The dance style originated in the 1950s or 1960s at Jamaican dance halls, where ska music was played. Ska music has a prominent backbeat played by the electric guitar on beats two and four of a 4/4 bar of music. When ska became popular amongst British mods and skinheads of the 1960s, these UK youth adopted these types of dances and altered them. The dancing style was revived during the 1970s and 1980s 2 Tone era, and has been adopted by some individuals in the hardcore punk subculture.
Originally, skanking consisted of a "running man" motion of the legs to the beat while alternating bent-elbow fist-punches, left and right. Over time, variations emerged. The punk version features a sharp striking out look with the arms, and is sometimes used in moshing to knock around others doing the same. However, this is rarely seen as an act of true aggression but rather a consensual release of emotion.
This rough appearance tends to lead to negative stereotypes of violence, though they are rare at best and almost never tolerated by venue operators, bands, or other audience members. While the flailing, swinging, and pushing may appear dangerous, there is almost always a conscious effort by each dancer in the 'pit' to refrain from actually striking or hurting each other dancer. Additionally, should any one person trip and fall, others in the group tend to avoid trampling them, or even help them to get back up.
The style, speed, and moves used when skanking are as diverse as the music it is performed to, usually dictated by its rhythm and genre. For example, the skanking done at a Reggae concert would typically be slower and more restrained than the skanking done at a hardcore punk show. An example of this is the lighter style known as 'stroll' which has become popularized by American ska-punk bands, mainly Big D and the Kids Table. In this style, dancers tend to 'stroll' in a circle around the center 'pit' while rhythmically swaying from side to side with arms bent and marching in sync to the music.
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