In 2011, Lorena Valenzuela packed her bags and flew from her Mexican home in Los Angeles to take part in a dance battle. The day before the pageant, she took a class at Evolution Studios in North Hollywood focusing on “punking” — a series of quick, sharp movements rooted in exaggerated looks and expressive body language that emerged in the underground queer clubs of Hollywood in the 1970s. A fellow dancer had introduced Valenzuela to the unique style when the two were on dance crew Funkdation. “It really caught my attention – all the lines, all the poses, all the expressions and the energy, the character,” Valenzuela said.
Class instructor Viktor Manoel – who was also a judge at the dance competition that year – spotted Valenzuela and asked him to freestyle that day. At the time, she only knew four movements. But that was not enough for Manoel. “He stopped the music in the middle of the freestyle and said, ‘Really? That’s all you got? Is that why you came all the way from Mexico?’ “, recalls Valenzuela. “Do it again, for real.”
“I started throwing myself on the floor, all my clothes were torn and I was going crazy,” she says. “That’s when I understood what this dance was really about.” Valenzuela realized that the moves weren’t meant to be beautiful; they expressed the harshest emotions.
She then landed in the top three at the festival that year – the only Latina to place. Eventually she moved to the United States so she could continue to develop her skills as a dancer, and she became a mentee of Manoel specifically for punk and “whacking” – a movement that evolved from punk which consists of bending the arms, raising the hands. and above the head while bringing out the chest. (The creators of the style are known as “punkers,” while newer generations of dancers are called “whackers.”) Four years ago, she launched her own Los Angeles dance festival, Strike With Force. , which aims to maintain the history of punking and whacking while fostering a community for a new generation of dancers.
Gay men developed punk almost five decades ago, while flocking to the safe space of the dance floor. The movement is particularly personal for Manoel: after the AIDS epidemic claimed the lives of many of the movement’s founders and the community around him, he is the last founding member of punking alive today. Developed in Los Angeles around the time voguing took hold in New York, punking’s roots can be hard to trace – which is why Manoel is determined that new generations understand the weight that comes with every pose and every movement. “I always fight for that truth that needs to be told,” he says. “Because gay culture can’t be forgotten in how this style started.”
When Manoel was 17 in the early 1970s, he went with a friend to the then-Paradise Ballroom on N. Highland Ave, fake ID in hand. “The men were dancing together, kissing and cuddling, and I really freaked out because when you’re not used to seeing things like that,” he recalls. Manoel had known for a long time that he was gay, but he was shocked to experience it for the first time, so much so that he turned to his friend and said: “I can’t. I’m not coming back .”
He eventually returned to Paradise Ballroom and, with friends, began creating dance drawn from pop culture, media and art – including Art Deco, paintings by Ballets Russes founder Serge Diaghilev , ice skating and silent films. Each member drew influences from their own distinct cultures and interests. Manoel grew up dancing ballet folklórico, a style of Mexican folk dance, and often imitated a deer in his performances. And founding member Tinker loved Bugs Bunny and channeled the Looney Tunes character into his moves.
The movements also highlighted how they grew up in a time when being gay meant not being “allowed to express love”, says Manoel. “The expression of this oppression via movement is where this style of punk dance came to fruition.” For Manoel and his friends, punking was about the freedom they found in the club.
In 1978, Manoel and his friends started going to Gino’s II nightclub on Santa Monica and Vine. Fellow punk Michael Angelo, the Saturday night DJ, held competitions where accomplished dancers could compete for a $1,000 prize. Punking and whacking had found a new home.
Around this time, Manoel began working professionally as a dancer, performing for artists like Grace Jones. But then his friends started dying of AIDS. “I felt uncomfortable being in a situation where everyone was dying and no one wanted to talk about it,” he says.
He walked away from the stage. In the meantime, punking and whacking were becoming more mainstream thanks to Soul Train and the Outrageous Waacking Dancers, a dance group based in Los Angeles. Its popularity grew with a new spelling—using a double “A”—which broke away from its origins. When Manoel returned to the stage in 2009 to teach punking to new generations, he realized how his origins had been lost in translation. This is changing with initiatives like Valenzuela’s strike festival, Strike With Force.
When the festival first ran four years ago, Valenzuela invited dancers from around the world and across the United States, telling them to invite anyone from their community. She then produced other Strike With Force festivals in Italy and Mexico, and smaller gatherings began to appear as the community began to grow. The goal of the festival is ultimately to “empower children and make them feel safe and feel like they belong because this dance belongs to them,” Valenzuela says. “We are the guests.” The next Strike With Force event is scheduled for March 2023, in Mexico City.
For his part, Manoel still teaches the history and movements of the dance. He shows one student at a time what it takes to move like he, Arthur, Andrew, Billy Star, China Doll/Kenny, Lonny, Michael Angelo, Tinker and Tommy all did in Paradise Ballroom. “I don’t teach to impress,” he says. “I teach you to find yourself in my movement.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.