The suds rose and then floated like pink cotton candy clouds above the throbbing techno music, drifting over the throng of partygoers, swirling higher and higher into the thick night and down Half Street SE until the bubbles burst.

Back on earth, under the suds, a new generation of nocturnal ravers thrilled in sheer ecstasy--meaning joy--as suds soaked them, twirling, bathing in song, music, freedom and liquid detergent.

They danced, covered with bubbles, at this foam party. The beat throbbed. A tall man-boy in five-inch spike heels, bare-chested and wearing a metallic red miniskirt, shimmied. A fifty-something mother in a T-shirt passed out love beads and trinkets. A girl wearing a black pigtail and an impossibly tight spaghetti-strap shirt squealed and blew bubbles--on beat. They were in a communal groove, climbing into the music, becoming one in soap.

That is what the local, once-underground rave scene had come to Friday night--a gigantic bubble bath.

"We're having a foam party," says Scott Henry, a rave deejay and promoter for Sting, the company that organized the third annual suds party at Nation, a club on Half Street. For most of the night, the foam machine on the club's deck spat out bubbles, creating a landscape of suds rising chest- and shoulder-high, allowing the partyers to do the unmentionable under soap.

"It brings back childhood memories," Henry said, "blowing bubbles, being in a bubble bath. It's good clean--no pun intended--fun."

The foam rave originated on the Spanish island of Ibiza in the '80s, where rave began. Here, on this night, it was another ingredient of the American rave scene billowing up from its subterranean past.

"The music we play is no longer underground," Henry says. "America has started to embrace rave dance music."

In the light of day, the rave scene has suffered some backlash from die-hard followers for going mainstream, Henry says.

"In the beginning, there is always this feeling you are selling out," he says.

Some artists who once played smaller parties have been signed by major record labels and made videos for MTV. "The underground people feel very threatened by the mainstream media, threatened by mainstream values," Henry says.

Almost every Friday night for four years, Sting, formerly known as Buzz, has been throwing a party at Nation. Things are different now, says Lieven DeGeyndt, a promoter for Sting. The company is trying to shake the rave stigma.

Raves hit England in the early '80s, making their way to the United States by the early '90s as illegal parties held in warehouses. An elaborate grapevine got word to those in the know about where the next rave would be. But the old raves were often tagged as a kind of drug subculture, and their image worsened after the untimely deaths of a few partyers who overdosed on the drug Ecstasy.

That is an image of rave that Henry and DeGeyndt are trying to erase.

"There were a lot of drugs. A lot of people likened it to the '60s hippie movement, with large masses of people," DeGeyndt said. "But adults then didn't understand it. The stigma of the hippie lives today. Now it's ravers. Too many people focus on the negative aspect."

The house rules at Nation prohibit the use of drugs, inhalers, even candy. They don't allow dance circles or sitting on the floor. The hundreds of young partyers streaming through the doors are all patted down. No weapons, no cameras, not even pencils and pens are allowed. And no baby pacifiers. The pacifiers, club managers say, were too closely associated with the raves of old. This is not an image they want anymore.

The scene, ravers say, has been misunderstood, cast as something ugly, dirty, druggy. Working on that premise, WTTG-TV last May broadcast a grainy image of alleged illicit activity and drug use. The ravers protested, saying it was a lie. The parties were shut down for more than a month.

John Boyle, who owns Nation, says, "We've tried everything to make this a safe place to come have a great night."

The rave scene has evolved into a well-organized nightclub dance party. Everybody is welcome. "It's the gay crowd, the Euro crowd, the club crowd, the rave crowd, the college crowd," DeGeyndt says. "It's crossed over to where many people come because they enjoy to dance."

Inside a VIP room at Nation, five old-guard ravers sit on vintage chairs and expound on the philosophy of rave. They defend "the scene," the one in which inhibitions loosen up and nobody laughs at the way you dance or cares whether you are dancing to the real beat or an imagined beat. People have created Utopia in their minds and on the scene. Color doesn't matter. The real ravers want to party to house music, techno and trance music all night until the sun comes up in a haze of delirium.

"The rave gives people a chance to revert to childhood," says Caroline Platt, 24. Platt, who works for a techno drum 'n' bass music label in New York, says she has dedicated her life to helping people understand the movement.

"It's constructive escapism," professes Ben Adams, 21, a bookstore manager who lives in Alexandria.

"It's hard to have an attitude when you are covered in foam," says Meighan Whalen, 24, a public relations rep who lives in Glover Park.

"It's not about age," says Al Hariston, 27, of Silver Spring. "It's about how you act."

He is considered a geriatric raver, as is anyone older than 25. Geriatric ravers look at it more philosophically. They try to be more critical. They want to keep it real, like it was years ago in Ibiza, where foam parties are still held.

Hariston patrols the scene looking for slackers. "If I see someone sleeping, I say, 'This is no place to sleep!' " he says. "If I were sleepy or in a bad mood, I would stay home. If I can't contribute to the mood, I don't come out. People make the party."

Platt sighs. "We are all, in a way, trying to contribute to the scene." She has been raving since she was 17.

A woman who gives her name as Jessica says she loves the love she feels at the party. "People come up to you and give you gifts all the time. . . . At the end of the night, I lie in bed and can recount 50 or more nice things people have said to me. Sometimes people come up to me and say, 'You're so beautiful,' even though I'm not the most beautiful person."

Her voice trails off as she sits on the edge of a sofa.

Whalen fills in: "Girl, you are beautiful! If you don't believe in yourself, no one will."

Adams jumps in. "Traditional beauty doesn't apply here. It's more about the merit of the individual. People here really do believe in the greater good."

It's an assumed kinship.

Now it's more of a liquid-soap, diluted love fest.

Outside in the suds, under the stars, a storm threatens--but nobody notices. The foam machine is still spewing forth. On this hot summer night, the suds have created an early winter scene with a view of the Capitol as the backdrop.