Fans defend slam dancing, 'stage diving'

July 31, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Philip O'Donnell, an avid rock fan, is what might be called an active listener.

"I busted my head open jumping off the balcony to Nine Inch Nails," Mr. O'Donnell, a doorman at Washington's 9:30 Club, is saying in the music hall's smoky vestibule. "The balcony was 20 feet above the stage. I hit something, I don't know what. I got 10 stitches."

Some may have regarded that experience, which occurred three years ago in Tijuana, as a lesson to be learned. After his head healed, though, Mr. O'Donnell simply looked for the next concert. When the music moves him, he still hurtles around with the best of them.

"Yup," he says, sounding like a seen-it-all war veteran. "I've jumped off many a stage."

Mr. O'Donnell is 22, tall and muscular with a baseball cap perched backward on his head. The cap says, "No Fear."

But fear is exactly what fans such as Mr. O'Donnell instill in those involved in the concert business. Fear of injury, or, more precisely, fear of ever-increasing liability claims.

In today's music scene, concert organizers are confronted with a challenge they hate to face: catering to the desires of their youthful, hyperactive audiences while providing an environment safe enough to satisfy any insurer.

It is a challenge with a curious twist. "I grew up in the Woodstock generation and I consider myself pretty open-minded," said R. Craig Clark Jr., a plaintiff attorney in San Diego and an advocate for strict safety standards at concerts. "I remember when we were told everything we did was wrong, and I don't want to do that now with these kids.

"But in my generation, everything was based on peace and love. This behavior is just the opposite. It is violent behavior for the sake of violence."

Practitioners say they are simply enjoying the music in their own way. They call it "moshing" -- an array of frenetic activities usually associated with punk, alternative and heavy metal music. The word itself apparently is a mutation from "mash."

Moshing refers to slam dancing -- fans packed together and throwing themselves at each other in the "mosh pit," the area directly in front of the stage. It also encompasses "floating," "swimming" or "crowd surfing" -- passing people over the heads of the crowd -- and "stage diving" -- jumping onto the stage and then diving back into the crowd with the expectation of being caught.

But sometimes, as in Mr. O'Donnell's Tijuana escapade, stage divers are not caught. Sometimes they are dropped, and floaters are bobbled, and slam dancers are roughed up. Often there are bruises and split lips and broken bones. And sometimes, there are demands for compensation because of those injuries.

"Do we like it?" said Marianne Smith, head of the music unit for Aon Entertainment Limited, which provides insurance for concerts. "No. Would we like to get rid of it? Yes. Can we? I don't know how."

Last month, Brian Cross, 23, of Essex was paralyzed during a concert of Pantera, Biohazard and Sepultura at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Howard County police say Mr. Cross told them he had been floating in the mosh pit and may have hit his head. He now has a attorney who says that security guards injured Mr. Cross.

At the 9:30 Club in Washington, Mr. O'Donnell excuses himself as the first act, Guttermouth, begins its set. The music is loud and aggressive, with lead singer Mark Adkins leaning into the squirming figures pressing against the stage.

The moshing is in full swing. The crowd looks like a single writhing organism. People push and shove into each other, some of them after running starts. Suddenly, a body shoots above their heads like lava erupting from a volcano. The body rides along the top of the crowd and then abruptly sinks from view. Occasionally, someone leaps onto the stage and scampers among the unconcerned guitarists before hurtling back into the crowd. When a person falls, the dancers magically part in an instant, all are restored to their feet, and the moshing resumes.

Norm Veenstra, the 9:30 Club's manager, says he doesn't remember anyone filing a claim against the club because of moshing. That doesn't mean there are no minor injuries, though. Liana Huth, the club's publicist and bartender, says she hands ++ over ice for split lips nearly as often as she does for drinks.

During a break, Andrew Fry, a 25-year-old medical clerk from Silver Spring, describes the pleasure of moshing. "It's my way of taking out aggression with other people without fighting," he says. "I feel wonderful for months afterward."

Curiously, moshers describe it as being simultaneously violent and gentle. "It's like giving up your trust," said Jack MacInnis, a 26-year-old doorman at the club. "You trust that other people will take care of you, and they do."

After his set, Mr. Adkins, slick with sweat and nursing a beer, sings the virtues of slamming. "I thrive on it," he says, a mild contrast now to his snarling, profane stage persona. "It's what makes us tick."

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