Waacking Class at Urban Movement Arts and its Roots in Black History

by Edwina Thertulien for The Dance Journal

Experiencing firsthand the Waacking class at Urban Movement Arts, I learned extensively about the mechanics and the correct techniques of this style through a series of warmups that included rhythmic isolations, defined poses, and speedy arm drills (that almost made me poke my own eye out!) Critical skills included the execution and positioning of the elbow pointing directly in front and the upper arm remaining parallel to the floor while the hand and forearm alternated from shoulder to shoulder.

As Zoom began to connect me to the virtual class, I could hear the founding director and instructor Vince Johnson kick things off by saying, “let’s dance, let’s groove – let’s even get a little sexy!” He then cues up Janet Jackson’s Control album, using it for the class’s duration. He made a few remarks about this particular album, stating, “I really like how Janet [Jackson] used this album to break out of her ‘good girl’ shell during this era.”

This dance style’s very existence served to quench a thirst for self-expression and liberation.

Janet Jackson’s Control album may have resulted from her own dire need for liberation and self-expression of sexuality, but that same need served as the energetic catalyst that sparked the entire Punking/Waacking movement. Formed from street dance movement in Black and Hispanic communities, it offered an outlet for male members of LGBTQ+ community who faced oppression and sought refuge by taking this style into clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era. There they could find the space to feel emboldened to fully express their own identities.

Waacking was originally named punking because “punk” was a derogatory term for gay men in the 1970s. Taking ownership of the style “punking” turned the derogatory connotation into a positive. Within the punking style, a whack referred to a specific movement. Although the heterosexual dance community adopted punking, they did not want to associate themselves with the sexual connotations of punking. renaming the dance genre “waackin.” Later, Tyrone Proctor, taking back ownership, renamed it waacking as he elaborated and pioneered the style while co-founding the infamous Imperial House of Waacking. Tyrone ‘The Bone’ Proctor (1953-2020) was a Philadelphia native and Olney High School, graduate.

Waacking was popularized and brought to the forefront by the hit television show Soul Train. As a result, Waacking moved from the clubs in Los Angles to New York and even globally led by Proctor and Archie Burnett. The style began to fade in the club scene in the late 70s as Don Campbell introduced a new style, “Locking.”

Currently, there is a whole dance community that is dedicated to preserving Waacking and working tirelessly to disseminate its history. Brian “Footwork” Green, a choreographer, teacher, and dancer who studied at such notables as Alvin Ailey and Joffrey Ballet, has been at the forefront of preserving House dance culture and clubbing.

In Philadelphia, not only is this genre of dance being taught in studios around the city such as Urban Movement Arts, but it has held prominent space on the performance stage. The Illadelph Legends Festival is just one such example, where Dinita “Queen Dinita” Clark and her husband Kyle “Just Sole” Clark, have dedicated over 15 years to hip-hop/street dance culture and formed their company, Just Sole! Street Dance Theater around the concept of inspiring, empowering, innovating, and motivating others to embrace their story and individuality.

As my focus returns to the virtual class, there is a regality of the different poses, the polyrhythmic Waacking drills used, and the speedy repetition of the hands touching the back and front of the shoulders. Describing this art form does not do it justice. It was created to be an experience, so to learn and understand it, you must experience it!

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