Moshing: The Art and Consequences of One of the Most Celebrated Concert Dance Forms

Breaking down the history, anatomy, and art of moshing

Moshing History
Illustration by Steven Fiche

    Punk Week continues with an essay on the history and art of moshing. Keep checking back throughout the week for interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things punk, all the time.

    When the brutal reality of a global pandemic began to set in last year, many concertgoers felt a foreboding sense of doom: Would the experience of live music ever be the same? The fear was rooted in the fact that being shoulder to shoulder at a venue or a festival had been deemed “too risky,” that even from a baseline level, being that close to strangers could be the reason you test positive for COVID-19 the next week.

    But there’s an even deeper facet of the concert experience that was put in jeopardy: moshing.

    At its best, moshing is a visceral and collective experience, a physical way to match the energy of the music you’re witnessing with the feeling it gives you. When done right (and safely), there is a willful exchange of bodily autonomy in the mosh pit — it’s a relinquishing of a certain amount of control of where your body goes and moves, a step into chaos, a pushing and pulling motion that mirrors the intensity of what’s happening on stage. At its best, there should be a feeling of respect in the pit; everyone is there for a similar reason: to enjoy live music in a visceral and cathartic way.


    At its worst, moshing can be, of course, deeply harmful. It’s an easy way to pick up some sort of injury, large or small, and those who throw and receive fists in the pit can sometimes walk away with a bloody nose (or more). The very concept of bodies smashing together like pinballs is dangerous to our fragile frames. Even beyond physical injuries is a danger far more sinister: violation.

    The recent HBO documentary on Woodstock ‘99 outlines this concept in a devastating way, bringing up the fact that women were repeatedly assaulted and violated in the pent up, male-dominated crowds, and that the anonymity of a concert allowed for the lack of accountability and personal responsibility. Watching the doc, it’s clear that this behavior went directly against the peaceful mission of the original Woodstock, and that using a mosh pit as an arena for debauchery is an act of cowardice. What’s more, it went against the ethos of punk and the reason moshing exists in the first place.

    Moshing as a style of dance is believed to have originated roughly between 1976 and 1980 in Orange County, California; Washington, DC; and at punk shows in England. It’s said to have been preceded by pogoing — a style of dance that sees the crowd jumping up and down, arms tightly against their sides, almost like a box of pens being shaken. Pogoing was pioneered by Sex Pistols’ bassist, Sid Vicious, in the early days of the UK’s punk scene.


    Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, crowds were engaging in “slam dancing” at Black Flag and Fear concerts taking place in tightly-packed punk venues in Southern California. The term “moshing” itself is attributed to none other than H.R. of the Washington, DC hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains, who commanded his audience to “mash” — but in his Jamaican accent, this was eventually misinterpreted to be “mosh.”

    As the vibrant world of punk began to attract more and more concertgoers, the crowds were eager to participate in the energy of the shows. It’s interesting to consider that moshing wasn’t practiced by crowds before punk originated; even though acts like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and other psychedelic powerhouses of the late ’60s played rowdy, highly energetic, and unorthodox concerts, there was still an established concert etiquette that wouldn’t be broken until punk’s arrival.

    Punk originated as a way of rejecting conformity and etiquette, of discarding the capitalistic sheen of contemporary rock and pop for a more visceral, raw experience. Hence, the rejection of what “normal” concert behavior was supposed to be.


    Yet, punk’s “do-it-yourself” origins instilled a sense of pride and respect for the people who made it happen, for the anti-establishment crowd and the independent, politically-fueled agenda on display. Though the punk scene began as a predominantly white and male medium, the scene shifted quickly throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s to include more people of color (like Bad Brains) and eventually more women (Bikini Kill and other riot grrrl acts), signifying that an inclusive ethos was as much a part of punk music as rejecting authority. Moshing was a response to the aggression of the sound and the rejection of conformity and tradition, but it was also a way of bringing people together under a common identity.

