Origin of the Pogo

By: Joshua Glenn
June 22, 2011

According to the Internet, the pogo — a dance in which the object is to jump up and down in place, torso stiff, arms rigid, legs close together — was invented in 1976 by Sid Vicious. Vicious told Sex Pistols’ chronicler Julien Temple that he’d invented the dance as a way to attack non-punks who came to punk shows. The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan has backed up Vicious’s claim, asserting that a leather poncho which Vicious wore to gigs prevented him from any other form of dancing except jumping up and down.

Leather poncho — ha! Vicious and MacGowan were obviously taking the piss. Though it began as a joke, no one has ever corrected the Vicious-invented-the-pogo meme, which continues to metastasize.

HiLobrow has mentioned the dance in connection with Vicious, too — though skeptically. As of today, however, we will dispel this shibboleth once and for all.

The pogo is an arrow that was first added to the quiver of young, anarchic British dancers not in 1976 but in 1964, the first year of the Sixties (1964-73). The origins of the dance can be spotted in Richard Lester’s Beatles pseudo-documentary, A Hard Day’s Night, filmed and released that year. In a scene set at London’s fictional Cirque Club (actually Les Ambassadeurs), Ringo Starr is drawn across the dance floor (at 22:59, shown above) into the orbit of a friendly, gawky, deeply unhip-looking fellow in his late 30s.

Starr has only one dance move in his repertoire — a rope-a-dope arm exercise that Paul McCartney mocks at 21:43 [today’s version: the dice-shaking-and-rolling move, mocked in the movie Knocked Up] — and he’s noticed that the older fellow is an equally awkward but much more imaginative dancer. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” he silently signals.

The older dancer — who from 22:42-48 can be seen closely studying, and sometimes imitating, the other dancers, with lip-biting concentration — has never been identified; Beatles scholars have tended to assume that he was an extra who happened to be at Les Ambassadeurs that evening. HiLobrow’s research department has determined conclusively that the older dancer was actually the pioneering social anthropologist Clifford Geertz, then on staff at the University of Chicago! He was 37 when he was filmed by Lester.

Geertz was at that very moment developing his influential theory of “symbolic anthropology,” which regards culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973). Geertz argued that the role of anthropologists was to interpret the guiding symbols of each culture; long before Dick Hebdige’s Geertz-influenced Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), in A Hard Day’s Night we catch a glimpse of Geertz practicing what he preached — by studying the mating rituals of Swinging London.

Leave it to Geertz — who in 1964 published an essay on “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in Ideology and Discontent (ed. David Apter) — to find his way onto the same dancefloor as the Beatles. One wonders why he never published on the topic — too far ahead of his time?

Clifford Geertz — no earlier photos available

In the above-mentioned essay, Geertz notes that the question of the social sciences’ objectivity was then being hotly debated in academe. “Claims to impartiality have been advanced in the name of disciplined adherence to impersonal research procedures of the academic man’s institutional insulation from the immediate concerns of the day and his vocational commitment to neutrality, and of deliberately cultivated awareness of and correction for one’s own biases and interests,” Geertz notes with obvious distaste. There was nothing impersonal or neutral about Geertz’s research methods, as can be seen first-hand in A Hard Day’s Night; however, Geertz cautioned his fellow social scientists that biased, partisan subjectivity wasn’t the only alternative. “An attitude at once critical [objective] and apologetic [subjective] toward the same situation is no intrinsic contradiction in terms (however often it may in fact turn out to be an empirical one) but a sign of a certain level of intellectual sophistication,” he concludes.

Geertz (a member of the Postmodernist Generation) would revisit this theme in his 1988 treatise, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, which revisits important anthropological works by Claude Levi-Strauss, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Bronislaw Malinowski, and others, and deconstructs the literary means by which they shrouded their findings in an aura of (semi-bogus) objectivity. It’s in keeping with Geertz’s negative-dialectical epistemology that he’d be fascinated by the making of a pseudo-documentary — to the point of traveling to London in order to be an extra in one of its scenes.

