Was John Travolta a waacker? The martial arts disco dance craze that gripped the world

Born in the gay clubs of LA, waacking was popularised by the TV show Soul Train and picked up by John Travolta and Donna Summer. Now it’s an LGBTQ+ hit across Asia

When Cheryl Song stepped on to the all-black set of Soul Train in 1976, she was met with a deathly silence that was followed by a few threats, then a woman snarling: “Who does that high yellow bitch think she is?” Two friends from school had brought Song along to Don Cornelius’s groundbreaking TV show as something of a practical joke, assuming that she wouldn’t be selected because of her Asian heritage. But Song – “the Asian girl with the long hair” – went on to dance on the show for 14 years. “No matter what colour you are,” she says, “you’re just there to dance and have fun.”

In those early days on Soul Train, waacking – an improvised dance done to the beat of disco that incorporated martial arts elements, rapid arm movements, poses and a celebrated attitude – was starting to go mainstream. As a straight Asian woman, Song had little in common with waacking’s LGBTQ+ origins, it being an unapologetic dance born from oppression. But she loved it nonetheless. “It was direct, it was a strong movement and it was dramatic,” she says.

Pioneered by an outfit called the Outrageous Waack Dancers – Tyrone Proctor, Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley, Sharon Hill, Cleveland Moses Jr and Kirt Washington – waacking made its way on to the show from the black and Latino gay clubs of Los Angeles. Soon John Travolta was mimicking its moves in Saturday Night Fever, while Donna Summer and Cicely Tyson performed them on stage.

Let’s waack … Cheryl Song joins Marvin Gaye onstage for a performance on Soul Train.
Let’s waack … Cheryl Song joins Marvin Gaye onstage for a performance on Soul Train. Photograph: Soul Train/Getty Images

But by the late 1980s, as the disco era came to an end and Aids ravaged the queer community, waacking all but disappeared from popular culture. That is, until the early 2000s, when it saw an unlikely resurgence thanks to “the father of waacking” Proctor, who died last year, and his mentee Princess Lockerooo. They travelled the world leading workshops and judging competitions. In Asia, it really caught on.

Nelson George, author of The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, believes the dance morphed from a full-body affair to a waist-up one because Proctor had damaged his hips from years of dancing and began to teach it differently. In places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, fast hand and arm movements predominate.

Whatever it looks like, waacking is a form of escapism and a defiant rebuttal of conservative norms that is well suited to Asia, where LGBTQ+ rights are not what they are in the west. “The power of waacking comes from the pressure,” says Taiwanese waacker Akuma. It’s danced by people who have to hide their true selves in their daily lives, so when they have the opportunity to be themselves in the club, “the energy explodes”.

Hong Kong waacker Ryan keeps his sexuality hidden from the school where he teaches for fear of attracting homophobic slurs. Waacking gives him a way to explore his sexuality in a city where gay marriage still isn’t recognised. “In life, many things aren’t under your control,” he says. “There’s not much leeway for you to express who you are because you are expected to fulfil certain roles. But in a club or in a cypher session, I can truly be myself, as feminine or sexy as I would like to be, without judgment from others.”

The father of waacking … Tyrone Proctor on Bandstand with Sharon Hill.
The father of waacking … Tyrone Proctor on Bandstand with Sharon Hill. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Through simple, dynamic poses and arm drills, waackers focus on rhythm and finding a style to showcase their personality. “When I dance other styles,” says Akuma, “it’s like living in people’s shadow. When I dance waacking, I am celebrating myself and people like me. In Asia, mothers tell girls: ‘You have to be a lady and you have to be polite.’ And fathers tell boys: ‘You have to be a man, you cannot cry or show your vulnerable face to the public.’”

The sense of empowerment at waacking’s core resonates with cisgender females in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, too. Chrissy Chou, Maya Chou, Monika Shin, Lip J and Ibuki Imata have amassed thousands of followers on Instagram with their strong poses and attitudes. If you search YouTube for waacking, you’ll find a plethora of battles at festivals such as Supernova, C’est la Waack, Waackers Night and the All Asia Waacking festival, which were founded in the early 00s.

Waacking has also broken free from the shackles of disco, having inspired the choreography of such K-pop acts as Chungha, Kara, Gugudan Oguogu and Twice. “Waacking emerged from gay culture at a time when people needed to hide their sexuality and character,” says Yoon Ji, a waacker from Seoul. “They felt free dancing to disco music. Now it’s 2021 – but we still really want to express ourselves.”


Emma Russell

The GuardianTramp

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