Slam dancing and stage diving are pretty mainstream these days. Most everyone has seen it and maybe experienced it. Indeed, I would not be in the least bit surprised to find footage of thrashing and crowd-surfing at a Dave Matthews Band concert somewhere on the you-tubes.
And yet I still feel obliged to spend a few minutes recounting the slam dancing days of my punk rock youth.
red boxes all mine
red boxes all mine
My first forays into the slam dancing art form involved high school dances and Should I Stay or Should I Go and Dancing with Myself. We'd get lathered up hopping around and bumping into each other for these songs then spend the rest of the evening wondering why we couldn't convince any girls to slow dance with us after that. But that's a topic for another day.
We probably took our cues from Billy Idol videos and bits and pieces from various movies, I'm thinking Suburbia:
Or possibly Repo Man though probably nothing useful was likely gleaned from this Circle Jerks performance:
When I graduated to my first real hardcore punk shows, slam dancing was a part of the live show experience. As mentioned in my pulitzer-prize winning exposé about my first punk shows, Marginal Man performances in particular, while highly spirited, had a friendly vibe and as a result my initiation into this sacred ritual didn't feel that different from jostling around with friends at the high school dances - only the music was live and more aggressive and there were many more folks in the pit.
As I got more punk shows under my belt, I started to develop a keener understanding of the many facets of the slam dancing practice.
It was inspiring to watch the loose and vaguely athletic skater types that could perform the iconic arm swinging, leg swiveling movements with panache, they'd absorb contact but never take a direct hit and could whirl effortlessly around in a cool way without hurting anyone or getting hurt themselves.
I'd join in even though I was a bit more ungainly in my moves. It was all good fun. There was a certain etiquette or code of conduct that you'd learn, either by watching or making mistakes or listening to your punk peers.
the art of stage diving: gaining the stage
The concept of stage diving was totally new to me. The phenomena at real life punk shows was a drastically different animal than what I had come to expect from photos I'd seen.
For instance, the very act of getting onto a stage was not as straightforward as it might seem to the casual observer or practitioner. There was typically a wall of bodies 3-6 people deep pressed tightly against the stage. Just getting access to the stage without hurting anyone else or yourself was a craft unto itself.
The considerate punk would wait their turn in percolating to the very front. At some shows I imagine the pattern might be loosely likened to a quirky, chaotic variation of the Tetris game, as rows of punks would stack in front of the stage, then some would fragment and disappear as punks wriggled on the stage and flung themselves to the back to restart the whole cycle all over again.
If you were up front, you quickly learned the value of keeping your head up and your hands high, to clear the boots and other body parts of those diving over you. Otherwise you ran the risk of getting kicked in the head by a stray boot or raked on the face or poked in the ears or eyes by fingers clawing desperately to gain some firm holds after the landing.
You also had to be ready for folks tugging forcefully at your shoulder to launch themselves on stage from behind you. After getting a fierce shoulder jerk a few times you'd learn to slap them off of you or pull them back down to the floor with a firm shake of the head.
And at all times it was extremely important to keep your head up, or you were sure to get surprised by a big body landing squarely on your back or neck or face just as you were looking up.
Once at the very front, things could get so tight that it wasn't all that easy to free up the space to step or vault yourself up onto the stage. There were times you'd try to hop up but to no avail as the press of the crowd up front kept you from getting any lift. It felt like those nightmares where you try to scream or run or in this case jump but to no avail as some powerful invisible force keeps you from doing it.
Friends and good citizens would counter this with an offer to give you a boost, usually with their two hands cupped together and held low to provide a makeshift step up. That was pretty effective, once you got launched everyone else was more than happy to propel you clear onto the stage because 1) it was a far better option than leaving a body to beetle and flail about all around their heads, 2) one less body at the front gave a bit of relief from the compression, however short-lived and 3) they'd be counting on getting similar assistance to make their escape off the front.
There were also times when a friendly hand would come from a would-be diver who had already gained the stage and might pull you up by your arms or sometimes in less dignified fashion by hoisting with a violent tug at the back of your britches.
Once on stage, the considerate punk would spend a short amount of time, say 7 seconds or less, doing one of a handful of signature punk moves, find a safe and accommodating landing place, then quickly perform a graceful dismount.
