Gay punkers & whackers: How an LA dance style was born

Gay punkers & whackers: How an LA dance style was born
Photo: Shutterstock

In the mid-1970s, Viktor Manoel was a teenager in LA, taking his first furtive steps into Hollywood’s burgeoning gay scene. He was headed to the legendary Paradise Ballroom on N. Highland Avenue with a friend and a fake ID.

“Men were dancing together and kissing and hugging, and I actually freaked out,” says Manoel, who got over the shock quickly and was soon a regular on the dance floor.

The 17-year-old found himself not only at the epicenter of a new gay nightlife in LA, but at the birth of a new dance style. He and his friends called it punking.

“Punking was a derogatory term that was used toward the LGBTQ+ community,” says Anthony “Berry-Groove” Berry, a dance instructor with LA community arts non-profit Versa-Style. “But they changed it into something positive.”

Similar in style to voguing, which was taking off at the same time in the ballrooms of New York, punking emphasized theatricality, set among sped-up dance tracks.

“Punking is the theatrical, the character, the persona, the drama,” says Berry, “so you’re thinking of taking an image and bringing it to life, like a film.”

Manoel and his friends created punking when they weren’t “allowed to express love,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

“The expression from that oppression via movement is where this punking dance style came to fruition,” he says.

The group drew on a variety of cultural influences, from Diaghilev at the Ballet Russes to ice skating and silent movies, the architecture of Art Deco, and ballet folklórico, a favorite of Manoel’s and his inspiration to dance like a deer, a typical representation found in Mexican folk art.

The movements are sharp, fast and exaggerated, with lots of looks.

In 1978, Manoel’s crew decamped from Paradise to Gino’s II disco on Santa Monica and Vine, where punker Michael Angelo Harris DJ’d on Saturday nights and held contests for a $1,000 prize for punking, and for punking’s next evolution, whacking.

Whacking added a movement that saw dancers folding their arms, swinging their hands over their heads, and popping their chests out.

Manoel recalls the roster:  DJ Michael Angelo, Billy Star, China Doll/Kenny, Lonny, Tinker, Tommy, Faye Raye, Arthur and Andrew. Tinker loved Bugs Bunny and channeled that hare-brained character in his moves.

But within just a few years, all of them were gone, as AIDS ravaged the gay community.

Manoel recalled, “I felt uncomfortable being in a situation where everybody was dying and nobody wants to talk about it.”

He left the nightlife behind him.

While Manoel concentrated on his work as a professional dancer — performing with style icons Grace Jones and David Bowie, among others — whacking went wide (even as the name punking was largely retired over the term’s negative connotation among mainstream audiences).

Emerging from the clubs and after-hours parties in Hollywood with the artists and choreographers found there, whacking made its way into the culture in the 1980s on Soul Train, NBC’s Big Show, in the movie musical Breakin’, with singer and dancer Toni Basil and even in performances by Freddie “Rerun” Stubbs from the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!!

The suave Breakin’ star Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones popularized whacking for straight leading men, while the Outrageous Waacking Dancers, an LA-based dance group, evolved the new name another step further away from punking’s gay origin story.

For Maneol, punking was lost in translation.

In 2009, he returned to the scene, lamenting the mainstreaming of the style and determined to reclaim it for a new generation of dancers.

Two years later, he was teaching at Evolution Studios in North Hollywood when Lorena Valenzuela showed up to attend his popular punking class. Valenzuela knew the style from her time with the Mexican dance crew Funkdation and wanted to incorporate it in a dance battle she was competing in the next day.

“It really caught my attention — all the lines, all the poses, all the expressions and the energy, the character,” Valenzuela says.

Manoel asked her to freestyle that day, but she didn’t meet the teacher’s expectations with only four moves under her belt.

Valenzuela recalls: “He stopped the music mid-freestyle and goes, ‘Really? Is this all you got? Is this why you came all the way from Mexico?’”

“’Do it again, for real’.”

“I just started throwing myself to the ground, all my clothes were ripped, and I was just going insane,” she remembered. “This is the moment where I understood what this dance really was.”

It was all about emotion, Valenzuela explained. It was not about looking pretty.

It turns out Manoel was a judge in the same dance battle Valenzuela was competing in, and she went on to place in the festival’s top three, the only Latina to do so. Soon, Manoel took on Valenzuela as a mentee, passing his knowledge of punking and whacking to a new generation straight from the source.

Valenzuela passed that knowledge back to her dance crew Funkdation, who competed in Randy Jackson’s America’s Best Dance Crew in 2013, placing 8th. Fox dance competition So You Think You Can Dance came to be packed with dancers auditioning in the style, while homegrown groups like Whacking Los Angeles further popularized the style with classes, sessions, and events.

In 2018, Valenzuela launched her own festival in LA called Strike With Force, devoted to punking and whacking and sharing the dances’ history with a new, broader community of performers. Her next event is in Mexico City this month.

While Manoel is the only surviving member of punking’s original creators, he won’t be the last to gift the style to dancers everywhere — in battle, on stage, or the dancefloor.  

“I’m still fighting for that truth that needs to be told,” Manoel says. “Because the gay culture cannot be forgotten in how this style started.”

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