IT'S Friday night and the techno beats are bouncing around the dimly lighted room. Perfectly groomed men and gaggles of smartly dressed young women are kicking back with wine, hors d'oeuvres and some pretty intense touching. No one is complaining about the very public interactions, especially not Leonard Lanzi.
With bare feet soaking in a sudsy pedicure tub, Lanzi, an executive with Junior Achievement, is surrounded by his employees, who seemed to be having a good time making fun of the boss's calloused feet. Lanzi, for better or worse, invited the office to Happy Hour Friday at Dtox, a new place to socialize in Atwater Village near Griffith Park. Despite the name, Dtox isn't a bar, or a rehab joint, but a day spa that once a month throws open its treatment room doors to add a social element to massages, facials and pedicures.
Even if that element is, "Lennie, wow, you need this!"
The serene atmosphere of the spa is changing fast. With group grottoes, coed steam baths and mud rituals for parties of eight, the spa is evolving into a place where socializing and private pampering coexist amid the steam and suds.
Solidarity in sweat
HEAD to a spa today, and you may find yourself sitting in a torrid sauna surrounded by towel-wrapped men and women, or meditating with strangers swathed only in Dead Sea mud. Some of these sweaty others could even be your coworkers: Spas are becoming the new golf, the new fancy dinner, the new healthy happy hour. They're the luxury bonding experience that's social and, for the most part, socially acceptable.
Group spa rituals are common to those who have experienced the Russian shvitz, Turkish hammam or Korean scrub, but they're a significant departure from Puritan America's distaste for public displays of the personal. The new practices slid slowly into the spa, beginning with dual massages for couples.
"Suddenly, spas were realizing that if you had a couples treatment room, it became a popular kind of activity," says Jeremy McCarthy, director of spa development for Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
Industry research revealed that many spa patrons came for the first time because they were invited to a group event. Spas responded by making their services and environs even more welcoming.
At the new Glen Ivy Day Spas in Hermosa Beach and Valencia, architect Todd S. Voelker built a social experience into the floor plan. The area, called "the grotto," is a series of rocky-looking rooms that vary in temperature and humidity. Here, beach rules apply: Men and women in bathing suits are swabbed with a sea kelp moisturizer, then sent to the nearly 100-degree, granite-like grotto to bake with up to eight others.
Voelker says the main room's heat and curvy shapes were intended to give you "a feeling of surrounding you, almost like being held. Yet you can still see and hear your friends. It's kind of a funny experience."
When they're ready, all the hot bodies rinse off (alone, but without shower curtains) in a cave-like nook before cooling down in a misty grotto. It all sounds pretty sexy, but people tend to avoid eye contact -- perhaps because most of the guys are there with their wives.
At Qua Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, men and women are diving into Roman baths, then heating up in a coed room, the Laconium. Think of it as a grand group steam that glorifies the hippie hot tub experience.
With warmed benches to hold 10 and a twinkling dome ceiling, men and women can gather in the circular setting pre- or post-treatment. The Laconium's atmosphere is set at a sensual 115-degrees with 50% humidity. The three Roman baths vary from warm to hot to cold, but are segregated by gender.
Still, the combination of rooms for warming up with steam or hot tea, and cooling down with ice and chilly air, then resting while watching sports on TV in the men's lounge, has helped shift the usual ratio of men to women from 3 to 1, to more like 1 to 1, a radical shift, says spa director Jennifer Lynn.
THOUGH such "social spa-ing," the new term for group spa treatments, sounds like forced mixing with strangers, in practice, some spas are controlling the interaction by scheduling groups at appointed hours, renting to private parties and eliminating common areas.
At the Argyle Spa in West Hollywood, there's no locker room, just individual, ultra-luxurious suites that look like grand hotel rooms outfitted with spa equipment. Though the setup is perfect for couples, party crowds frequently hire out the five suites for private celebrations where inhibitions are left at the door.
"It's funny because they all run around nude together," says the spa's owner and director, Britney Huinker. "They're very free."
Though day spas took the lead in socializing their treatments, hotels are hot on their heels, especially now that many resorts are finding that spas are popular settings for -- yikes -- corporate retreats. Yes, you may be soaking with the boss.