Is This the End of the Dap?
Illustration: Jamiel Law

Is This the End of the Dap?

Even as we begin to re-enter the world together, a small — but crucial — element of male friendship will be missing. And we may never get it

Big Blue was her name. An ’81 Impala, stock save for the Pioneer tape deck Norm had thrown in the dash. That tape deck held just about the entirety of the early ’90s while we drove through the Indiana night doing nothing. MC Breed, Cube, Tribe, Pac, Redman, X-Clan. Sometimes nothing would turn into something — wood-tip Swishers stuffed with what passed for weed back then, off-campus parties that didn’t mind a couple of high school kids — but always, ultimately, the night would end the same way it began. Big Blue idling outside my house, or my shitty Prelude idling outside Norm’s. And inside, two boys, one Black, one White, dapping each other up.

No fist bumps or snaps, just ritual pared down to its two-step essence. Hands clasping. Fingers curling. Two fists staying like that for a moment, yin-yanged together, a period at the end of the night’s sentence.

I don’t remember when my hands made those shapes for the first time, or who prompted it. Neither do you. Might have been a cousin, an uncle. An older kid on the block. A friend. But from that point on, it just… was. Not instinctual, but deeply rooted all the same. Something guarded and universal, something much more than a handshake.

I haven’t given someone dap in almost three months. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never do it again. And of all the sensory experiences that have fallen away from our lives in this post-Covid, pre-vaccine era — a maskless face in the sun, the smell of your favorite restaurant, the lights going down in a movie theater — I’m not sure there’s one I miss more.

If you want to trace the dap back to its roots, then as with just about any American tradition, you’re going to wind up in Africa. Tyler Parry, an assistant professor of African-American and African diasporic studies at UNLV, has tracked accounts of ornate handshakes in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. While he has yet to establish a continuous link, he wrote last year in Black Perspectives, “the smooth gliding of skin-to-skin contact, interlocking fingers, and the expressive snaps at the end of the gesture are present in both the historical and modern examples.”

Those modern examples — and the term “dap” — emerged for the first time in the late 1960s, with Black soldiers in Vietnam. In his 2007 book The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms, historian James E. Westheider details how Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and racism in the armed forces pushed Black soldiers to embrace the Black Power movement, “establishing their own subculture in the military.” The dap specifically, Westheider posits, developed among those held as inmates at the military’s Long Binh Jail, arising from the foundation of the thumb-clasping Black Power handshake — and the word itself derived from “dap,” Vietnamese slang for something beautiful:

The dap, also known as “checking in,” was an intricate ritualized handshake, involving numerous gestures and movements.… There were countless variations of the dap, and some of the more complex greetings could go on for five or more minutes.

That’s just one etymological theory. Since 2013, photographer and visual artist Lamont Hamilton has been researching and chronicling dap rituals in a project called Five on the Black Hand Side; it was through that research that he found that “dap” was coined to stand for “dignity and pride.“ Whether acronym or backronym, that’s exactly what the ritual embodied.

No fist bumps or snaps, just ritual pared down to its two-step essence. Hands clasping. Fingers curling. Two fists staying like that for a moment, yin-yanged together, a period at the end of the night’s sentence.

And you know who hated it? White soldiers. (Surprise!) Threatened by a solidarity to which they weren’t invited, many ridiculed Black soldiers for dapping; some developed a “White power” salute of their own. Shit got crazy. Fights broke out in chow lines. In 1969, trying to ease the tension, the Marine Corps banned dapping during work hours — and for at least one Black Marine who got court-martialed for dapping in a mess hall in 1972, the violation brought six weeks of solitary confinement.

Back home after the war, politics and pride remained bound up in the handshake. Like the Black Power handshake at the core of its choreography, dap stayed solidly within the Black community. Though it wouldn’t for long. Through film and music and sports and any other of the myriad ways Blackness came to suffuse American mass culture, the ’70s and ’80s introduced dap — by sight if not by name — to the mainstream. Sometimes it was bastardized and reframed as a custom among military buddies, as in the iconic clasp between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers in 1987’s Predator. Sometimes it was lumped in with you-kids-and-your-crazy-handshakes generation-gapping, as on the wildly successful sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.

But then hip-hop landed. And the dap became a different thing altogether.

I get it. It’s easy to be nostalgic about the Golden Era. Hip-hop was getting national burn, but still felt like an invite-only club. It wasn’t just the music, though. Blackness itself was thriving on our televisions, our movie screens, our newsstands. We had Martin and Fresh Prince and House Party and The Source and Def Comedy Jam. The culture was shifting before our eyes, finally reflecting a reality so many of us lived but never saw.