    As the explosion of punk shows continued through the 1980s, moshing became a mainstay in crowd behavior, and several artists began incorporating the command into their sets and songs (see: Anthrax’s “Caught in a Mosh”). With the explosion of grunge in the early 1990s, however, moshing became something recognized in mainstream music, and a dance form that made its way from the underground punk and metal shows to stadiums and beyond.

    Which leads us to the Woodstock ‘99 debacle: After the highly-criticized event, and partially due to reported deaths around the world and the criticism of the behavior from major bands like Fugazi and Smashing Pumpkins, moshing endured significant controversy. The lack of crowd control was leading to a major discussion of changing audiences, and with heavy music growing ever more popular, moshing was becoming both a safety hazard for fans who couldn’t participate and a warning sign for bands with aggressive styles.


    Yet, moshing endured, and with the rise of major metal, punk, hardcore, and alternative festivals like Warped Tour and Ozzfest throughout the 2000s, it wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, moshing has since morphed into various other forms of dance. There’s the uniquely synchronized “circle pit,” where a section of the audience moves as fast as they can, together, in a circle, forming a literal whirlwind to accompany the music.

    Also popular — but certainly more dangerous — is the “wall of death,” in which the audience divides in half, separates, and then runs at full speed to meet in the middle, forming a giant, chaotic pit in the process:

    However, as anyone attending Warped Tour in the early 2010s can attest, the most dominant form of moshing is not necessarily a group of people pushing and pulling in an amorphous blob — it’s the hardcore dance, where a section of people in the center of the crowd thrash, kick, spin, punch, and flip. This creates a bit of a hazard for everyone around, and although the edges of the circle carved out for hardcore dancing often get caught in the crossfire, it is a mostly independent dance, dedicated to a free and uninhibited expression of the body in an unorthodox and contorted way.

    Heavy music has such a frenetic quality that the need to let it all out out makes sense — ye sometimes the act can be selfish, demanding valuable crowd space to kick and punch something imaginary and putting everyone around on their nerves as they fear an accidental boot to the face.

    And now, in 2021, even the act of gathering in a crowd feels… well, different. Previously, it was a concertgoer’s right to express themselves however they saw fit against their desired musical backdrop. Moshing was a way to live outside of yourself for a brief moment in time and relinquish control. But today, relinquishing control of your body can have some serious consequences.


    The onset of the pandemic brought to light how much we took human-to-human contact for granted, and how we were once able to risk so much without thinking about the implications. But moshing is inherently messy. It’s a surefire way to get yourself covered in germs, and in some of the more intense pits, you can end up with someone else’s sweat, blood, or other… fluids on you.

    Even though audience members would often wear this as a point of pride, it’s worth noting that the trauma of the pandemic will linger far beyond the near future and affect how people feel about the exchanging of bodies in this way. The ethos of punk maintains a space of respect, inclusion, and often prioritizes the spirit of the collective, yet with the ability to spread disease so easily, moshing in 2021 directly contradicts this ethos.

    So where does that leave moshing in the future? How can we safely express ourselves as a collective without endangering each other? Moshing certainly won’t die out — it is connected to that deep, human need of catharsis, and will endure someway, somehow. At the same time, perhaps the way that we mosh will continue to transform. Now, more than ever, there is a need for respect, awareness, and safety in mosh pits and at concerts as a whole.


    As live shows continue throughout the year and beyond despite the spread of the Delta variant, moshing may have to take place with masks on only — or, perhaps, the more independent and often socially-distanced medium of hardcore dancing will become more common.

    Only time will tell, and with hope, there will be a reality in which we mosh without these dire implications in the back of our minds. For now, we can reminisce about our greatest mosh pit moments, and know that we didn’t take that collective energy for granted.

    Editor’s Note: To keep punk alive even after Punk Week, pick up our new “Punk Is Dead, Long Live Punk” shirt at the Consequence Shop.