Two minutes into the first song by the opening act, forty teenagers and a few adults spontaneously erupt into a single skanking mass in the center of the dance floor. Just a moment ago they stood mostly still while sizing up the band, a ska outfit from Sacramento called the Street Vendors, and now they've transformed as if through an inexorable scientific reaction into a writhing jumble of knees and elbows. That's what they're here for, after all. With $500 on the line during a ska dancing competition later in the evening, they may as well get warmed up.
Here at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center, local ska band the Uptones are holding their third Skankin' Fools Dance Contest. During the Uptones' upcoming set, contestants with numbers pinned to their backs will dance their hearts out for a chance at the $500 prize. Two previous Skankin' Fools contests held in the East Bay in 2007 and 2008 offered prizes of $100 and drew hundreds of kids from around the Bay Area. This year, with the addition of sponsor SonicSwap.com, the increased award has only intensified the competition.
"Are there any rude girls in the house?" the Street Vendors' lead singer asks into the mic, and although men outnumber women at least two-to-one, a big cheer goes up. The reaction bears out a sense that the crowd tonight is truly unlike any other: a tight-knit, proudly geeky subculture that celebrates its cultishness and unique language even within the insular independent music world.
The prize money is nice, but the real draw tonight, and likewise at all ska shows, is simply having a good time with like-minded fans. Ska developed out of jazz, R&B, and Caribbean rhythms in Jamaica in the late 1950s, predating both rocksteady and reggae by a decade. It was the dominant form of music in Jamaica for years before spreading to England in the late 1970s and across the United States during the short-lived revival of the mid-'90s through bands such as No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. All along, ska remained primarily a dance genre, with lyrics either secondary or absent altogether. It's the up-tempo, syncopated rhythm that matters most: a beat that inspires the carefree, energetic, almost irresistible move known as the skank.
One of skanking's greatest attractions is there's no right or wrong way to do it. Over the past five decades, ska dancing has evolved along with ska music so that myriad styles now mingle under the same tent. The basic form is a full swing of the elbow paired with a high-knee skip, shifting from one side to the other every second beat. At La Peña, some dancers lift their legs then kick back their feet, while others point their toes or stomp the floor. Some raise their hands high, while others stoop over and punch closed fists toward the ground. This freedom of expression and lack of rules explains why otherwise self-conscious teens often find skanking therapeutic.
By the time the second group, an Operation Ivy cover band from the North Bay called Hectic, concludes its set, dancing has been going on for two hours. Many kids guzzle water and rest up while waiting for the start of the contest with the arrival of the Uptones, an eight-piece band that formed at Berkeley High in 1981 as one of the West Coast's first ska groups, disbanded a few years later, and recently reunited. Four friends from Moraga and Orinda are among them, huddled at the edge of the dance floor. "I came for the Uptones and because I love to skank," said Sunflower Wittenberg, 18. "It's a really good way to let your energy out." Kelsey Bergman, 18, and Deena Duffy, 17, prefer reggae and punk music, respectively, but enjoy ska dancing as a safe and friendly way to "let it all out."
When the Uptones finally appear after 11 p.m., the energy in the room seems to peak. "Y'all ready to skank? 'Cause that's what we're here for," announces guitarist Musashi "Moose" Lethridge. Fifty-eight people among a couple hundred total have signed up to compete in the dance contest, and no matter how tired, they're eager to do their best. Again the dance floor is abuzz with energetic young skankers, a flurry of flailing limbs and bobbing bodies.
The three judges will decide a winner largely by style and enthusiasm, and some entrants have tried to improve their odds by wearing ska's trademark black-and-white checkerboard pattern on shoes, suspenders, or shirts. One of the more devoted skankers wears the traditional ska uniform of a full black suit with a skinny tie. Many also wear fedora or trilby hats. Onstage, the Uptones sport their own array of black, brown, and even sequined suits.
With the contest underway, at floor level it's a sea of shuffling feet and flying shadows. Even over the music you can hear the sound of one hundred squeaking sneakers on the hardwood dance floor. The temperature in the room begins to rise, and with it the scent of sweat. One teen's gray T-shirt is entirely soaked. "How you holdin' up?" another skanker asks his girlfriend after a song ends. Five minutes later, visibly worn out, she takes a seat. The contest may as well be titled "Last Skanker Standing."
Shortly after midnight, it's time to announce the winner. A representative of SonicSwap.com appears on stage bearing an oversize check for $500. He calls out #34 and seventeen-year-old Leslie Watson from Pleasanton climbs onstage with a look of complete surprise. "Oh my gosh, thank you so much," she says backstage as five one-hundred dollar bills are counted out before her. "Now my parents won't have to bug me about not having any money."
"I wasn't expecting that at all!" she exclaims. While eight runners-up skank onstage during two more Uptones songs, Watson explains that she hadn't even planned to enter the contest. Some of the ten friends with whom she'd caravanned over convinced her to sign up — even after she'd promised her running coach she wouldn't on account of an injury she was nursing and an upcoming half-marathon. In the end, that long-distance conditioning likely helped secure her victory.
The money would go toward gas, college, and a late-night snack with friends at IHOP, she said. But even without this unexpected windfall, ska offered plenty to keep her coming back. "Ska isn't very popular at my school, so whenever people want to know what it's like, I always tell them the same thing: It's just fun." She said the last few words as if there was nothing more to say, and judging by tonight's concert she couldn't have been more right.