I knew a few of the more flexible, lithe skateboard-y types (looking at you Jay D) that could pull off the dive with both style points and somehow manage to land impossibly gently on the crowd - these sorts were easy to catch and generally the crowd would be so pleased by the bearable lightness and show of skill they'd be happy to carry them around for a while longer.
the art of stage diving: timing was everything
It's worth noting that you could demonstrate a degree of elan by virtue of the timing of your stage dive. Ideally, you'd pick a song that had a particular line or stop/start break in it and time it so you could clamber onto the stage, holler out the words at the perfect spot in a chorus or verse and hop off just as all hell broke loose.
Let me break it down using the epic Scream song Who Knows? Who Cares? as an example.
If you happened to be positioned near the front and your ears weren't too deafened to distinguish the early strains of the classic intro, you'd make your move right about when Pete starts in with "Who knows", perhaps throwing in a somersault for good measure, and landing on your feet just in time to raise a fist and shout along to the "Why Botherrrrrrr!", and then sail out into the crowd as it explodes with the song uncorking thusly:
"Break through today,
Do what you say,
Gotta make a way"
In the case of a song that shreds like this one I'd be aiming to get right back on my feet somewhere in the middle of floor to be a part of the melee.
If you were trying to be the gallant punk, for your dismount you'd make sure to leap feet up and try to keep yourself long and splayed out to spread the weight around. A little bit of air looked cool to everyone around and would get you past the front line, out of consideration for your punk brethren still at the front who were getting hammered from all sides and as a matter of practicality to escape to the rear of the pit and take a breather.
the art of stage diving: tales of risk and woe
"God damn my arm
hurt me so bad
Lord knows my legs
feel like they ran a thousand miles
See I got a little crazy,
kinda took a little dive
Lord knows my neck,
just can't stop the pain"
-- Beefeater, Fred's Song
Some punks insisted on getting huge air. If you were light and blessed with that cat-like natural ability to wriggle in the air and land lightly, good on you - you were caught easily and brought back down with hearty backslaps. These sorts seemed to always land on their feet without any harm besides.
punk rocker in flight, badass photo from the back of the Wasted Youth Reagan's In record
punk rocker in flight, badass photo from the back of the Wasted Youth Reagan's In record
If the pit happened to be a little more sparse or you landed like a dense rock on folks, grabbing big air was a complete leap of faith - and could be a massive mistake.
I saw a kid crack his head on the floor on a dive where there weren't people bunched up and offering safe harbor, the group sort of parted as he landed and he went down backwards right onto his skull. I think there was a pause in the show after that to tend to the kid, maybe someone else was there and knows the details (how badly was he hurt? did he end up ok?). Regardless, I'm pretty sure it was an instructional moment for me.
We had a particularly big fella, tall and hefty among our numbers bedecked with the requisite leather jacket and spikes, combat boots, and at times, crowned with a beautiful liberty-spike mohawk. He was a sweet kid for the most part, and while he generally stayed floor-bound there would be a few times he'd hop on stage and you could hear a collective groan emanating from the front rows when he was getting ready to disembark from the stage.
He might first take a tentative step towards stage left and be confronted with bug-eyes on that side of the front rows, then reverse himself and slide to the right and process the same reaction on the other side and finally would resign himself to jump off (more of a lean really) in some direction so he could just get the hell off the stage.
There would be a very visible sag in his wake. The best tactic was not to resist or duck it but take the weight as best you could and pass him back to the next sucker behind you as quickly and efficiently as possible without losing footing.
Incidentally for those curious that liberty spike wasn't sharp like it looked but still didn't exactly tickle as it grazed your face going by.
As an aside, I remember that mohawk was a magnet for inquisitive girls from all cliques in my high school who were compelled to run a hand along it to feel for themselves - like you can't help but do with the spikes of any enormous barrel cactus you might encounter in the desert. When asked what he used in his hair to hold the shape as they strummed along the individual quills he liked to cheerfully volunteer the secret was squirrel sperm, just to see the response he'd get. Like I said, sweet big lug of a kid.
Some dudes (it was always guys doing this) would simply not leave the stage which was considered poor form. They got in the way of the band as they danced around, some were just kind of hanging out mean-mugging and doing the head-bob and fist-out thing. Sometimes the bands would nudge them off stage, sometimes they had someone on stage who's role was to unceremoniously shove folks off the stage whether the pit was ready or not (I won't name names but one band with a particularly obnoxious stage bouncer rhymes with SeeLessOhWell).
