The compelling trend of watching Gen X dance like nobody’s watching

How a recent TikTok trend reminds us that our parents were people before they were our moms and dads

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published May 27, 2024 9:01AM (EDT)

Mother and daughter having fun together while dancing in the kitchen (Getty Images/FG Trade)
Mother and daughter having fun together while dancing in the kitchen (Getty Images/FG Trade)

One evening last July, during my summer break from a worthwhile but costly stint in graduate school, I did the most “I moved back in with my parents” thing I’ve done in the last year and change of living at home: I offered to be a designated driver for my parents' high school reunion. 

It wasn’t a chore – I was happy for my parents. They'd be catching up with friends from a bygone era at an old haunt of theirs: a beachfront tiki bar-dance club with frothy, tropical drinks, raucous conversation, and a steady stream of Italian-Americans — the kind of atmosphere that irrevocably signals that you’ve reached the threshold of the Jersey shore. 

A gentle breeze drifted in from the ocean on my right, wrapping itself around my pre-teen sister and me where we were seated on the boardwalk in plastic chairs, picking at the last vestiges of our cotton candy and caramel apples. The sky was growing steadily bluer by the minute. Over the toss of the tide and an arcade full of screaming children, I could hear the opening bassline of New Order’s “Blue Monday” emanating from inside the tiki bar. 

Somewhat insufferably and unoriginally, I often find myself more preoccupied with thoughts of other periods throughout the 20th century than the now. Sure, there’s the existential dread fomented by these trying times that makes contemplating the present and future near impossible on most days that end with "y." But I’m also intensely fascinated by the cultural and sociopolitical contexts that defined those decades. When my grandmother passed away over the winter, the only good thing to come of it was the troves of sepia-toned photographs and personal items that were unearthed from her storage. It felt like sifting through the treasures inside Ariel’s’ underwater grotto; even the tiniest trinket was etched with perfect, arcane meaning.

My parents, children of the ‘70s and teens of the ‘80s, have always been relatively tight-lipped about their high school days, at least when my four siblings and I were younger. The main way they've communicated those years of their lives with us has been through music, much of which is deep cuts from first-wave bands like Depeche Mode, The Cars, The Talking Heads, and more. 

Naturally, as the five of us have grown and dabbled in our own intermittent spates of degeneracy, we’ve become more privy to our parents' young adult lore. When a high school friend of theirs visited our home recently, she assuredly told my siblings and me, between deep sips of pinot grigio, “You guys don’t know your f***ing parents.”

Tectonic plates shifted and the rapture came and went before I had time to come down from her simple yet utterly astounding observation. She was right. At least in the context she was talking about, outside of old disposable camera photographs, I had no clue who these people really were, despite their lives’ obvious interlacing with my own. 

How was it so easy to forget that they were people before they were my parents?

This question has been simmering at the front of my mind for the past week, a time during which I’ve consumed dozens of TikToks and Instagram reels of Gen Z-ers like myself asking their Gen-X parents, “How would you dance to this song in the ‘80s?” The song in question is Bronski Beat’s debut single, “Smalltown Boy,” a synth-pop hit with unmistakable falsetto yowls and striking lyrics, which describe a young gay man who is forced to leave home after being harassed over his identity. 

The videos, which have circulated widely across social media, are incredibly wholesome: The question is asked, and moms and dads are immediately luminous, momentarily transported to another time before they fall into an all-too-familiar rhythm. The clips I’ve seen have ranged from Jennifer Garner doing a variation of Molly Ringwald’s signature “Breakfast Club” punch-kick combo (surprisingly, instead of her "13 Going on 30" favorite, “Thriller”), to dads in skinny jeans dropping their best moonwalk and moms going full disco-mode while throwing their arms from side to side. 

I scrolled through reel upon reels this past weekend, smiling to myself with the quiet knowledge this trend had inadvertently served as a unique reminder of our parent's personhood, not as our guardians, but as people independent of that association.

This observation was encapsulated quite profoundly by one Gen-X Threads user, who directed a few thoughts at “younger respondents” underneath a video of one middle-aged mama absolutely boogieing down. 

“We don’t ‘revert’ for a few minutes during a song/dance or however we used to express ourselves regularly,” the commenter said. “We may forget or feel put upon by our responsibilities but we remain whole inside with memories of freedom to express without consequence. We don’t become other people as we age.”

“'She’ is the same ‘she’ that first danced to this tune in a club 40 odd years ago. Older sure, wiser, we hope, but always constantly ourselves.”

On Reddit, one Gen-X parent confided to the thread that she not only loved the videos but also “secretly hope my kid will ask me to be in one lol.” LOL indeed!

We need your help to stay independent

Perhaps it's the power of music, from its sheer emotional appeal to its lasting psychological impact, that also functions as a common thread between the kids watching and the parents dancing. According to Gen-Zers like me who are similarly infatuated with the trend and also suffer from bouts of temporal and generational dysphoria, the trend, as one X/Twitter user puts it, is “proof our generation is lame af.”

“80s dancing parents is the new sea shanties. I want one hundred thousand videos of this,” another person tweeted, citing TikTok’s obsession with sailor’s work songs in 2021. 

Watching videos of the ‘80s dance trend also made me yearn for what truly reflected a simpler time. “Dance like nobody’s watching” seemed to have really meant something back then.

Devoid of cell phones and social media and all its many drawbacks, the ‘80s seemed like a far more uninhibited era, as evoked by the dancing specifically. Many of the moves observed in the videos are jerky, and erratic, which would be delineated as awkward or nerdy by today’s watered-down standards. And yet, it’s undeniably passionate, injected with beauty and vigor that might just be inspiring Gen-Z to bust out the Cabbage Patch or the Roger Rabbit at their next nightclub appearance.

Our parents aren’t preserved in amber – they’ve aged and changed. And they were meant to. If our caregivers still acted the way they did in their most hormonally frenetic heyday, sans a fully matured frontal lobe, I’m certain a lot more of the proverbial sh**t would have hit the fan. 

But as one person wrote on X/Twitter,  “The groove will always remain within you.” 

And that’s true. I’ve seen my parents be moved by the beat at countless concerts, thrum on the steering wheel-air drums, and rock out in our kitchen while making dinner my entire life. But when I recently asked them how they would’ve danced to “Smalltown Boy” back in the day, they smiled and politely declined to show me. And that’s OK; I didn’t mind. Maybe some memories should be reserved only for them, for the people they were before they were before they became my mom and dad.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

MORE FROM Gabriella Ferrigine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1980s Dancing Essay Gen X Gen Z Parenting