Waacking Saigon: The pioneers of Vietnam’s retro dance revival

By Simon Stanley   April 28, 2017 | 09:04 am PT
It’s not every day that you hear vintage disco music in HCMC, but for one group of Vietnamese millennials, it’s a way of life.

Posing, punking, waacking; the dance style that emerged from the gay clubs of 1970s Los Angeles, set to the hottest disco tracks of the time, goes by many names.

With a strong focus on the arms and the transference of individual aspects of the music into the body’s movements, waacking, as it is was most commonly known, is an unmistakable chapter in the history of dance. 

But in Saigon, after the strict censorship of foreign music in the years after 1975, there’s an entire back-catalogue of music and movements still being uncovered and revived by a new generation through the wonder of the web.

That’s how 31-year-old I.T. outsourcing consultant Danh Tran Thanh found disco, and, more importantly, how he found waacking.

Since stumbling across a YouTube clip of a waacking performance back in 2009 while searching for hip hop dance videos, Danh, along with his friend Thach A Mit (or Black Jack, as he is better known), has become a figurehead of Vietnam's waacking culture.

With its high-energy arm movements and graceful yet powerful poses (inspired, they say, by the iconic glossy Hollywood headshots of early-20th-century film stars such as Greta Garbo, Marlena Dietrich and Rita Hayworth), the dance style immediately captured the pair’s imagination. After dancing hip hop for almost four years, it didn’t take much for them to switch.

“We copied and practiced the basic online routines,” says Danh. “We kept searching online and eventually found Tyrone Proctor, Princess Lockeroo and Ebony.”

As one of the original pioneers of the dance and a regular face on Soul Train (a popular American music and dance television show in the 1970s), Tyrone “The Bone” Proctor is a living legend among today’s international waacking community.

In recent years, after the style all but disappeared in the 1990s due, in part, to the loss of many of its founders to the AIDS crisis, the now 63-year-old Philadelphia native has been instrumental in reviving the movements he and his buddies conceived over four decades ago.

After meeting Proctor in 2015 at a waacking event in Malaysia, Danh and Mit invited him to Saigon. To their delight, he accepted.

A year later, Danh (who also goes by the name Skarlet), and Vu Nguyen (aka D.Arez) hosted Show Off Volume 6, Vietnam’s premier international hip hop and waacking competition, with Tyrone Proctor as an official judge.


Competitors battle it out at 2016’s Show Off event. Photo by Simon Stanley

It was the biggest year ever for the Show Off event, with “waackers” flying in from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and all over Vietnam to compete. And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Saigon, from a second-floor event space in the city’s sleepy suburbs, came the pounding bass and luscious strings of vintage, unadulterated, dance-til-you-drop disco, with competitors in homemade costumes and sequins galore tearing up the dance floor as the the granddaddy of waacking looked on.

“At the first event in 2013, we had just four people,” explained Danh shortly after the competition as he prepared to take Tyrone Proctor on a whistle-stop tour of the city. “This time we had 50.”

Gulping down an iced tea in his hotel room, the American, who now lives in Manhattan, was buzzing. “This is an extremely unique city,” he said excitedly. “When I was growing up, you would always see on television something negative about Saigon. [But now], I go outside and people are smiling and waving at me. It’s a joy.”

With waacking competitions frequently taking place alongside hip hop dance battles, the two groups have come to respect and appreciate each other’s styles, with many competitors hopping between both genres as the day goes on.

Through numerous national and international competitions, and their weekly waacking workshops, Skarlet and Black Jack’s mission is about much more than dancing. For many of their LGBT students and fans, waacking poses a rare opportunity for self-expression in a safe and fully accepting environment.

I catch up with the pair at their dance studio in District 4.

“With waacking,” says Skarlet, who identifies as a gay cross-dressing man, “you don’t have to be anybody else; you don’t have to hide. We can show our true selves and dance freely, even when we’re sad, stressed or bored with our lives on the outside.”


Scarlet Tran puts Fancy Crew through their paces at a weekly dance class. Photo by Simon Stanley

It’s another warm night in Saigon. In readiness for a forthcoming competition in Malaysia, Skarlet and Black Jack’s waacking collective, Fancy Crew, are about to get to work. As the sound system kicks into life, the unmistakable sounds of Donna Summer pour out into the evening air. I.T. consultant Danh Tran Thanh pulls off his motorbike helmet, pulls on a pair of high heels, and becomes Skarlet Tran, the fiercely-proud waacking sensation. His students line up and their session begins.

For Saigon’s LGBT community, things have come a long way in the past few years. The law and general social attitudes are now more accepting than ever. But there’s still a way to go before Skarlet and Black Jack and the rest of the crew can whip out their killer moves in a downtown bar or club.

“The music in Saigon is always EDM,” says Skarlet after the crew’s energetic warm-up routine. “Why can’t it be Disco!?”

With my toes tapping and my pen drumming out the beat on my notebook, I have to agree.

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