Princess Lockerooo is a whirling force with a singular focus: spreading the gospel of waacking.
For more than a decade, the 34-year-old devotee of the retro club dance has performed in competitions and led workshops all over the world, tirelessly promoting a message of self-expression and empowerment. This year was going to be huge: she was slated to lead New York City’s annual dance parade down Broadway, host hundreds of contestants at her own festival in Brooklyn, and travel to Brazil and London to judge dance battles.
“I was preparing for a storm of creativity,” said Princess Lockerooo, whose given name is Samara Cohen.
A viral tempest hit instead, closing dance studios, clubs, and competitions. But waacking has thrived online, where its rapid but contained gestures translate perfectly to Instagram and TikTok.
This isn’t the first time a virus nearly wiped out waacking. It emerged as a social dance, set to disco, in the underground gay clubs of Los Angeles in the 1970s, the unencumbered expression of gay men of color. Some of its originators referred to it as “punking” or “whacking,” and eventually “waacking.” But after many of them died of AIDS in the decades that followed, the style largely disappeared.
“This isn’t something I just danced through,” said Tyrone Proctor, one of the few survivors of that generation and Princess Lockerooo’s mentor. “We lived this.”
The dance pulls from a loose vocabulary of moves but is defined and judged by the unique connection each dancer forges with the music, and every person’s style is different. “You have to make people see what they hear,” Mr. Proctor said shortly before New York went into lockdown in March. “You have to make people feel that emotion in the movement.”
Waacking is about pleasure, but it is also about pain, said Mary Fogarty Woehrel, an associate professor of dance at York University in Toronto, “and overcoming it through hyperconfident composure. It’s about what the arms and hands can say, but also what the shoulders know about the spinning of the spine and off-centered heart.”
The dance might have gone the way of so many other club fads if not for “Soul Train,” the long-running dance and music television show. Mr. Proctor and other members of the Outrageous Waack Dancers (which also included an up-and-coming pop singer named Jody Watley) were regular performers on the show, and they introduced the style to a national audience.
In the “Soul Train” clips below, Mr. Proctor, center, demonstrates early waacking moves (expressive but controlled arm and torso movements, all performed on a small patch of the dance floor). The show catapulted the dance into pop culture.
That’s how Archie Burnett first saw it. His devout mother forbade dancing in the house where he grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but he secretly tuned into the show every week after church to pick up the steps. “When I came of age and started going out against my mom’s wishes, my dance style was weird because I was taught by television,” he recalled. Mr. Burnett sometimes mixed waacking with vogueing, a newer but similar club dance that had overshadowed waacking by the ’90s, due in large part to Madonna’s hit single “Vogue.”
By the early aughts, waacking had been largely forgotten. But prompted by interest from other dancers, Mr. Proctor and Mr. Burnett became part of a small effort to revive it in New York City.
Princess Lockerooo was one of their first students.
Raised by a single mother on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Princess Lockerooo had grown up on Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and studied voice at LaGuardia High School. But when her plans to attend a conservatory didn’t pan out, she felt her Broadway dreams slipping away. She gained weight and fell into a deep depression, she said.
A chance visit to the Broadway Dance Center, a Midtown hub that offers classes at all levels in everything from ballet to burlesque, revitalized her. Intending to get in shape and brush up on her theater dance skills, she began busking on trains as “Samara the Subway Soprano,” and saved her tips to pay for dance lessons.
Gradually, however, the club and street styles offered at the school lured her in, and one day she found herself in a waacking class. “It was feminine, it was sexy, it was strong, and I was hooked,” she said. Shortly thereafter she was introduced to Mr. Proctor and Mr. Burnett, and threw herself into their classes.
As a straight woman of Jewish and Dominican ancestry, Princess Lockerooo had little in common with waacking’s queer roots. But she said the underground gay culture from which it had emerged accepted and empowered her in a way that more conventional dance forms rarely did.
“The repetition of embodying confidence, which is required to do the dance — whether you feel it or not, you have to imitate it or fake it — that repetition eventually allows that feeling to live inside your body, and it becomes your reality,” she said.
Princess Lockerooo adopted her alter ego and started competing in dance battles, gradually winning the respect of her peers. She also posted tutorials on YouTube where she both demonstrated waacking and shared its history. She appeared on the television show “So You Think You Can Dance,” though she was cut after the second round.
Other dancers of her generation, like Kumari Suraj, Nubian Néné, Waackeisha, and King Aus, also became ambassadors of the form, each giving it their own twist and winning thousands of followers on social media. Princess Lockerooo, for example, describes her signature style of circular, polyrhythmic arm motions as propeller waacking. Ms. Suraj, whose father has South Asian heritage, melded waacking with elements of Indian dance into a style she calls Bollywaack.
“These dance forms are not just about learning moves,” observed Naomi Macalalad Bragin, an assistant professor at University of Washington Bothell. “They are about a dialogue between different communities, across different locations, even across different times.”
As a mecca for international dance students, New York City has arguably been at the center of waacking’s global resurgence. Dancers make the pilgrimage here to study with teachers closer to the dance’s source, like Princess Lockerooo (who has also taught waacking in 27 countries, she said).
But because of its diverse and competitive dance scene, New York also tends to keep waacking in a corner. Princess Lockerooo said that dance students often drift to more commercial styles, like street jazz. The weekly waacking parties she started in 2012 dissolved after a few years. “It is a style that doesn’t stick in New York,” said Miki Tuesday, a native of Sardinia who dances in the city. But “it is sticking everywhere else in the world.”
This is largely because of social media. Just as “Soul Train” brought the dance into living rooms across the country, Instagram and TikTok give waackers all over the world the ability to share their moves with the ease of a hashtag. Virtual connections like this have become even more important during the pandemic.
Waacking is popular in Asia, where the style’s western roots may be part of its charm. Lip J, a 33-year-old dancer and choreographer who teaches waacking in her studio in Seoul, South Korea, said American and European waackers “dance like what they are.”
In Taiwan, waackers link the dance’s popularity with changing social norms that followed the legalization of gay marriage there in 2019. One of Princess Lockerooo’s Taiwanese students, Akuma Diva, credits waacking with giving him the confidence to come out. “The energy of waacking is very pure,” he said. “The movement comes from inside, so you have to face yourself first.”
Waacking has even reached Kazakhstan, where Elaya Baishakova, 10, takes classes at a studio in Almaty, the country’s largest city, and attended a master class given by Princess Lockerooo there in 2019. Elaya has since found acclaim competing in online battles.
Mr. Burnett sees social media’s influence on waacking as a double-edged sword. The internet has taken the dance to the ends of the earth, but a certain excitement of being in the moment, while others cheer you on, is absent.
“Today, history is always recorded but the experience is lost because they’re too busy recording,” he said. “Whereas in my time, the experiences flourished, but there’s nothing to look back on.”
And the dance’s early stars are dwindling, too. This June, Tyrone Proctor died of a heart attack at 66. He had become a father figure to Princess Lockerooo, who was devastated. “He’ll always be here with us, living through us,” she said.
Mr. Proctor had done his part to revive the art of waacking — and now, it seems, it is up to Princess Lockerooo’s generation to keep it going.