The Monkey Dance (MD) – Rory Miller


Most, if not all animals have a ritualized combat between males of the same species to safely establish dominance. Snakes coil around each other and wrestle. It can look like mating to the uninitiated. Deer and elk lock antlers and push and fence. Rams slam their horns, reinforced with massive blocks of bone, into each other. Humans fist-fight or wrestle. In all cases, it is a ritual with specific steps, genetically designed NOT to be life-threatening. This human dominance game, the Monkey Dance, follows specific steps. You have all seen it:

A hard, aggressive stare.

A verbal challenge, e.g., “What you lookin’ at?”

An approach, often with the signs of increased adrenaline: gross motor activity of arm swinging or chest bobbing, a change in color, usually with the skin flushing.

As the two square-off, there may be more verbal exchanges and then one will make contact. It will usually be a two-handed push on the chest or an index finger to the chest. If it is an index finger to the nose it will go immediately to step No. 5. If there is no face contact, this step can be repeated many times until one of the dancers throws

A big, looping over-hand punch.

This description is simplified and shows only one side. It must be emphasized that there have been thousands of generations conditioned to play this game in this way. It is easy to get sucked in and a very difficult thing to walk away. Backing down from a Monkey Dance, unless you take or are given a face-saving out, is extremely difficult and embarrassing, especially for young men.

A full MD will look more like this:

1) A hard, aggressive stare. The recipient will either look away or meet the stare. If he looks away, dominance is established and the instigator will move on. If the recipient:

1a) meets the stare or

1b) tries to be dismissive (like saying to friends, “I think that guy has the ‘hots’ for me”),

either of which will likely cause the situation to escalate.

1c) It is possible, however, that the aggressor here is looking for or willing to settle for a Status-Seeking Show (SSS) in which case looking away, being submissive, may mark you as a good target. Also, any submissive body language increases your likelihood of being targeted by a predator.

2) If the stare is met and held, it will escalate to a verbal challenge, e.g., “What you lookin’ at?” Again, if the recipient at this point looks away and pretends to be very interested in something else, dominance is established and the aggressor will likely move on. The recipient, especially if girls are watching, will have an incredible urge to respond in kind. It is, in fact, fear of being humiliated by not responding that is driving the dynamic. The MD is not a game you play. It is genetically programmed and unless you possess wisdom and exert will, the game plays you.

2a) In order to defuse, the looking away must be submissive. It must be humble. If the recipient looks away but starts snickering with friends or making low-voiced comments, the verbal challenge is repeated and escalated, “Hey! Asshole! I’m talking to you!”

2b) If the recipient is not feeling submissive and is not mature enough to avoid the MD,

he answers the verbal response. “Who’s asking?”

3) An approach, often marked by adrenalin-linked signs: gross motor activity of arm swinging or chest bobbing; a change in color, usually with the skin flushing. 3a) At this point, other monkeys get involved. Friends of both sides try to intervene, get between the two and prevent any further escalation. This is one of the best ways to have a face saving resolution. No one is injured, no one backed down. Status is not established but the willingness to fight for status has been, no matter how easy it was for bystanders to separate the dancers. This sets boundaries and allows both to co-exist with mutual respect, one of the main goals of the Monkey Dance.

3b) If one of the dancers is alone, he now has the face-saving exit in that he is not backing down from the opponent, but from the group. If the lone person does not back down, it is probably a special case and will likely end very badly.

3c) If no intervention is forthcoming, and again, especially if girls are watching, things will escalate to step 4.

4) As the two square-off, there may be more verbal attacks and then one will make contact. It will usually be a two-handed push on the chest or an index finger to the chest. If it is an index finger to the nose (remember face contact, above) it will go immediately to Step #5. This pushing, with low-level contact can go on for some time.

5) A big, looping over-hand punch. At this point the fight, such as it is, will be on.

Get this—no matter who issued the verbal challenge, who pushed first or who threw the first punch there is no self-defense here. With all of the opportunities for preclusion, for not joining in the Monkey Dance, for simply leaving, this will be classified as a mutual combat fight. Both parties may go to jail. One certainly will if a serious injury results—even if it was from stumbling and falling.


The Monkey Dance is very much a male ritual. It is a contest for status between males. Women, generally, do not feel the male fear that others will see them as wimps for not playing. And guys, for the record most women see backing down as mature and not cowardly (with thanks to the movie, “Support Your Local Sheriff”.)

Very rarely a man will perceive himself to be in a Monkey Dance with a woman. It indicates a man who has not been properly socialized at all, has likely picked a woman out of desperation to be of superior status to somebody and can become dangerously enraged if the woman is not submissive—and sexually predatory if she is.

The MD is almost always initiated with a person that the aggressor sees as close to his social level. In other words, a normal person will not follow the steps of the MD with a child. There is no status to be gained and the very idea that you thought that there might places you in a very low status.

Nor will a normal person MD with a very high-ranking individual, like a mob boss. Captains are constantly jockeying for influence, but they don’t do it with generals and only the very insecure do it with lieutenants. Middle management is a hotbed of one-upmanship and subtle challenges, but the middle managers don’t MD with the boss and the few that do MD with the line staff are the kind of managers that both make life hell and are the source of thousands of jokes.


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