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Social Dance

Each subculture develops its own style of dancing that is mostly seen performed by fans at gigs of the corresponding music bands. For punk, it is the pogo, the slam dance, and other forms of group activities that will be researched below. Punk rock that resisted commercial influence was intended as a rebellious type of music where amateurism and incompetence were channeled to despise superstars, complex electronic music, musical technical virtuosity and high prices for concerts. Celebrating chaos punk lovers deliberately produced cacophonous music and wore shabby clothes. The continuation of their expression was dancing as an antipode to harmony. It was vertical jumping up and down on a spot with stiff legs and arms closely pressed to the body. Debbie Harry explains that the pogoing dance was named after a pogo stick.

Pogoing and slam dancing can be framed within the Afro-Euro-American triangle of influence. With erratic jumps, the dance style feels quite rigid, which reveals its European aesthetics. According to Gottschild, European style is characterized by rigidity and verticality of the body; the energy is directed upward. While pogoing, a dancer can jump aside or kick a leg but the movements are still stiff and controlled. The theme of stiffness is continued in dances that imitate the movements of a robot, presenting collages of frozen automata, which re-emerged in break-dancing.

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The new fans added movements and terms. According to Andersen, the slam was made up by a group of punks from Huntington Beach, an LA suburb, who had taken the vertically oriented “pogo” dance of earlier punk and turned it into a bruising, horizontal one that they proudly called the ‘Huntington Beach strut. It was later called “the slam.” Another term for that new dance move came from the American hardcore punk band Bad Brains that used Jamaican slang for dancing – “to mash it up” – and slam dance was also called “moshing”. Slamming, or moshing, usually took place in a pit, a place where people kick and crash into each other. It is a more violent form of punk dancing. Other group activities were “the wall of death,” in which “about three people just charge into the audience and knock everyone flying;” and “human pyramids,” in which “participants mount each other while balanced on arms and knees”. “Stage diving” was another feature of punk gigs, in which both performers and fans could jump from the stage into the crowd.

When the punk movement just began, the bands were amateurs performing at small venues, and it was easier for them to control the audience. The early punk fans followed some kind of ethics trying not to use elbows and not to harm people. Sometimes, performers might ask the fans not to be too violent. Andersen gives an example of a band performer “decry[ing] slam-dancing”. The interaction between the performers and the audience was always welcomed. However, Andersen writes that with the arrival of the new fans who “were more interested in slam-pit action than community” it became difficult for the band “to police the activities of trouble-makers”.

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Punk emerged in the late 1970s as a reaction to “the normalization of a subculture,” when the subcultures of hippie, mod, glam rock, etc. became “classical.” “People gradually became acclimatized to such subcultural transgressions to the point that, in many places, they have become an expected part of the social landscape [italized by the author]”. Initially, it was a movement against conformity and consumerism. Brake argues that punks always had several strata: “middle-class, art-school influenced punks, and working-class, hard punks”. In Britain, first punk bands were formed by working-class young people refusing to comply with social and class norms. In America, punks started as a middle-class youth movement, a reaction against the boredom of mainstream culture. Claiming their indifference to politics and taking a nihilistic stance punks finally chose to align themselves with the Rock against Racism movement. Dodds mentions that punk ethic includes anti-capitalism and other liberal values such as animal rights.

However, it would be wrong to present a subculture as a totally homogeneous group. Brake mentions that, unlike many other music styles, punk “managed to break the monopoly” of male-oriented culture and was quite “infused with feminism”. There were active female punk bands that sometimes performed only for women to prevent violence against female fans at gigs. Riot Grrrls with the aim to protect women created women-only mosh pits to allow women to dance with one another without fear of injury from aggressive male moshers.

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Lacking cultural and aesthetic value, in contrast to the Western art canon, dancing at punk gigs is intended to be rough but not aggressive. The risk of physical harm is always present but everyone is supposed to control oneself and help others avoid injury. However, according to Berger,

Apparent aggression acts as a symbol and a reality of aesthetic expression, cathartic outlet, personal and social injustice, a critique of mainstream pop and as a market of community, and in so doing it presents both the reality and the representation of violence.

Punk movement is fueled by anger and indignation; therefore, performances are usually very loud and intense. With no barrier between the scene and the audience, sometimes the activity of fans could be overwhelming. Their dancing and screaming could become so brutal that it does not matter who plays what.

As usual, being part of a subculture means that a person is an outsider in his/her social settings. Social dancing gives a sense of belonging. A simple dancing routine makes it easy for everyone to participate. According to Dodds’ informants, at a gig event, anyone can tap another person at the shoulder and begin dancing together. Small spaces make it easier to feel oneself like a part of the crowd. At punk gig events, all group activities contribute to the sense of belonging and ultimately to the notion of community. The reason is that some sort of discipline is observed as one observes the unspoken non-violence rules. When members marginalize and behave too rudely using elbows or spiting, it results in feeling alienation within their subcultural group.

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Unlike everyday life, when a person is expected to behave properly at work and at school, the representatives of subcultures view the dancing experience as an opportunity to let oneself go. Having a good time helps channel negative energy through shoveling and dancing in a self-denying manner without really bothering what other people think of a person and his/her dance technique. Dancing draws an emotional responses from people. Participants feel happy and elated, which is expressed in smiles, fooling around, and they even mention losing control and inability to restrain from dancing. Thus, pleasure and psychological relief are other values participants get from dancing at punk events.

All psychological, personal, and physical benefits from social dancing eventually result in economic value. For punk bands, dancing means that people appreciate their gig, and they confirm it with their pogoing and moshing. The dancing therefore also functions as a means for participants to communicate both to self and others the necessity of consumption in order to maintain and secure future gig events and dancing experiences. Even if the quality of the event is not up to par, dancing validates the visit to a gig. Participants perceive dancing to be a value in itself because of its ability to improve mood and contribute to the general feeling of well-being.

Scholars argue that “the value of art is always relative, sociohistorically constructed, biased and therefore contingent. Values shift over time and certain cultural practices change. Racial supremacy can illustrate how the values of one group may impact negatively the civil rights of another one. Despite later association of pogoing and slamming with ska movement, punk positioned itself as white youth music. Dodds’ pool of informants confirmed it. Despite a number of African-American punk band, numerous examples can be found on the Internet of African-American youths who are not fully accepted into the punk community because their prejudice typifies dark-skinned people as those who listen exclusively to hip-hop and R’n’B but not punk or heavy metal (“Quoted”). It happens even despite punks proclaiming themselves anti-racist and respect human rights.

Whereas academics would call pogoing and moshing popular and vernacular, these dance styles are indeed simple, even primitive. However, dancers would not avoid comparisons and ratings of their dancing abilities. Scholars describe punk fans’ behavior at a gig as an “embodied performance,” which includes not only body movements but also specific for this group dressing, hairstyles, and make-up. “Audience members […] both express and respond to the quality of the gig in a complex power play informed by aesthetic, social and economic value”.

Thus, such punk dance styles as the pogo, the slam, and other group dancing activities stemmed from European aesthetics of moving in the one-dimension verticality with stiffness in the limbs. Later, such styles were adopted and assimilated by such African-American dance styles as skanking. Apart from a sense of belonging and codes of social behavior, pogoing and slamming render psychological, personal, and physical values. The paradox of the value of punk style dancing is that in case of a successful gig, the paid fee is justified and, in addition, a participant gets positive emotions; in case of a lame gig, dancing itself and spending time with friends and fans is worth visiting a punk gig.