In the A Hard Day’s Night scene parsed here, Geertz enthusiastically imitates Starr’s rope-a-dope dance move. He’s researching, learning by doing — as he’d done so many times before in the field. In 1958, for example, we read in Geertz’s well-known essay “Deep Play: Notes on Balinese Cockfighting,” he and his wife, the anthropologist Hildred Geertz (the tall, lovely Ingrid-Schorr-esque woman seen dancing with Geertz and Starr, thus provoking McCartney’s jealousy) attended an illegal cockfight in a remote Balinese village… which led to their arrest in a vice raid. His stuffy, objectivity-mongering colleagues would never have placed themselves in such a predicament, Geertz notes unapologetically:

It was the turning point so far as our relationship to the community was concerned, and we were quite literally “in.” The whole village opened up to us, probably more than it ever would have otherwise … and certainly very much faster. Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate.

It gave me the kind of immediate, inside view grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” that anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get. And, perhaps most important of all, for the other things might have come in other ways, it put me very quickly on to a combination emotional explosion, status war, and philosophical drama of central significance to the society whose inner nature I desired to understand.

So much for “the academic man’s institutional insulation from the immediate concerns of the day.” Geertz believes in getting your hands dirty, shaking your tailfeathers — and he didn’t have to be the genius he was to recognize that the Beatles phenomenon would provide unprecedented insight into the emotional explosion, status war, and philosophical drama of the emergent era (that is, the Sixties).

At 23:09, we can see Geertz take a postmodernist leap (literally) when he transitions from observing to demonstrating. At Ringo’s urging, Geertz teaches the younger man a new dance move. However, Lester cuts away at that precise moment, obscuring the move. What was it?

Geertz takes flight

At 23:12, Lester cuts back to Clifford, Ringo, and Hildred. They seem to have resumed doing the rope-a-dope — did we miss Geertz’s move? No! At 23:15.5, Geertz does it again.

Torso stiff, arms rigid, legs close together, Geertz demonstrates to the gathered crowd how to do the adumu — the Masai warrior “jumping dance,” known to few outside Kenya and northern Tanzania at that time… except, naturally, for anthropologists like the Geertzes.

Perhaps Geertz had read about the dance in Robert F. Gray’s 1963 study, The Sonjo of Tanganyika [International African Institute/Oxford University Press], in which we read that the Sonjo/Batemi people who live within Maasai territory perform “a competitive dance called gikhoji in which the object is to jump as high as possible without perceptibly bending the knees. The Sonjo claim to surpass the Masai in this jumping dance.”

Or, much more likely, Geertz read about the adumu in Joost A.M. Meerloo’s 1959 treatise, Dance Craze and the Sacred Dance, which had cheekily and presciently compared rock’n’roll dancing to ritual dancing of so-called primitive peoples.

Meerloo, who — like Geertz — was deeply interested in ideology — briefly mentions the Masai dance whose “vertical movement serves to imitate the jumping and grunting of the lion to be caught. The men bounce up and down and jump themselves into an ecstatic temerity.”

“Ecstatic temerity” — like Geertz’s “attitude at once critical and apologetic toward the same situation,” the dance introduced via this movie to British youth is not (pace the nobrow Sid Vicious) merely negative. The pogo/adumu is a negative-dialectical dance. And it wasn’t invented by punks. Now you know!

PS: Punks didn’t even invent punk.

