Historically, Black Americans have excelled at the art of dance. Black American males had a storied history with dance, delighting in performing. As a child, I grew up watching black-and-white videos of The Temptations. Grandma and Mama fawned over them in their pristine suits, elegantly stepping in sync. Their smooth coordination was spellbinding. I understood why Grandma and Mama loved it so much!
Then there was the high energy, dramatic performances of the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Wearing glittered capes, skin covered in a blanket of sweat as he glided across the stage, performing death drops and the splits easily, no one could do it like him! But by the early 1980s, a young man from Gary, Indiana, would grab the Godfather’s baton.
I don’t even need to say his full name. You know I’m referring to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. He electrified the world when he debuted the Moonwalk in 1983 at Motown’s 25th anniversary, creating an unsurpassed iconic moment!
I was too young to remember Jackson debuting the Moonwalk, but I recall every performance after that. I begged my Mom to buy the Moonwalker video in 1988. I never tired of watching Jackson defy gravity in the Smooth Criminal video, wearing the rewind button out!
Jackson was the undisputed King in 1988. But there were another show-stopping entertainer captivating audiences as well: Bobby Brown. The bad boy of R&B, Brown was a key figure in the burgeoning New Jack Swing movement. And whenever the “My Prerogative” video came on MTV in 1989, my cousins and I froze. It was more important to watch Bobby swagger across a stage, dripping with confidence as he whined his waist and gyrated his hips, creating a frenzy in his adoring female fans.
But it didn’t stop with Jackson or Brown. There were the b-boys, popping and locking since the early 1980s. Young brothers rocked high-top fades from the late 80s to the early 90s and created highly choreographed routines. You can see this in action in videos such as ‘Getting Funky’ by Kid’ n Play, ‘Treat Em Right’ by Chubb Rock, and ‘Now That We Found Love’ by Heavy D and The Boyz.
In this essay, I have named many artists. And I could list plenty more because THAT’S how ubiquitous the dancing movement was back then. I watched this from ages 5-12, thinking this same culture would be available to me when I grew up. But I discovered how wrong I was when I entered high school.
This wasn’t the case when I began attending parties/dances in the mid-90s and clubbing at the millennium. I’d been surrounded by scenes of brothers, real brothers who got down on the floor. Whether on their own or with a woman, they could hold their own and sometimes upstage their partner. Suddenly brothers were too cool to dance. Reveling in the exhilaration of movement now made you soft and less of a man. Dudes were too obsessed with being hard and proving they were gangsters. And gangsters didn’t dance. The little pathetic 2 step, a side-to-side motion that guys adopted at events, was nothing compared to the acrobatic gliding, jumping, and footwork of the decade before. Women and girls were supposed to dance and gyrate on men, while they did little and just enjoyed it. The males didn’t dance with us anymore.
As this became the norm, I was further lured away by other genres. The cultural shift in dancing was a key reason my affection for Soca, Dancehall, Soukous, Bachata, Merengue, and Salsa grew. This affection has never left me. I’m swaying to rhythms from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean on any given day. I got used to attending quinces, hitting up Salsa clubs with my Salvadorena BFF, and seeing dance floors filled with men moving languidly and sensuously.
I found the hole-in-the-wall clubs with my West African and Haitian friends. We’d dance and sweat until kicked out at 2am-then find an after-hours spot or head to someone’s place to keep dancing until 4am. The few times I ventured to parties or clubs that played Hip-Hop, it wasn’t the same. Even when the DJ put on a certified banger, men stuck to the same lame two-step. It was so lackluster that I didn’t bother to keep trying.
But I didn’t forget about the rich legacy I grew up with. Part of me yearned for it. So, when dance crazes began to make a resurgence in 2007, I perked up and paid attention. The lyrical elitists of Hip-Hop may not have cared for these songs, dismissing their lyrics as inane. But when I watched the videos for ‘Walk It Out’ by UNK and ‘Crank That’ by Soulja Boy, it took me back to my youth in the 80s. I was elated and grateful to see this! It echoed the fun of simply partying and dancing together.
Each time a new song was released, like ‘Wobble’ by Vic, ‘Watch Me’ by Silento, or ‘Do It Like Me’ by iAmDLOW, I rejoiced. In my opinion, our young men moving away from the joy of dance was not a positive shift in the culture. I’m thankful that some found excitement in getting on the floor again. No longer pressed to meet rigid ideas of masculinity, they just dance.