A version of this article originally ran in BY
I remember the night I, an American, fell in love with sokkie. It was at a matric dance at Hoër Landbouskool Marlow in Cradock, one of South Africa's remaining live-in all-male agricultural secondary schools.
I had come to write about what it was like to go to school at a place that was still so unabashedly Afrikaans. I was struck by how boyish the experience was: the residents haze their newbies, pull pranks and compete against each other in a series of contests. Each residence even has its own "cave", an outdoor version of the couch-pillow fort, which they spend countless hours decorating.
I had the impression the Marlow culture was sweet but immature – until night fell and everybody gathered for a sokkie in a main hall. Suddenly, as the treffers began to belt from the sound system, the Marlow boys turned into men.
I stared with awe as boys I had seen hours earlier crawling about their "caves" stood tall and gracefully led the local Cradock girls in this intricate, adult partner dance. My astonishment increased as several boys asked me for a dance. They knew I was older, a professional – and yet they approached me with such a cool confidence, as if we were equals.
Such a scene could never have happened where I went to high school in the United States. School dances were grim balls that unmasked the façades of maturity we strove to create during the day in our classes. The music was always hip-hop, and none of us teenagers had the confidence in our bodies to do much more than twitch robotically, unable to cope with the music's insistent sexuality.
The boys in particular suffered. My friend Peter dealt with the trauma by standing utterly still and jerking his hands in thumbs-up signs to the beat: at least that way he looked like he had rhythm.
Sokkie is something of a curiosity for non-Afrikaners. A Sunday Times journalist who visited a sokkie joint in Bloemfontein found "a sense of immediate abnormality. People are standing around drinking dark cocktails from pickle jars. On the dance floor, youngsters dressed in trendy jeans and miniskirts are kicking it with the older crowd in flowery blouses and denim shorts."
Since that night at Marlow, though, I have come to love sokkie. I seek it out. For me, sokkie has an elegance and focus on partnership not found anywhere except in niche hobbyists' dances such as the tango. I also love what it does to the men who dance it.
In my American culture, men, even well into their adulthood, are far less willing to get on to the dance floor than women. I think they are less readily attuned to the constant creativity that hip-hop-based free dance requires. Sokkie provides a ready-made format almost any man can master. Even the roughest, poorest man can be a leader on the sokkie dance floor. A dance like this gives men a way to express power, confidence and grace in an era when so many of the ways that men traditionally express power are coming into question.
I wonder: will sokkie die in the great global cultural convergence? And how soon?
I saw an image of its death at a sokkie I once attended in Paternoster. The crowd was a mix of old boers, rough oil-rig workers and young, classy emigrants – a vision of the West Coast's future.
The first hour of the dance was a tide of romantic treffers: Speeltjie and Kaptein. The dance floor filled and everybody looked so comfortable. The oil-rig workers danced a showy, bouncy sokkie with giggling girls. The older couples clasped each other closer. One young, elegantly coiffed man in a purple shirt swivelled so smoothly around the floor with his taller partner that their dancing almost looked like ballet.
Then came the witching hour. The DJ switched to Beyoncé. It was like the electricity had gone out on the dance floor. Everybody ground to a halt. The younger people gamely tried to dance to the new music. But they looked as awkward as we American high-schoolers had at our dances, their feet bolted to the floor, their shoulders jiggling awkwardly. I focused on the graceful dancer in the purple shirt. His transformation was total. Like my friend Peter, he was coping by freezing stiff as a tree and making spiritless thumbs-up gestures to the beat. Soon, he just left the stage.
And yet nobody complained. Nobody asked the DJ to put the treffers back on.
It was as if everybody was resigned to the fact that this was the way of the evening, and indeed the way of time: the old and local gives way to the new and global.
And we walk off our stages without considering our loss.