Punk Rock Ballet

By Chelsea Dodds

This must be what drowning feels like. To sway with the waves of studded leather jackets and steel toed boots as I lose my footing. To float ever so slightly along the tops of other people’s feet, waiting for the crest to swell and surge and flatten me in between two people much larger than myself. To keep my arms tucked in toward my chest, one hand trying to hold onto someone for support, the other in a fist ready to punch anyone who tries to push me down to the ground. Then I close my eyes, unable to hear or feel anything but the thumping bass that has synchronized itself with the beating of my heart. Still beating. I pray that I don’t get swept up by the undercurrent and thrown beneath the feet of several drunken men decorated with tattoos and bruises, men who are too absorbed in making asses of themselves to notice me lying here on the floor.

I don’t know how long I have been here, maybe twenty or thirty seconds, but it feels like it’s been hours. The last thing I remember is Fat Mike announcing that NOFX would be starting their set with “The Decline,” an eighteen-minute explosion of rapid, brash punk rock, and not even halfway into it I’m on the ground. I’m lying on my stomach hugging my glasses to my chest, unsure if they are already broken but trying to protect them from any further damage. I feel dizzy, that wobbly feeling that lingers around in the forehead before one passes out, and it takes effort to swallow. I cannot breathe in air—only bile, booze, and evaporated perspiration—that is, when I can find the strength to breathe at all. Outside there is snow on the ground, but inside my body is soaked with sweat, nauseous and writhing on the ground in the closest thing I have ever experienced to Hell. There are boots stomping on my back, the heels pressing down into the grooves of my spine, and I am truly afraid that I am going to get trampled. I am going to die.

Some people just call it dancing. Everyone likes to dance, so it’s safe to say that. People dance when they are happy, so even calling it “hardcore” or “slam” dancing doesn’t sound too menacing. Few claim that they mosh—what happens when uncoordinated punks let the music take control of their bodies. When they clear a circle and then run around its circumference, unnaturally banging their heads and half-skipping along the way, kicking their feet out as far as they will go, bent over all the while like a hunchback. When they fill in the circle with neon mohawks and begin to push, shove, kick their way around. They punch their fists triumphantly in the air when they hear their favorite line in the song, then down at the invisible punching bag on the ground. They spin around in circles, arms flailing like propellers, or tornadoes, ready to destroy everything in their paths. They climb on top of other—often times smaller—people, pulling hair and grabbing shoulders to lift themselves up and over the sea of bodies, floating toward the stage, surfing the waves of the monstrous pit.

I try to sit up while being kicked repeatedly in the back and on the head, and I notice that I am mostly surrounded by males. Beer bellies and bloodstained shirts and bulging biceps. Males all capable of killing me, whether or not intentional. Girls are sparse in the pit, and those who are here are all protected by their boyfriends, a barrier to separate them from being blown across the venue. Those without this protection are forced to fend for themselves, to stand with their arms crossed so as not to accidentally grope someone, or worse yet, be groped. I came to this concert with three boys, and they are nowhere to be found. Greg and Jared successfully pushed their way to the front of the pit as soon as we arrived. I tried with all the strength in my skinny seventeen-year-old body to hold onto Ethan’s sweatshirt, but he didn’t notice me struggling, didn’t see the defeated pallor in my face as I began to sink into the whirlpool. I like him, an unrequited crush, and he doesn’t think to save me. But I am still a girl, still vulnerable to the black hole swallowing the middle section of the venue, and they don’t care.

People die this way. It is absurd and sickening, but many have met Death in the mosh pit. Concerts with an attendance of as few as five hundred people can result in several injuries, and as I sit here in a building with a capacity of nearly three thousand, I wonder how many other people are in the same situation, how many are sprawled on the cold concrete feeling as though they have been slaughtered on a battlefield of head-banging hoodlums. And it isn’t just the bigger shows where violent mosh pits occur; I can recount numerous concerts I have attended at American Legion halls, church basements, or people’s garages where I have been stepped on, punched in the face, and have come home with an assortment of bruises and sore joints. In those instances, the perpetrator isn’t engulfed in an ocean of other bodies; it is much more obvious to the wounded who has crashed into him or her, but I have never once received an apology or even an acknowledgement after being hurt.

Some bands will stop playing in the middle of their sets to address excessive moshing and out-of-control crowds, advising moshers not to crush people who are smaller than themselves. As I get tossed around on this grungy ocean floor, I wonder why others don’t do the same. Where are the Ian MacKayes, who stop playing until audience members not only stop hurting one another, but also apologize to whomever they have hurt? Where are the Cedric Bixler-Zavalas, who refer to chaotic crowds as robots and sheep and baa several times into the microphone to get the point across? But it has been years since any musicians gave memorable anti-moshing speeches, and decades since moshing first became popular in the 1980s hardcore scene, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Fat Mike is more concerned with mooning three thousand people than reminding a bunch of drunk assholes to respect the people around them. The band loves it though. They love seeing all these people interact with their music.

Somewhere amongst all the flailing limbs, an anonymous hand reaches toward me. It belongs to a boy, this much I know, because it is bigger than mine and strong enough to pull me up to partial safety. I return to being a member of the whirlpool, never seeing the boy’s face, never being able to thank him for saving my life. I push my way through the vicious crowd until I reach the back of the venue. Free and alive. I watch everything from the outside, all the choreographed chaos to songs about anarchy and alcohol, politicians and wayward punks. Their motions take on a Stravinskyan quality, a twenty-first century version of The Rite of Spring, a twisted ballet that will not reach its conclusion until someone has been seriously injured, until some virgin of this human vortex has been sacrificed in its core. It’s a ballet for the outcasts, for the kids who never found anything to be passionate about besides power chords, for the kids who just don’t like the music that is on the radio and want to identify with something different, something real. Tonight I went to see the band that got me into punk rock. It was supposed to be the highlight of my senior year—way more important than prom. Instead I am going home with bruises on my back and arms, clothes covered in other people’s sweat, and bent glasses that no longer fit on my head, though I am lucky the extent of the damage isn’t worse. I am going home with a different view of the music scene that has held so much importance to me throughout my teenage years; the world that once seemed so warm and accepting from the outside is nothing more than a pit filled with too much testosterone and self-absorption. I want to feel like I belong here, to swim amongst the other fans, but I don’t know how to stay afloat in this realm.

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