Short-Circuiting the Monkey Dance

Some self-defense experts teach students to de-escalate potentially violent situations: apologize, retreat, defer, accept blame. Others teach aggressive escalation: be loud, be clear, and be increasingly firm in making it obvious that you are not a victim. The apparent discrepancy between the two tactics is because instructors are talking about two different kinds of violence: (1) the monkey dance and (2) predation. Any reponse that de-escalates a monkey dance will aggravate predation, and vice-versa.

Let us drill down to what we mean when we use the term violence. At the highest level, the World Health Organization (WHO) groups violence into three categories; self-directed violence (suicide), collective violence (war and economic inequality), and interpersonal violence. As armed citizens, we are concerned only with the last category. Furthermore, WHO classifies interpersonal violence into two subcategories: domestic violence and community violence (violence outside the home or between strangers). Although armed citizens must address domestic violence, this article is solely about violence outside the home or between strangers. Finally, for the purposes of this article, we divide violence outside the home or between strangers into two types: predation and the monkey dance.

If someone approaches you smiling, in a secluded place, asking for money, a light, the time, or directions, with hands not visible, as his buddy circles around behind you, it is predation. You should adopt the interview stance and loudly speak your disengagement words. We discuss in detail how to respond to predation in The First Rule of a Gunfight.

If someone yells obscenities at you, with puffed-out chest, while flailing his arms about, it is a monkey dance. This article explains the proper response.

The Monkey Dance

Most animal species conduct ritualized combat between males. Snakes wrestle, deer lock horns, rams butt heads. Such rituals comprise genetically programmed steps and are instinctively designed to be non-lethal. In our species, the ritual is called the “monkey dance”. (The term was originally coined by Sgt. Rory Miller and has been adopted by Marc MacYoung and other instructors.) The monkey dance consists of the following steps (adapted from Miller’s Facing Violence):

  1. A hard aggressive stare.
  2. A verbal challenge, e.g.: “What you lookin’ at?”
  3. Approach within arms length, with signs of increased adrenalin (gross motor arm movements, chest bobbing, facial flushing).
  4. Escalating verbal threats.
  5. Eventually, one participant makes contact on the other’s chest, usually with an index finger. This triggers back-and-forth contacts escalating to pushes and shoves.
  6. Finally, one participant touches the other’s face, usually touching the opponent’s nose with an index finger. This triggers a big, looping overhand punch, and the fight is on.

A good analogy is the dogs’ dominance ritual. Snarls and growls develop into jaw-snaps in air, which escalate to real bites, which culminate in a noisy fight. In humans, as in other anmals, a monkey dance that is allowed to continue its course will naturally end up in uncontrolled rage.

In some inherently risky venues your mere presence puts you at risk of being subjected to a monkey dance. They are where liquor is served, at sports events, and during road rage incidents.

Monkey dances often arise in taverns or among spectators at team sports events. This is why some states (such as Florida) outlaw concealed carry in those venues. The legislators apparently felt that the uncontrolled rage of a monkey dance might cause an armed citizen to lose judgment and shoot his opponent.

Other than when drinking or watching team sports (in states where concealed carry in such venues is legal), armed citizens most often encounter the monkey dance in road rage incidents. At first glance, a motor traffic incident might seem less dangerous than a bar or stadium brawl. After all, you can simply ignore another driver’s shouts and finger-waves. But two quirky aspects of road rage are important: bumper-sticker accusation and potential carjacking.

A bumper-sticker accusation is where the screaming, finger-waving enraged driver notices an NRA or Glock sticker on your car, calls 911, and reports that you brandished a gun at him. You will go to jail. The phone call is sufficient probable cause for your arrest and search. The 911 audio recording plus the gun found on you will probably convict you. Even if you receive a suspended sentence, your license to carry will be revoked. The solution? Do not advertise anywhere on your car, your clothing, or your home that you own a gun.

The second quirky aspect of a road rage incident is that the enraged driver may emerge from his vehicle, sprint to yours, and physically attack you. If you are trapped and cannot drive away, he may smash your window. As soon as he reaches in to grab or hit you, the situation is indistinguishable from a carjacking and you will have no choice but to draw and fire if you want to live. You will then take your chances in court for killing an unarmed person (although in some states, such as Florida, the “castle doctrine” would be on your side).

Whatever the venue, you must avoid being forced to shoot someone. You must evade being trapped into choosing between death and prison. And so, whatever the venue, you must defuse any monkey dance as soon as it begins; cut it short. Fortunately, it is easy in a technical sense to short-circuit a monkey dance. Unfortunately, it can be psychologically very difficult indeed.

The good news is that the monkey dance is nothing but the hominid dominance ritual. Since it is genetically scripted. it can be defused at any point before step 6 by your backing down, apologizing, and displaying signs of submission and inferiority. A dog submits by flopping on his back and exposing his throat to the dominant male. A human submits by bowing, cringing, accepting blame, apologizing, and asking for mercy and forgiveness. With one exremely rare exception, this will end the monkey dance on the spot. The human victory response is hard-wired in our genes. With a contemptuous sneer and a final verbal jab, the aggressor will accept your submission to his dominance, and you can back away or drive away.

The bad news is that males find it exceedingly hard to say, “I’m so sorry; it was all my fault” when you know damned well that this is a demeaning lie. Tough. Learn to do it or don’t carry a gun. Let me repeat: Learn to back down and apologize or don’t carry a gun.

The exception? Perhaps one person in ten thousand is wired wrong. They are sociopaths. Their response to your apologetic submission will be to physically and violently attack you. I doubt that you will ever run into such a sick individual. But if you do, shoot ’em.


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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