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MORE FURSHLUGGINER THEORIES BY JOSH GLENN: We Are Iron Man! | And We Lived Beneath the Waves | Is It A Chamber Pot? | I’d Like to Force the World to Sing | The Argonaut Folly | The Perfect Flâneur | The Twentieth Day of January | The Dark Side of Scrabble | The YHWH Virus | Boston (Stalker) Rock | The Sweetest Hangover | The Vibe of Dr. Strange | Tyger! Tyger! | Star Wars Semiotics | The Original Stooge | Fake Authenticity | Camp, Kitsch & Cheese | Stallone vs. Eros | The UNCLE Hypothesis | Icon Game | Meet the Semionauts | The Abductive Method | Semionauts at Work | Origin of the Pogo | The Black Iron Prison | Blue Krishma! | Big Mal Lives! | Schmoozitsu | You Down with VCP? | Calvin Peeing Meme | Daniel Clowes: Against Groovy | The Zine Revolution (series) | Best Adventure Novels (series) | Debating in a Vacuum (notes on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad) | Pluperfect PDA (series) | Double Exposure (series) | Fitting Shoes (series) | Cthulhuwatch (series) | Shocking Blocking (series) | Quatschwatch (series)

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

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What do you think?

  1. I would go so far as to say Sid Vicious was *anti*-brow.
    What is it with anthropologists and their wild dancing? I’ll never forget witnessing an anthro prof here,overcome by Cuban Afro-pop, flinging himself on the floor to break-dance (or something). I’m just glad he didn’t strangle himself with his necktie.

  2. Right! Excellent point about dancing social scientists. Let’s not forget elderly Brandeis sociologist Morrie Schwartz, who dressed in a kung fu outfit when he danced (like an inspired maniac) at all sorts of Cambridge venues — I saw Schwartz dancing a few times at some restaurant that hosted a weekly Elvis impersonator. Mitch Albom mentions Schwartz’s dancing a little bit in “Tuesdays with Morrie” — though by then Schwartz was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

  3. PS: Ingrid, I hope you noticed my suggestion that Macca was jealous of Ringo for dancing with a woman who looks a bit like you. (You have better teeth, though.)

  4. i think i saw prof. geertz – older, of course, but no less vigourous – at some of the early warehouse raves in london’s east end, where he was bending his keen mind upon the gestures and manners of the ‘trance dance’. the critical/apologetic dialectic was alive in his movements, and he sold me some very dodgy pills.

  5. Josh — yes, and it’s good to know that at least one person acknowledges my relationship with Macca, even though there’s some intense wrinkling of time there!

  6. All, some or none of this is possibly valid.

    I speak as one, who Mr Parker may remember, has invented several dances, none of which were ever named, or performed more than once, yet have lived in the fevered nightmares of many Oxbridge students of the 1980s.

    Unlike all of you I have also been a professional dancer. I outrank all of you. My ‘Spezial Zimmer Party Dance’ is still spoken of in hushed-tones in Nuremeberg.

    But enough about me. The Pogo is in fact a response to the libidinal excess and repression of the British male. He jumps up and down wildly, yet keep his hands glued to his torso. He is mad and regimented. This has some antecedence in various types of Celtic and folk dancing (or ‘Stupid Dancing’ as it is formally known.). It is a necessary cultural and social imperative. It is well known that unless culturally proscribed by strict governance, the Scotsman is unable to resist the temptation to masturbate at any given moment.

    However, the pogo is not just a response to Scotsmen’s’ irredeemable perversity. It is also noticeable at children’s parties. British boys get to the age of 4 and realise that dancing is just for girls. But they are filled with Testosterone and birthday cake, and music that exceeds 115BPM elicits a natural visceral response in any British boy.
    So they jump up and down on the spot. And then try and crash into each other. But if you don’t use your arms then it’s hard for an adult to attribute blame. “It was an accident” you can more or less fairly claim, as the other child lies crying on the floor. I hence offer this alternative anthropological observation.

    BTW, Sid Vicious could not fight his way out of a paper bag. John Lydon has repeated this many times. I believe him.

  7. And I would also advise Americans to be cautious when referencing British music. We have the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, The Human League, David Bowie and many others.

