top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Yes, I wrote a serious article about "The Safety Dance"

Given both the song's origins and its more modern use, it honestly makes a good amount of sense to approach the topic in this way.

Tonight's song, though quite silly in many aspects, seems poignant to me because of how I configure the song in relation to where I am.

As usual, I'm writing this entry from my room in Southside Berkeley. Importantly, where I'm living for my senior year is essentially on top of a very popular bar. Part of that success likely comes from its club-like atmosphere, with pulsing music — alternating largely between dance and hip-hop — emanating from its interior out on the streets until 2 AM.

While I'm not much of a bar-goer myself, hearing all the music gets me thinking about dancing, sometimes even moving a bit in my chair or on my bed as I work. As I visualize the filled floors of the establishment below me, I see dancing, however rudimentary it may be, in its most positive light: a form of free expression which can reach far beyond language. I find the word "free" particularly important, and that's because I see dancing as a way to let loose and escape, to get lost in the music you enjoy. Who cares if I'm white and I can't really dance? I'm 100% me while I'm 'dancing.'

In these respects, it becomes preposterous to think of anyone policing dancing in a bar or a club... and yet, in the early 80s, such policing did exist in certain circles. Taken aback by his experience being restricted in such a way, Ivan Doroschuk took pen to paper and microphone to hand to create his ode to nonconformity.

Haven't heard of Doroschuk? Well, you've probably heard of his band, Men Without Hats, or at least their signature tune, "The Safety Dance" — the aforementioned anthem of dance floor freedom.

Firstly, what dance could have been so vile, so obscene, so out-of-bounds for bouncers to throw out Doroschuk? As it turns out, it was pogoing — jumping up and down, either staying in one spot or while moving around a bit. The forerunner of the slamming and moshing that defines punk and rock at large to this day, pogoing to new wave music like that of Men Without Hats was becoming somewhat common, and it was seen as a threat to the more traditional and formalized disco dancers — not only ideologically, but also physically. The physical aspect of a pogoer potentially slamming into a disco dancer caught unawares was too much for some clubs to handle. Pogoing club-goers were asked to stop, and if they didn't, they were shown the door.

So, to put it as simply as possible, "Safety Dance" was inspired by Men Without Hats' frontman being told he could jump up and down in clubs. Well, I'll be damned if that didn't lead to one of the most infectiously catchy new wave tracks of all time. Propelled by a whip-like snare drum / clap combo on the backbeat and a cavalcade of brass-like synths, Doroschuk spins a tale that combines escapism with freedom of expression amid anti-establishment undertones. As he explained in a 2012 interview, not giving into a peer pressure is at the song's core, and it is this guiding principle which makes the track timeless.

The song's message also ties in with its visual component, its medieval-themed video, featuring a maypole, Morris dancers, and other British folk symbols. While the track's sound is pure 80s, Doroschuk argues that the video also ties into the timeless aspect of "Safety Dance," saying that the use of a bygone era for a video setting makes the video impossible to date, aside from maybe the resolution at which it is available for viewing. While I hadn't previously thought of it that way because of the song's sonic identity, I definitely get his point, and I wonder for how many people his statement rings true.

I'm fascinated by the place "Safety Dance" occupies in our culture today, particularly because of its re-contextualization by Alaska Airlines in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas to Men Without Hats, "Safety" meant freedom of expression, Alaska Airlines took a decidedly literal approach to the title, using the song to encourage mask-wearing and other protocols. Of course, I'm all for these safety measures to be in place, but I'm still unsure if using "Safety Dance" was the right choice given its original meaning. To me, it feels decidedly off-putting, even though the campaign did work on a viral / notability level. Maybe I'm just showing my colors as a music nerd in bringing this up... or maybe there is something more to it. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

One way or another, "Safety Dance" has stuck around through various social evolutions, and its message rings louder and truer today than ever before as more and more marginalized groups fight for their rightful recognition and sociopolitical enfranchisement. I'm honestly fascinated to see how the song is used going forward, and whether its overall theme or the first word in its title will be the driving force behind its future use.


bottom of page