This is the part, though, where hairs get split and needles get threaded. The part that for you might well put an asterisk on everything I say. The part that makes the words “we” and “our” hit a little different. The part that acknowledges that proximity will never equate to lived experience. Because whether as a nine-year-old perfecting my windmill on flattened cardboard, a stoned adolescent rolling in Big Blue, a journalist writing XXL cover stories, or an editor at LEVEL, one thing stayed the same: My DNA might be hip-hop, but it’s not Blackness. Never will be.

And the dap is Blackness. Nothing changes that. Nothing should. Yet, “the culture,” as much of a trip as that phrase is, has created small but important bridges between one and the other — and the dap might be the foundation of all of it.

It’s not just a handshake. Far from it. (Matter of fact, fuck handshakes. Throw them in the trash fire with buffets and cruise ships and subway poles and employee potlucks and bathroom doors you have to pull open.) You can shake someone’s hand without even looking: Just stick your arm out and wait to hit something clammy. There’s nothing rote about dapping someone up. You can’t sleepwalk through it. It’s a decision. A dance. It so often comes with a hug because it’s an affirmation of one another’s humanity.

That’s not to say it’s all good with the dap. Far from it. Just think of Chad in accounting holding out his fist and saying “blow it up, dude.” (In fact, if you’re reading this and you’re White: Never lead with a dap when you get introduced to someone new. Never—and for the love of God, especially not now. Just rock with a standard handshake.)

But also, a dap has to be allowed to find its own path. At its core, it’s just got two parts, and for many that’s enough, but you can LeBron that shit in a million different directions. And perhaps because of that combinatorial potential, you’d be forgiven for thinking that dap has transcended its cultural trappings on its way to becoming a viral-video ray of sunshine. News reporters who demonstrate the barest modicum of cultural fluency. Elementary-school teachers who exchange intricate sequences with each of their students. (And the White ones who can’t just stop themselves from swagger-jacking.) Since POTUS dapped up KD, it’s been a code-switching litmus test nonpareil — juiced by Key & Peele into the sketch that launched a thousand memes.

But make no mistake. Dapping isn’t a punchline. It’s not a ploy to ingratiate yourself to the league you oversee, or to gain someone’s trust. It’s to extend trust, and in doing so invite it. It’s reciprocal. It’s respect. It’s the phrase “appreciate you” given flesh. All the intimacy and gratitude of friendship condensed into a mindful, microcosmic embrace. And it might be a while before we do it again — at least without worry.

No question, it’ll still be here. Depending on where you live, you might be reconnecting with folks you haven’t seen in three months, and you might well have dapped someone up without thinking about it. But chances are you did think about it, especially knowing how easily Covid-19 spreads through close contact — parties and protests alike. So even as we start to move into some wan semblance of what we took for granted before March, we’re doing so with newfound boundaries. Gloves. Masks. Those are smart things, good things, necessary precautions for yourselves and others, but they’re part of the reason it’s gonna be a good long while before that everyday ritual feels the way it used to.

In late February, Covid-19 came to New York City; so did I. I live in Oakland, and make monthly visits to spend time with the rest of the LEVEL team — but this time around, I was in all-day meetings, so we met up for dinner after work. Six of us sat at a back table for three hours, talking and drinking and laughing and eating and simply enjoying each other’s company. Afterward, we walked outside, where something between snow and rain drifted out of the sky, catching crystalline in the streetlights. And one at a time, we all went through the same thing. From high above, we must have looked like a confused family of ants, dapping up and hugging each other until all permutations were accounted for.

On their own, these weren’t new. The same thing happens every time I see them in the office; the same thing happens every time I leave them. The same thing I’ve done with my people countless times over the years, with countless people of countless backgrounds but a similar worldview. This time, though, something about it felt different. Something made my heart fuller than usual.

I didn’t know why, just like I didn’t know what would happen over the coming weeks, as the world plunged each of us into silent, solitary chaos. I didn’t know how our lives would change, and how lives would be lost, and how we’d all wonder if we’d ever find equilibrium again. I didn’t know how, in the midst of that uncertainty, that burden would somehow become immeasurably greater, or how so many would risk their lives twice over to rise up against a system built on the back of Blackness. I didn’t know how much I’d miss that feeling of seeing, really seeing, my male friends, and having them see me. But what I did know was that on the last dap — our fingers curled together, clasped against the cold of the weather and the world — something in me simply wasn’t ready to let go.