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12 December, 2012

Dance, Punk, Dance!

Hey, there I am! Not doing the monster mosh. Photo by Cindy Hicks.

Think about punk rock, and what comes to mind? Many Americans immediately imagine spiked leather jackets and giant mohawks, gothily made-up girls with safety pins through their lips.

Yeah, there were some striking visuals among punks before everyone else started dying hair and piercing faces, but this vision stems mostly from TV characters in the costume and make-up peoples' recollections of a visit to London in 1979. As an old fart who was a punk in the US a few years later, what I remember more than the outfits is the dancing.

Dancing, punk rock? Not an association that jetes to mind (other than among Anglophiles who remember the Pogo, Britannia's silliest dance craze), but the chief entertainment while watching five bands play three chords and scream for hours was dancing. Here's what I remember about that, illustrated with photos by Cindy Hicks, who was there recording this display. (See more of her work here.)

Some people reading this are now realizing, "Oh yeah, punks do love the mosh pit," but those people are almost as idiotic as the ones who think all punks look like The Exploited™ and dance the Pogo. I don't know who started saying "mosh," but it wasn't punks in the early 1980s. We slammed and skanked and thrashed, but we did not mosh. Come to think of it, though, it always was in that open floor right below the band called the "pit."

Counterclockwise skankin, as per Coriolis. Photo by Cindy Hicks.

Punks love to believe that they are non-conformist, but within their milieu, they follow some rules. One is that once people started dancing--as opposed to surging, jostling, shoving, and flailing--a big counter-clockwise gyre developed in the pit. Round and round, sucking people in like a whirlpool, then flinging them out like a centrifuge when their will or body became too weak to contribute. When a couple of people started skanking around, the crowd would part, avoiding what was basically like drunk speed skaters on a really small track.

Sometimes, dancers linked elbows or threw arms around each other's shoulders and formed a pair that would fly round the ring. Now and then, a pair became three or four or more, a giant second hand sweeping round, clearing the floor. From time to time, an eddy would break out of the main circle, with to people doing a do-si-do, maybe swing their partners round and round. 

Part of me is tempted to get all crictiquely about the square dance maneuvers that occurred in these cyclones, to infer the roots of '90s Americana or the perseverance of folk dance traditions, but really it was just goofy fun. Kinda like when someone would take center floor and do an inept break dance (we hated disco and contributed to its death, but something about the electric boogaloo proved fascinating to punks).

The end of a long dive, photo by Cindy Hicks.

But we didn't just copy white people of yesteryear and black people of our own time. I'd like to think that we invented (or perfected) the stage dive. Partly an adaptation and survival of the fittest, stage-dives also exhibited aspects of mating displays and initiation rites. Sometimes, the crowd pushing band-ward would barf someone up on stage, and the only way back was to dive in an display of anarchic self-policing (no bouncers required). Or it might be that guy hoping that girl would think he was cool, or just craved attention and a thrill. Some would just lean back (their trust rewarded for the most part), but there was a lot to be said for the flying leap onto a sea of hands.

Or maybe, through a couple of people and onto the floor. I'll totally admit that I misjudged a few. The photo above is me diving into a too-sparse crowd. Even though I aimed for Andy, who I knew to be stout, I'd flown across a lot of air and gravity threw me down. I tried it again in Denver at a DK show, thinking the sparse crowd would be friendly like in Richmond, but they failed me and I got a concussion. got a concussion. got a concussion. got..oh yeah..I said that. 

Recovering from a dive,...or break-dancing. Photo by Cindy Hicks.
Part of the magic of the stage dive (to an anthropologist, anyway) is the transgression of the band's priestly precinct on stage. Or more like it, a small scene like Richmond would not tolerate a prima donna too high and mighty to share the stage with a sweaty non-musician. Sometimes people danced on stage and leaned into the mike, more people watching them than the band. Othertimes, a crowd just surged into singerspace, sometimes resulting in reverse stage dives, pressure building til someone is ejaculated onto the stage. That person might turn around and dive back in, or nonchalantly hang out on stage, maybe just talking to somebody with his back turned to the band. But I guess that doesn't count as dancing.

Photo by Cindy Hicks. See it at Propiratzi's Flickr feed.
Or the interest might suddenly focus on the pit's center, a vortex would form, and people would be sucked into a giant pile-up. Looking up from the bottom, I'd hate to see the fat guy coming, but I never heard of (or heard) any broken ribs. Mostly it was a boy thing. Girls joined the dance circle a lot, but were mostly smart enough to back toward the walls when a critical mass of testosterone got to just push-shoving and kick-thrashing. Not coincidentally, I think, most of the archival shots of dance action I've been able to find are from the girls in that crowd.. History thanks you, women.

Some of the wildest shots, I think, involve guys who were not really part of the scene. Rarelier as time went by, rednecks would show up trying to pick a fight, but were mostly stymied. More often, military guys would come, looking to cut loose and enjoy some slam dancing, maybe get one of those punk girls. And if the girls were stand-offish, maybe punch a few of those rotten commie punk boys. (Or, sometimes, get sucked into the vortex and spend their discharge check on a guitar.)

Plenty of punk bands would stop playing when things got out of hand. Fights happened, but I remember bands singling out violent assholes for derision until they just walked away. Pretty much anything else, you could cut loose without sanction or embarrassment. Even mock violence, like the 'chicken fights' (typically girl riding on a boy, facing off with another such team) or, uh, GWAR.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of some of the dance moves that might last only one night. If the ilk of Cliff did it ("Hey Dobey, let's walk funny and start a new trend"), then people would copy for a while. Honor Role had some song where we'd do the Man from Penis dance to some song (maybe it was called "Man from Penis,"..or Venus,…but I'm a blogger not a historian, Jim), which is this: palms together above the head, moving them up and down while we high-knee circled at a moderate to slow pace. There may have been head-bobbing.

As with most of the punk posts, I keep coming back to this: the Richmond scene in those days felt like freedom. Dancing was a huge part of that. Swing your arms with abandon, blow off steam. Create and clown. Glory in the freedom to dance without giving a shit what it looks like or what people will think.

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