Shake Your Body Line to the Ground

A Dance Primer

By Austin Shifrin

Table of Contents:
The Twist
The Monkey
The Skank
Variations on a Theme
What to do With All This

.....To paraphrase Victor Rice's liner notes for the first Slackers' album, Better Late Than Never, one of the first questions that ska newbies ask is whether they are actually supposed to dance to this stuff. While he begs off answering the question at first, he concludes with the suggestion that one should, at the very least, give it a try.

.....Why would you want to know how to dance to ska? Couldn't you just sit in your room and listen, or stand at a show and watch? Well, you could, but dancing serves three important functions, not all limited to ska music, which a person ought to consider before passing up any particular opportunity.

.....Two of these functions boil down to communication. One message you can send with dance is quite basic: I'm happy. Clearly, this transcends the type of music or situation. The best example which comes to mind, if you'll forgive the saccharine analogy, is Snoopy. Dancing is good body language to express appreciation for any number of things.

.....Dancing is also a way of expressing to a band or anybody else around you how much you appreciate and enjoy live music. I have attended many shows where I took a moment afterward to verbally thank the band for bringing live music to whatever town I was in. Often, the reply has been, "Thanks for dancing!", because bands often use dancing as a nonverbal barometer of how they're doing on stage. They often wonder whether their hard work is worthwhile, and seeing a room full (or even a handful) of people dancing is both reassuring and invigorating.

.....Finally, the act of dancing can be fun in and of itself. Some people enjoy it for the physical activity, some people like to get out and show off. I know this last benefit is very subjective, but I have to make this suggestion: If the only reason you don't dance at shows is because you never knew what to do, I strongly recommend you try out any of the dance moves and tactics outlined below and just have a good time, because that's what ska is all about.

The Twist

.....This staple of beach-blanket movies applies perfectly well to many ska tunes. It makes sense on a symbolic level, Jamaica being an island and all. Rhythmically, the dance works well for many of the golden oldies of the Studio 1 era, especially vocal groups whose style mirrored American Motown (Blues Busters, Dragonnaires, and the like). Many people should be able to do this move, as they're bound to have seen it in somewhere on the silver screen (Pulp fiction, etc). In case you haven't; the feet alternate in moving as though you were crushing out a cigarette. The immobile foot helps you keep your balance, while the upper body twists back and forth opposing the moving foot. Not too vigorous the first time, folks - watch your back.

The Monkey

.....If you ever see old newsreel footage of the Sombrero club or photos of the Glass Bucket club in Jamaica, you see couples and individuals doing the same variety of dances that were applied to surf music. One type which was quite popular (and is fairly easy to do) is the monkey, often referred to as "doing the ska". This involves moving your hips and legs in the same motion as you would to do the twist. Your fists should be swinging up and down in time with the twisting motion, as though you were a wind-up monkey crashing cymbals together, or as if you were trying to climb up a vine. The dance works with any mid-tempo oldies you could do the twist to, but since the hand motions look even goofier, it can be a lot of fun when you're out on the dance floor with friends.

The Skank

.....One dance which you see everywhere you hear ska today is "the skank" or "skanking". This is no understatement: You will see this dance performed at clubs not only from coast-to-coast in the U.S., but all over the world in various incarnations. It is a sad, sad thing that this dance, which is performed and discussed so widely, is so under-represented in written discourse.

.....This dance existed just as long as the first two, but seems to have gained most of its popularity during the 2-Tone era (1980's, primarily in the U.K. If this isn't familiar, I suggest you read the FAQ). It has become a powerful standard for discrimination in "the scene"; people who have been going to shows for a year or two often complain that newer arrivals aren't familiar with this dance. Ironically, considering its popularity, it is the most complex to describe. This quality prompts the very common response, "you have to just go to shows and watch everybody else"; that's actually not a bad idea, but not very helpful either. Here's a decent step-by-step how-to:

1. Listen to the music carefully. When you can sort out the beats (the constant 1-2-3-4 of the song, easier for some people to catch than for others), you should begin by alternately putting each foot forward and taking it back, forward on the odds and back on the evens. This is similar to a two-step, in ballroom terms.

2. Next we add the arms. The elbows stay bent, and the hands are balled into fists; the right hand comes forward when the left foot is out, and the left hand comes forward when the right foot is out. When a hand isn't forward, it ought to come back about as far as the hip. This coordination can be tricky- it's the step my mother and grandmother have been having the most difficulty with.

3. To make it look a little smoother, it helps to bob your head along with this movement. If your head goes down on all the ordinary beats (1-2-3-4), it comes up on all the upbeats (the little "ands" in between).

Variations on a Theme

.....That's it for the basics. Elaborating on this takes a little practice. One variation is "bouncing" your fists on the beats. More popular among the skinheads is a variant where the knuckles are pressed together the entire time, and the elbows swing very wide. Sometimes, you can mix in 4 beats of double-time, dancing at twice the speed -- it looks like 4 quick rabbit punches -- this move is demonstrated somewhere in the video for "One Step Beyond". Another move for interludes of double-time is a spurt of running in place with your knees coming way up high, a la "the Blues Brothers".

.....While people usually skank side-by-side in rows facing the stage, I've encountered variations to adapt this dance for two people. One is to simply do the dance facing someone. This looks best if you're NOT a mirror image (i.e., you should each put your right foot in at the same time. Hokey Pokey, anyone?). Another is to do a pinwheel, each person following the other in a circle. Both of these require a bit more coordination than dancing alone, in order to stay in synch. Also, these variations take up more room; you'll only get enough space to do this at a show when the floor is not crowded, or if other patrons back off in fear of your flailing limbs.

.....The amount of variation only increases in today's world where ska mingles with Swing, Latin, and Punk influences. I find that one thing holds true for these hybrid genres: Say you're listening to a band whose sound you could characterize as "Latin ska". Some songs use rhythms to which you could either do "ska dances" or Latin dances, interchangeably.

.....Others alternate between one type of rhythm and the other in separate sections of the song. The latter is often the recourse of unskilled bands which don't understand the technique required to blend gently from one rhythm to the other, although sometimes good bands will pull this alternating maneuver off well.

What to do With All This?

.....This is, of course, your decision entirely. You may decide that the only benefit you derive from this piece is to be better informed on the opinions and practices of the people you always saw around you at shows and never understood. On the other hand, if you've always stood there tapping your foot, really wanting to bust a move, but been very concerned about how to get started, you're the person I wrote this article for. If it gives you any confidence and guidance, then I've accomplished what I wanted to do.

.....I don't expect anybody to take their first stab at dancing at a show. It's a lot less frightening to "test-drive" some moves somewhere you feel safer (i.e., at home in front of your stereo). Once you feel comfortable enough to dance in public, it can open up an entire new realm of social possibilities. Never mind how nice it is to have the confidence to ask someone else to dance; the feeling you get when someone else asks YOU is phenomenal.

Austin Shifrin is currently a Masters student of Management at the Heinz school in Pittsburgh, and vocalist with the fledgling band "Cut Once". He spends a lot of time wondering how to keep ska in his life now that he's becoming older and has more responsibility. If he can ever get his Lambretta Jet 200 up and running again, he'll be much less morose.

Article was written by Austin Shifrin. It has been copied and formatted to fit this page. No credit claimed by the Author of this page.