
As two sets of star glovers prepare to square off, Lim, a wiry Chinese-American with a wisp of chin whiskers, flits around the room directing traffic. "You gotta get everyone kneeling down," he directs a staff member, "so the people behind them can see."
Munch is one of several glovers on the Emazing payroll, helping to run Lim's Torrance store and promoting the brand at events and on YouTube. Today he serves as a glover wrangler, patrolling the store with a megaphone and cuing the DJ.
Munch also has some hardware himself, having won the first International Gloving Championship last June, a sort of super-BOSS Lim organized at the Fairplex in Pomona, which drew more than 2,000 gloving fans and some 400 competitors. The second one returned to the Fairplex last week.
"I didn't think I would win," Munch modestly claims. "The competition's so fierce."
Following Munch around BOSS is like hanging with the mayor. Every two or three minutes, a younger glover nervously sidles up to him, asking for tips or about tryouts for Team [e], Emazing Lights' official gloving team. "We don't really have tryouts," Munch explains apologetically, over and over. "It's invite-only. It's really close-knit; we're more like a family than a team."
Being part of one of the top teams is a badge of honor among glovers. Logan Smith, 24, aka Lumi, describes being invited to join Peace Love Lightshows (PLL) as an honor akin to being scouted by the Dodgers. PLL stars include Huntington Beach native Bryce Hall, who goes by Lokey.
"Before I was in PLL, I would see Lokey around and just say hi, but I would never talk to him," Lumi says. "I was too intimidated."
Lokey is built like a shortstop, with big hands and a compact, athletic frame. At BOSS, he's decked out in a black PLL T-shirt and matching black baseball cap. Something of an O.G. in the gloving scene, he picked it up four years ago, when both LED technology and gloving techniques were more primitive. Since then, he's become known as one of the best practitioners of "tutting," a highly precise technique borrowed from hip-hop, which involves forming the fingers and forearms into right angles and boxlike shapes.
Lokey also claims to be the first glover sponsored by a rave lights company, Texas-based KandEKreations. By helping KandE sell Lokey-branded glove sets and other accessories, he says he has racked up more than $30,000 in commissions in less than two years.
"They flew me to Texas twice to go to a couple of events they had," Lokey says. "I couldn't even buy a pack of gum without them paying for it."
Gloving's growing popularity has not been without controversy. Insomniac, an L.A.-based rave promoter and host of the gargantuan electronic music festival Electric Daisy Carnival, banned gloving from all of its events last year, vaguely explaining that light shows send "a false message of what the electronic dance music scene is about." When asked for further clarification, Erika Raney, Insomniac's communications director, explained that LED light gloves "distract from the fan experience," likening them to "beach balls at a baseball game."
But most glovers believe Insomniac's stance has to do with the perception — false, they insist — that gloving is mostly done for partygoers high on ecstasy. Because ecstasy dilates the pupils and has mildly psychedelic properties, rapidly moving bright lights look extra-dazzling to anyone feeling the effects of the drug.
Munch, like most glovers, acknowledges that the sport has its roots in drug-enhancing glow stick shows but believes it has progressed to where "it's more about the artistic traits."
As for Emazing's Lim, Insomniac's ban only made him more determined to prove gloving has gone legit. He views the International Gloving Championship, Emazing's hundreds of slickly produced YouTube videos and a recent "gloving challenge" on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew (featuring Emazing glove sets) as parts of a "nice portfolio to be, like, 'Hey Insomniac, check us out.' Yes, gloving back then was this way, but look at it now.
"Our goal," Lim adds, "is to show the world that gloving has evolved from this rave thing into a respectable art form."
In the meantime, glovers like Munch will have to practice their art form on the down-low at Insomniac events like Beyond Wonderland and Electric Daisy Carnival.
"I just sneak 'em in," Munch says. "I'm one of hundreds that do that."