“What you lookin’ at?” barks a young man. He's about your size, about your age. You don’t think you were looking at anything in particular. You also know the smart thing to do is to give a little apology and go back to your beer.
But you’re a young man yourself. Before you even realize it, you are looking dead in his eyes and saying, “Who wants to know?”
“You trying to be smart?”
“What if I am?” You aren’t sure who stood up first but both of you are standing now. His skin is getting red. He’s flexing his shoulders, looking bigger. You can’t see yourself and you don’t even think about it, but you are doing the same thing. More words are exchanged, some pretty colorful profanities and both of you step closer and closer. The veins in his neck and forehead are bulging and his jaw muscles are clenching whenever he isn’t insulting you
You throw a quick glance at the other patrons. Everyone is watching but no one is doing a thing.
He gets closer, too close, and you push him away, hard.
He responds with a looping overhand punch. In a moment you are a tangle, rolling on the floor and throwing wild punches until somebody pulls you apart.
You never even thought of the weapon holstered on your hip, and that’s a good thing.
There’s a myth or saying in the martial arts: “When two tigers fight, one is killed and the other is maimed.” It’s just further evidence that many of the early martial artists were shitty observers of nature. When two tigers fight, there’s a dominance display and, if one doesn’t back down, something like a scuffle. Neither is injured. One leaves, the other keeps the territory.
When a tiger kills a goat, that’s a whole different story.
That right there is the difference between a dominance contest within a species (social violence) and killing for resources—usually food—outside your species (asocial violence.)
The term Monkey Dance was coined in the book “Meditations on Violence” to describe the human dominance ritual. It’s a deliberately ridiculous name for a ridiculous pattern of behavior. But it is a pattern that young men are conditioned to follow.
It has, or had, it’s purpose. Groups function best with a clearly defined hierarchy. When the status is in doubt, it will be clarified. This is why most Monkey Dances within a group are pretty evenly matched. If status is clear, there is no need.
It’s also done to impress peers and, especially, ladies…and it showcases the things that made a good mate when we roamed the savannah 100,000 years ago: strength and persistence and a willingness to do battle.
Those are also the reason why it is so safe. This is an in-group fight and seriously injuring other members of the group weaken us all. What is less likely to do damage then using the fragile hand bones to hit the top/front of the skull? That is almost always the first move in a Monkey Dance.
We have all seen the script many, many times. It usually begins with a hard look, followed by a verbal challenge, often, as above, “What’re you lookin at?” Both members play and once you get sucked into the script, your normal, logical brain is not in control. Your limbic system has been doing this dance since before humans even existed. It will hijack you.
Unless you see it coming and exert will to exit.
The verbal challenges will continue and escalate. The parties will stand, approach. Usually skin will flush and they will stand square on, bobbing up and down on their toes, subconsciously flexing. Square on, bobbing and even flushing rather than going pale are NOT good survival or fighting tactics. They are threat displays, subconscious attempts to look bigger and more impressive.
If neither backs down or friends don’t intervene, the verbal shit will continue and the two will get closer until one moves. The first contact will almost always be a two-handed push on the chest or poking the index finger into the chest. This part is cultural. In western Canada, they knock the baseball cap off.
That is answered either with a two-handed push or the looping overhand right that almost always opens the fight stage. Two adrenalized people both stepping in and throwing big punches quickly turns into a clinch and usually falls to the ground. The falling to the ground is the place where serious injury may occur.
That is the pattern for establishing dominance. Dominance is not always or even usually about who is the leader, or even who is above who in a hierarchy. Most groups have roles, and you will see this pattern when two people want the same role. If you introduce a new guy who happens to be funny to a group that already has an established joker, the pattern will begin with a contest for funny jokes that will then get personal, targeting each other, then vicious…and then proceed to the Monkey Dance.
The steps listed above will often be followed when a new person or group goes into a place with established clientele. A bar is the obvious example. The usual endpoint is not a fight, but when friends pull the two apart. That is the perfect face-saving exit: no one is injured, both have established a willingness (real or not) to engage and both have the ego-saving belief that only the people holding them back prevented an epic ass-whuppin’.
De-Escalating the Monkey Dance
The Monkey Dance is the most common and the most avoidable of the social violence types. It can usually be avoided with a simple apology. It can be defused with submissive body language—an apology, down cast eyes.
It can also often be simply bypassed:
“What are YOU lookin’ at?”
“Huh? Oh, didn’t know. Worked all night last night I must have zoned out for a minute.” Bypassing requires extremely relaxed body language. And a low, slow, slightly puzzled tone of voice really helps. If the guy keeps fishing, treat the follow-ups as thoughtful questions. Don’t Monkey Dance back and don’t become agitated or show anger.
If you get caught in a Monkey Dance and don’t realize it until you are a few steps down the road, apologize (a simple ‘sorry’ no explanation) put your hands up, palms out (both shows peaceful intent and makes a classic ‘fence’ which is a very good thing when things go bad) and back away. Then leave the area.
Dangers of the Monkey Dance
Falling and hitting your head is the only danger inherent in the Monkey Dance. Damage that might occur in the fight is usually cosmetic. But sometimes other things are going on.
· If you have violated a social rule in a place where such things are handled by violence, that is not a Monkey Dance. Corrective violence will be discusses in a future article. Generally, this type of violence will come with instructions, e.g. “Apologize to the lady or I will kick your ass.” Apologize. No weasel words. This isn’t about dominance. It is about you showing disrespect for a way of life or a culture. To avoid corrective action you must acknowledge that there was a rule and you broke it and that you now understand: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, ma’am.”
· If the normal de-escalations don’t work, you may be facing a special case. The MD has rules. Generally, if one side backs down, the dance is over. If someone won’t let you back down or accept an apology, especially if the threat closes to striking range, you are likely facing a specialized predator who enjoys beating people. If an audience of cronies is gathering around for the show, it could be very bad. If people unaffiliated with this guy start looking really uncomfortable and nervous, they may know his patterns.
· If one breaks the rules of the dance. One guy apologizes and walks away and then decides to get the last word in and say some shit as he is leaving. That will trigger some bad things, probably a beating for show. If one of the parties draws a weapon there will be serious repercussions and not just legal. The MD happens in a social environment. The person will get a reputation for being afraid and unable to “handle himself.” What may appear manly (and that’s what the MD is about, right?) actually appears cowardly.
· If there is no audience, expect that the MD challenge is a pretext for a predatory assault. Social violence more or less requires an audience or a relationship between the parties.
Possibly the greatest danger in the Monkey Dance, for most people, is legal. It is not self-defense. No matter how big he was or who started it, there are too many opportunities to walk away for a Monkey Dance fight to be called self-defense. Even if you are losing, you are losing a grade school-level fistfight. Lethal response will not be justified. In fact, in some jurisdictions which explicitly state that aggressors cannot claim self-defense an exception is made if the victim introduces the possibility of lethal force. For just two examples, see Illinois statute 720 ILCS 5/7‑4 Ch. 38, par. 7‑4 or Montana code 45-3-105.
“He started it,” is a grade school defense, not a legal defense.