    If we discount jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues and so on then you can only lay claim to Liberace and John Denver. Nor have you ever made any films or Television SHows that I can think of, apart from Kramer vs Kramer and Welcome Back Kotter. Nothing without the Letter K.

    I will give you pre-punk. Did I mention that I annoyed Iggy Pop for an entire hour during a flight to Milan last week? Most satisfactory.

  8. The plot thickens – Geertz was widely rumored at the time to have been funded by the CIA, and the editor of the volume quoted that published his early key work, David Apter, was definitely CIA. The CIA in the late ’50s and early ’60s was notorious for their experiments with LSD, and are widely rumored to be behind its dissemination in the ’60s counter-culture (many say, as a means of trying to render the Left politically ineffective.) Could we here have a key moment in the process?

  9. the problem is the postmodern generation you identify only actually started writing postmodern texts after ’68 (in France, and maybe ten to fifteen years later anywhere else.) Geertz never really made the leap – he went from Weberian to more hermeneutic and literary but always within the Boasian tradition of American cultural relativism that goes back to at least World War I. It was his students that mostly went pomo.

    Me, when I think of the pomo generation, I think of the baby boomer academics who are in power now, since the founding figures of postomodernism were mostly isolated cases within their own generational cohort, but all the baby boomers bought into it.

    I suppose though if I really wanted to make a case that the CIA was behind postmodern, though, I’d look at the moment, right after the great insurrection of May ’68 in France, when the French government whisked Foucault away from Tunisia, where he’d been doing acid in the desert and whatnot, to give him a seat in the College de France – since his poststructuralism was perfect for allowing people to feel very very political while steadfastly avoiding any actual political engagement. Sure, maybe the CIA recommended it, who knows? Though they couldn’t have been happy when he went on to become an advocate of the Iranian revolution.

    I’m more interested in expanding the CIA drug connection. I remember reading Abbie Hoffman’s autobiography, and he boasts about how the CIA first turned him on to acid (in some campus experiment he volunteered for) as if it was an ironic accident. Yeah, but maybe not too. When did the Beatles start dropping acid? Wasn’t it pretty much right after this movie? Was he really there posing as their drug connection?

  10. Very interesting. Any post-modernism before Star Wars is non-canonical, I reckon.

    The official story is that the Beatles were first introduced to pot by Dylan circa late 1964. I have always found this rather suspect But maybe Dylan was CIA. He’s perfect..

    They would have definitely been pill-poppers since at least the Hamburg period. Of course there is a scene in HDN, on the train, early on, when John is drinking from a Coca-Cola contour bottle and then sniffs the rim. But I think cocaine was not part of the UK jet-set lifestyle until 1968 or later.

    Lennon was turned on to LSD by his dentist. You couldn’t make that one up. The dentist spiked him in 66. Paul was the last, I think he resisted until well into 1967.

    LSD also featured in many of the CIA’s absurdist cuban invasion plots.

    But the best LSD anecdote concerns Ken Kesey’s first ‘Happening’ in 1965. He needed to publicise the event and present some sense of the psychedelic content, but realized that explicitly quoting the drug preferences of the target audience in the newspapers and flyers was not really an option. So the flyers invited ‘Friends of Dr Strange’ to attend the event. And the kids dug where that was at.

  11. I’m both impressed and disappointed that CHiPS vs the Punk Rockers was not referenced in this post.

    The whole show framed the punk rock community as a split between peacenik pogo-ers and violent slamdancers.

    I can only find the key explanatory scene dubbed in Italian on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx-AADQwLVg

  12. Yep — the 1982 CHiPs episode (“Battle of the Bands,” one I’ve seen many times, always with tremendous pleasure) is a prime example of how lamestream culture picked up on and transmitted the idea, which had been circulating for several years at that point, that pogo dancing was a punk thing. Not that pogoing *wasn’t* a punk thing; my point is rather that it wasn’t invented by punks. It was introduced to the British rock’n’roll scene back when Sid Vicious was still playing with his Action Man.

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