Waacking, (Punking), Recycling, Schooling: Disco Dance on the Move by Mary Fogarty
Mary Fogarty is a lecturer on the BA Dance: Urban Practice course at the Institute for Performing Arts Development, University of East London.
Waacking started on the West Coast of the United States in the early 1970s and featured on the syndicated TV music show, Soul Train as one of the many dance styles represented on television. This dance was created by members of the Black and Spanish gay communities who danced at clubs such as Paradise Ballroom in Los Angeles. At that time, the gay and straight club communities were divided and the sexual revolution was just getting under way. Early influences on the dance style included movements and hand gestures from screen musicals featuring stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
Waacking is a style of dance that evolved from Posing: a style of movement where people would pose, on beat, to the music. Dancers imitated models from fashion magazines and this effort to strike a pose would later be replicated in New York City in the development of voguing. Waacking was originally a social dance with no name. Although a dance of the segregated gay scene, waacking was also picked up by straight dancers who did a version often called ‘punking.’ Some of the lockers who did punking, such as Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Ana “Lollipop” Sanchez, in fact played a significant role in keeping the dance form alive in various circuits.
At this time, the early 1970s, disco music was played at the gay clubs and had yet to break into the mainstream community. This was the music of choice for waacking. The significance of recorded music for the recycling of popular, social and vernacular dance styles has yet to receive adequate attention in dance scholarship. One way in which popular dances become popular is through the impact of recordings, and their related playback technologies, on the circulation of music worldwide. Recorded music is instrumental in the recycling of dance styles that, once popular, descend out of the spotlight, only to re-emerge decades later as reinvented versions of their younger selves. I suggest here that one motivation for these resurgences is the international appreciation of music genres, that often encourage the revival of their associated dance forms. This will become evident in my description of waacking in London, England.
Waack it Out
In September 2009 in London, England, the style of dance known as waacking sprang up in the club culture and hip hop theatrical venues open to hip hop and funk dancers. One of the foreign influences that encouraged this resurgence was an American dancer by the nickname of Princess Frankie Douglas, also known by her real name, Kumari Suraj, who gave workshops in the hopes of handpicking Londoners for a new chapter of waackers. Quickly after her departure, another American disciple of the dance, Aus Ninja, passed through to deliver workshops and in early 2011, Tyrone Proctor, one of the original waackers descended on London to provide his own workshops on the style. Alongside this succession of notable visits, other ongoing cultural exchanges and promoted nights contributed to a sustained interest in the style. Figures such as DJ Zulu, who helped organise a club night, and Karou Mendy, a French dancer who now lives in London and teaches waacking classes, helped to foster the emerging waacking community.
The development of waacking, and other social dances that emerged in the 1970s, bears a close relationship to events in the field of music and television entertainment. Before the emergence of music videos, as a genre available on a specialised television channel, TV shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train exposed American audiences to new fashions, music and dance steps. Soul Train was “the black answer to American Bandstand, and a cultural mecca for the entire decade of the seventies” (Vincent 1996, 169), having, “trickled into urban markets in syndication, city by city, until its nationwide zenith in the mid-1970s” (170). Those dancers who not only practiced the styles in their local neighborhood, but were also featured on television shows became known as the creators or authorities of the styles. They often incorporated an understanding of ‘showbiz,’ so, for example when Jeffrey Daniel coined the term ‘waacking’, and Tyrone Proctor agreed to this, the style was given a name that enabled an articulation of its worth beyond the vernacular sphere.
Social dances at this time, that became popular dances, did so because of the role played by directors, managers and promoters. For example, the filmmaker and choreographer, Tony Basil discovered not only the original lockers in the early 1970s but also some of the original waackers. Two of the 1970s groups that toured and performed were the “Outrageous Waack Dancers” and “Dance Machine.”
Waacking and other popular dance styles of this time in fact played an integral role in defining the aesthetics of popular music as, likewise, popular music (in this case disco and sometimes funk) played an integral role in defining the aesthetics of the dance styles. For example, funk music was associated with the Soul Train line, where partners would funk it out with social dances as a pair, but each doing their own individual movements. Waacking was also associated with performers like Diana Ross, who hired waackers for both her live performances and, later on, her music videos . The stylized gestures and dynamic arm lines of waacking would be associated with the diva musical experience. Waackers danced to musical genres such as disco, funk and anything James Brown.
Waacking’s disappearance from popular cultural practices was not surprising giving the longer history of fads, fashions and trends associated with both the development and the demise of various social dances through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What is worth considering is how these styles get revitalised, refashioned and recycled for contemporary generations who look up to pioneers as their elders and role models. One of the influential dancers in America who revisited the form was Brian “Footwork” Green. He was inspired by film footage he found of the original waackers. Later, members of the Seven Gemz and GhettOriginal Production would also play instrumental roles in recording interviews with and encouraging the continuing contributions of pioneering dancers of various dance styles, from breaking, to locking and waacking.
One of the current local practitioners of waacking in London, England is Karou Mendy. Her online profile explains how she grew up in France, was raised by a Senegalese family and grew up doing hip hop dance on the streets. She trained in New York in 2009, in waacking and vogueing, and received tutelage from important figures of the dance such as Archie Burnett, Benny Ninja, Marjory Smart, Alyssa Britteramos and Tyrone Proctor.
