What are you doing? I asked my sister-in-law Laura while out at a trendy St Kilda hot spot. Haven't you seen the video clip for LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem? You know…"Every day I'm shufflin". I looked down to see what she was doing with her feet and when I looked up it appeared as though the whole room was doing it…SHUFFLING! I felt like Elaine in Seinfeld when she realised that New Yorkers had began eating their chocolate bars, cookies and M&M's with cutlery. "Have you all gone mad!" Or rather, do all of you have a severe case of amnesia? As I recall it has been almost 10 years since Melbournians could dance this way in public without being looked at like they have some sort of disease. When did the shuffle become cool again amongst Melbourne's mainstream clubbers?
The 'Melbourne shuffle', as a style of dance, emerged in its current form during the acid house rave era in the early 90's. Yet its evolutionary history dates back as far as the 1850s. Documentarian Garry Sheppard, producer of the film-'The Global Shuffle'-showing at this year's Melbourne Film Festival, traces the origins of the dance back to Celtic clogging, brought over to Melbourne during the gold rush years. According to Sheppard's website, Melbourne's youth embraced the dance during the folk revival in the early 60s, but downplayed it to reflect the modern hippie generation, throwing out the traditional footwear. By the 70's the name of the dance had gone from 'clogging' to 'stomping' to 'rocking'; and was a regular hit at Police run blue light disco's at that time. When underground rave parties came onto the scene, the youth of Melbourne just continued to do what they knew best; they 'rocked' till the wee hours of the morning. By the early 2000s the dance began to be referenced to by its current label and its unique style had become internationally renowned.
The first Melbourne rave parties took place in 1992 in the studio warehouses of Television Unlimited. Although they only attracted a couple hundred people, they were essentially the catalyst for the new rave culture which emerged. Dance parties today are generally large scale commercial events which draw in tens of thousands of revellers. PhD candidate Christine Siokou of the National Drug and Research Institute has been observing trends in Melbourne's rave scene since the mid 90s. She argues that many who witnessed the birth of Melbourne's rave culture believe that commercialisation of raves has resulted in the movement becoming 'mainstream' and the collective ethos in which the counter-culture was built, namely peace, love, unity, and respect, being lost.
Yet commercialisation not only changed rave culture, it infectiously altered the meaning and characteristics of the shuffle, in relation to the way it was danced and projected. Sometime between its rebirth and now, the Melbourne shuffle had gone from being seen as a 'cool' underground dance, an art form which reflected Melbourne's vibrant party scene, to being an undesirable display, instigating cringe-worthy ridicule when spotted by the youth of Melbourne's greater population. How did the shuffle go from being the pride and joy of many in the underground rave scene to our utter embarrassment? Sure we can boast that our city created a dance that is now internationally recognisable, but in our home town, the who's who of Melbourne's night life has increasingly escaped it like the plague.
One explanation could be drawn from shuffler attire. Although phat pants-massive wide leg trousers generally in fluoro colours-render it easier for shufflers to bust a move and attract attention in nightclubs, these clown-like garments are not lacking in their supply of comical ammunition. But with all superficialities aside, it is evident that the nature of the dance had been altered. Harmony and self-expression has been replaced with hierarchy and competition amongst many shufflers. The love of the dance and the collective youth conscious it promoted has morphed into "who has the best moves" complete with American style dance battles, now readily available on YouTube.
But let's not forget that the move from small illegal underground parties to large licensed nightclubs and venues has brought alcohol into the mix. Coupled with the raver's drug of choice MDMA becoming scarcer in purity from the 90s onwards, and resulting in other party enhancers such as amphetamines and cocaine being used, the rave scene, and consequently the dance, had grown more aggressive and superficial. These combined effects have altered the image of shufflers to Melbournian outsiders; from friendly and fun-loving to an egotistical gag.
So why the sudden resurge in admiration for the shuffle in one of Melbourne's glitterati nightclubs? Could the stripping of the attitude that has become enmeshed with the dance style have rendered it savoury once more? Or is this just another instance of this countries America complex impacting what we think is 'cool' and what isn't? I don't see how the fashion of LMFAO's front-men-American style denim hanging around their knees revealing underwear-is any better than the gaudy enlarged sailor pants worn by Melbourne shufflers. All I know is Laura looked like she was having fun. And that's what dancing should be…fun! So let's forget the negative effects commercialisation brought to our dance and let us learn from the lessons of the mothers and fathers of the rave counter-culture. After all the Melbourne shuffle has put this city on the map. Let's ensure that it is for the right reasons.
Author: Krystle Gatt - 22 July 2011
Krystle Gatt is a PhD Candidate in RMIT University’s School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning. Her research focuses on the Watergate phenomenon and its global implications.