John Stabb the incomparable frontman for Government Issue (and who sadly recently passed too soon) was funny because he would sometimes grab hold of whoever was spending too much time up on stage, hugging their heads close to the mic and keeping them awkwardly next to him as he sang. If he chose someone who didn't know the words they just kinda stood there looking uncomfortable and unsure what to do with themselves.
It was a two-way street with the folks in the front rows - they would endure a lot of punishment but could also turn against certain stage divers, ones that spent like the entire show jumping on-and-off stage. The wall of bodies up front would refuse a clean exit for these scofflaw punks by repeatedly pushing them back onto the stage. Sure, some of the slower types took this as a sign of encouragement that everyone wanted them on stage but all the same it was kind of comical to watch one of these dudes struggling to make an exit because the crowd kept spitting them back onto the stage.
And inevitably there'd be some idiot wearing something insanely inappropriate for stage diving - I recall being warned by a friend at one show to watch out for some crazy punk who apparently thought it was ok to go moshing and stage diving with spurs on.
dance of death
check it out, in the intro Ugly American's vocalist Simon Bob Sinister recites the afore-cited Univ of Minn article* Sometimes the pit would explode in a circle of slam dancers whirling around and around like a demon carousel. This was a relatively safe formation since there was lots of room to negotiate, less chances of a body landing on you and the contact for the most part was fun and not full-on.
It was not uncommon for a couple punks to do the do-si-do thing or lock arms and twirl around together slamming into whomever had the misfortune to cross paths with them. These could be pretty violent collisions, I tended to back off when it got to this point. You might've seen this in a punk rock movie, yeah?
The bigger or tougher or drunker types (including a lot of the skinheads) would just swing their arms slowly and circle the pit menacingly looking for someone to pop. If you got caught bouncing around in the pit with a few these sorts when everyone else had stopped, you were going to get, well, slammed. Hard. Like knock your breath out hard.
"I'm gonna bash my brains out
Gonna kill people I don't know
Gonna kick and scream and crush
Gonna hit 'em from behind"
-- Decadence, "Slam"
One minute you're happily pogoing around or executing a hoppy ska-boy style step with your fellow happy punks, then you notice you're on your own and the one shirtless skinhead with the suspenders is lining you up in slow motion making like a provoked bull with nostrils flaring and feet scraping at the floor, readying for a violent charge at his hapless mark.
As you might expect, it wasn't nearly as much fun when the pit had a few of these cats. Even if you were on the periphery of the pit, these dudes had no problem gathering a full head of steam and slamming into any unsuspecting people they could reach.
the beginning of the end of my slam dancing days
As time wore on, the toughs that controlled the dance floor got worse, things got more violent and less fun. Skinheads were becoming more prevalent at shows and would take over the pits.
I recall a rough stretch of shows in the Spring of '85 marred by mean-spirited dance floors, which sometimes included sieg-heiling in the pit by a few skins. It was super intimidating and most everyone was careful to give a wide berth to the small but dominant ornery elements in the crowd.
"We don't need police on the dance floor"
-- The Freeze, Nazi Fun
Although not necessarily the singular cause, this low period was a defining one in my mind, DC shows seemed to dry up not long after it or perhaps they kept rolling along and I was simply less inclined to attend.
As the Revolution Summer started picking up a little later on, there was a decided backlash against slam dancing. I think most of the folks getting involved at that point were not going to let a few bad apples ruin our shiny new thing all over again.
Apart from the times that Fred the bassist from Beefeater would get a wild hair up his ass and leap down into the audience and throw his body around (which was pretty fun as long as you weren't the one receiving the brunt of the initial impact), there was less of the violence without compromising on energy and crowd interaction. Bands were able to connect with the audience and provided a super-engaging live experience without anyone getting beaten up.
It's been a long time since I slam danced. As tempting as it is to organize an over-40 slam-dancing event just to see how many EMTs need to show up, how many Advils are popped afterword, and how many weeks it would take before we all could move normally again, I'm thinking that my slam dancing days will remain in the distant past.
I'll conclude this illuminating post on slam dancing with a wonderful little ditty Fred's Song from the Beefeater Plays for Lovers record.
"Stage divin', skankin back was thrashin' through an untold[?] mess,
Skinhead guys just turn me on"