This profile is typical of the way dancers discuss and explain their personal histories in waacking styles. Profiles for dancers in the funk, disco and hip hop styles tend to associate the dancer with other key figures in the dance scene. This demonstrates the relevance of key figures in the scene, who act as hubs of knowledge, talent and experience. In other words, they ‘school’ younger participants. This is significant for a style that is recycled. Another important aspect of a dancer’s portfolio is their ability to travel and, in doing so, research their dance styles as close to the original sources as possible. For example, ‘pilgrimages’ and research trips to New York City are integral to authentication, as well as earning a dancer the sanction from pioneers to teach or participate in those dance styles. This addresses the morality issues at the core of street dance styles. With little actual economic capital at stake, dancers build their reputations through close affiliations and lineages with important dance teachers. This is the opposite of the way most ‘street’ dance styles are portrayed in current accounts; as ‘youth’ cultures, where learning is suggested to be peer-to-peer or self-taught. Importantly, this is made possible through the recycling of former dance styles and their recorded music. New dance styles cannot make such claims to lineage and outside authority.
Alongside Karou’s teaching and club performances, waacking has also been introduced to theatrical stages. The group, The Waacktitioners performed at Dancer’s Delight UK, and the vocabulary of waacking featured in “Frusted” by ADiaspora Collective, choreographed by Alesandra Seutin and Vicki Igbokwe as part of Dance Umbrella 2010. Notably, the emergence of waacking in London has been a predominantly female pursuit. Although one of the founding members of the Waacktitioners, Damien Anyasi, is male, alongside the “Prince of England,” most of those drawn to this style are interested in a performance of femininity. The academically inclined might be quick to recall Judith Butler’s (1990) influential gender theory, using the example of drag queens to suggest that all gender is a performance that is learned and rehearsed.
In its latest reincarnation, waacking has borrowed one of the aspects of voguing: the organisational structure of the ‘house.’ In an interview with one of the earliest academic scholars to write about hip hop, Tricia Rose, Willi Ninja describes vogue houses:
Vogue houses are based on the high fashion houses, like House of Chanel, House of St. Laurent and so on. Each vogue house develops a style and an image. They raise money to throw balls, which consist of various competitions, voguing being the most prestigious. But it’s also a family unit. House members stick together like a family because some of these kids can’t face their parents, can’t live with them once they tell them they are gay. Many of these kids are thrown out of the house by their parents. So they look up to the older members to give advice and support to the younger members in the group. So the fashion house is also just like a real home ��" a family unit- it’s not just a dance group. Also you could say it’s a social clique or posse. (Ninja in Rose and Ross, 1994, 167)
This analogy between dance crews and families is common amongst most of the street dance styles including breaking. However, for vogue dancers the analogy with the family takes on a special significance. The comparison between a real family and the ‘house’ in vogue culture is paradoxical. On the one hand, the resemblance with a real family is meant to demonstrate the closeness and intimacy shared by members of a tight knit family unit. On the other hand, the ‘real’ families of homosexual youth at that time were often homophobic and unsupportive in the coming out process of gay people. By kicking out of the house or disowning gay youth, the ‘real’ family created a need that the gay community, and the dance culture that grew out of this, attempted to provide through the vogue ‘house.’
Willi Ninja recalls being born in New Hide Park (in 1961). He was raised in Queens, New York City, although his family moved to South Jamaica for a short time. His memories of starting out as a dancer were linked to the music industry, and to many of the pioneers of waacking, such as Tyrone Proctor. He remembers:
"Around this time my best friends, Archie Burnett and Tyrone Proctor, and some others and I started a group. We called ourselves the Video Pretenders, because we used to go to any club that had video capabilities; we would do the exact dance routine in the videos that were out at the time. They would book us to mimic live the routine that was on the video. So it was fun for a while, then we said, 'Well why do we have to copy everybody’s else’s routine? Let’s come up with our own choreography.' And we were still getting bookings. Soon after that, I left the group to focus on some personal things. Then about a year later, they asked me to come back, but now they had changed the name to Breed of Motion. At that point we performed our own routines and did our own choreography. Tyrone, who used to be a Soul Train dancer, took a dance video of us performing in the Cat Club and showed it to his friend Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels [misspelling in original text] of the now defunct R & B group Shalimar, and they encouraged us to add vocals, so we tried to do some singing, too. In fact, Breed of Motion is still in existence as a recording group in the house music scene." (Ninja in Rose and Ross 1994, 165-167).
In this account, the link between dancers and the live music field is made apparent through the interactions that Willi Ninja had with the Shalamar group and Jeffrey Daniel. Dancers not only prepared choreography but also became involved with the music industry as musical artists, however fleeting their commercial successes.
In reviewing all of these historical facts, what becomes apparent is the integral relationship between street dance styles (made popular through mediation) and the music entertainment business. This took the form of involvement in both record making and the supplementary live and televised musical performances intended to both promote and endorse the sale of records, as well as earn additional income. The recent reworking of waacking in London is less connected with attempts to broach the musical entertainment field as singers or songwriters, and most performers who are affiliated with the new style are specialists in dancing or DJing. However, the most significant shift in the cultural practice from then (America) to now (England) is the dominance of heterosexual practitioners. Sadly, many of the early waackers have passed away, many due to A.I.D.S., leaving this recycling of the dance style a strangely lonely affair for those elders still left to remember and share this style abroad.
Thank-you to Erin Conaghan, one of my students at the University of East London, who read through a draft of this article and gave me valuable feedback. email@example.com
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, London, Routledge.
Ross, Andrew and Tricia Rose. 1994. Microphone fiends: youth music & youth culture. London: Routledge.
Vincent, Rickey. 1996. Funk: the music, the people, and the rhythm of the one. 1st St. Martin's Griffin ed. Edition. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.