WWhen Cheryl Song entered the all-black set of Soul Train in 1976, she was faced with dead silence followed by a few threats, then a woman scolding, “Who does that big yellow bitch think she is?” ‘she is? Two friends from school had brought Song to the groundbreaking Don Cornelius TV show as a kind of joke, assuming she wouldn’t be selected because of her Asian heritage. But Song – “the Asian girl with long hair” – continued to dance on the show for 14 years. “Whatever your color,” she said, “you’re only here to dance and have fun.
In these early days on Soul Train, waacking – an improvised dance performed to the beat of disco that incorporated elements of martial arts, quick arm movements, poses and a famous attitude – was starting to become mainstream. As a straight Asian woman, Song didn’t have much in common with waacking’s LGBTQ + origins, as it was a shameless dance born out of oppression. But she loved him anyway. “It was direct, it was strong movement and it was dramatic,” she says.
Initiated by an outfit called the Outrageous Waack Dancers – Tyrone Proctor, Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley, Sharon Hill, Cleveland Moses Jr and Kirt Washington – waacking has made its way from black and Latino gay clubs in Los Angeles. Soon John Travolta was imitating his moves in Saturday Night Fever, while Donna Summer and Cicely Tyson performed them on stage.
But in the late 1980s, as the disco era drew to a close and AIDS ravaged the queer community, waacking almost vanished from popular culture. That is to say until the early 2000s, when it experienced an unlikely resurgence thanks to the “father of waacking” Proctor, who died last year, and his mentee Princess Lockerooo. They have visited the main workshops and judging competitions in the world. In Asia, it really took.
Nelson George, author of The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, believes dancing has gone from being a whole-body affair to a waist-size affair because Proctor had damaged his hips after years of dancing and began to teach it differently. In places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, rapid hand and arm movements predominate.
Either way, waacking is a form of evasion and a provocative rebuttal of conservative norms that fits well in Asia, where LGBTQ + rights are not what they are in the West. “The power of waacking comes from pressure,” explains Taiwanese waacker Akuma. It’s danced by people who have to hide their real selves in their daily lives, so when they have the opportunity to be themselves in the club, “the energy explodes”.
Hong Kong waacker Ryan hides his sexuality at the school where he teaches for fear of attracting homophobic slurs. Waacking allows her to explore her sexuality in a city where same-sex marriage is still unrecognized. “In life, a lot of things are not under your control,” he says. “You don’t have a lot of leeway to express who you are because you are supposed to fulfill certain roles. But in a club or in a crypto session, I can truly be myself, as feminine or sexy as I want to be, without judgment from others.
Through simple, dynamic poses and arm exercises, waackers focus on rhythm and find a style to showcase their personality. “When I dance other styles,” Akuma says, “it’s like living in the shadow of the people. When I dance waacking, I celebrate myself and people like me. In Asia, mothers tell daughters: “You have to be a woman and you have to be polite. And the fathers say to the boys, “You have to be a man, you can’t cry or show your vulnerable face to the public. “
The sense of empowerment at the heart of waacking also resonates with cisgender women in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Chrissy Chou, Maya Chou, Monika Shin, Lip J and Ibuki Imata have amassed thousands of Instagram followers with their strong poses and attitudes. If you search for waacking on YouTube, you will 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 2000s.
Waacking also broke free from the chains of disco, having inspired the choreography of K-pop acts such as Chungha, Kara, Gugudan Oguogu and Twice. “Waacking and lockout emerged in gay culture at a time when people needed to hide their sexuality and character,” says Yoon Ji, a waacker from Seoul. “They felt free to dance to disco music. We are now in 2021, but we still really want to express ourselves. “