From Boy Band Thrusting to the Magic Mike 'Dolphin': A Vital, Long Overdue History of Stage Humping

Illustration: Vicky Leta/GMG

A couple of years ago, I was in the second row of Magic Mike Live watching several ripped, shirtless men doing a modified cow pose on knees and balled fists. They repeatedly snaked their bodies to the ground, pelvises reaching the stage last. Later, a shirtless man thumped his fist against the stage with a coordinated thrust of the crotch. In another interlude, a man did a knee-pumping hump while traveling across the stage. I had not felt quite so giddy and breathless since watching a VHS of the Backstreet Boys in concert as a 13-year-old. These two events, separated by over two decades, had one crucial element in common: stage humping.

Recently, I came across similar moves on TikTok and was reminded, once again, of men making love to the floor. And I thought: From whence the floor grind? It was time to investigate this important topic.

When I think of stage humping, I think of a man thrusting against the floor in a modified pushup, an enactment of missionary screwing that presupposes a very long, and soon to be broken, dick. But one of the earliest and most famous examples of stage humping defies that very-long-dick-in-missionary characterization. In 1984, Madonna did her legendary “Like a Virgin” performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, descending from an oversize wedding cake while wearing a white bustier to kneel on the stage and oh-so-briefly, but controversially, bounce up and down. “It almost seems banal and PG compared to now, but at the time it was incredibly avant-garde,” says the choreographer Johanna Sapakie.

In the same era, Prince became known for his writhing, sensuous humping of the stage (and the piano) during live performances and, most iconically, in Purple Rain. As of just a few years ago, fans were gathering on message boards and reminiscing about “the Mad Humper himself.” Similarly, Billy Idol and Michael Jackson premiered music videos where they lay down and rocked their crotches against the floor. In Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” he and his dancers were shown backlit in silhouette while thrusting against the floor.

While there are infinite variations and styles of stage-humping, according to Sapakie, it all boils down to two different approaches: “waving” and “pounding.” “The waving is the sensual rolling of the pelvis and the pounding is the attack, it’s the percussion,” she explains. Those core approaches shift with changing times, by which I mean: greater amenability to humpage.

In the ’90s, it became more directly sexual: concert reviewers wrote of Color Me Badd’s “hip-thrusting and stage-humping and sexy come-ons”—and “doing something that looked like push-ups but wasn’t.” Bobby Brown brought prolific air humping to performances of “My Prerogative” and the music video for “Humpin’ Around.” Then came Madonna’s Girlie Show tour, a risqué live show involving floor-writhing and humping.

Toward the turn of the millennium, AJ McLean, the “bad boy” of the Backstreet Boys, began stage-humping during concerts, sending auditoriums of teenagers into a chorus of desperate screams. As I have previously written: “His hands didn’t go up by where your imagined head would be, but rather down by your hips, as though he was trying to make it as effortful a physical feat as humanly possible, like a stylized pushup turned crow pose (as nicely captured by this ancient Tripod fan site).” At the time, as the webmistress of an AJ fansite, I was well-acquainted with the X-rated fan-fiction and even photoshopped nudes of him floating around, but neither form of fantasy material could compete with the vision of his humping the air, leaving just enough room for a-slash-your body.

Shortly thereafter, *NSYNC did what they do: poorly imitated the Backstreet Boys (BSB forever). In the 2001 video for “Pop,” all five members did a jumping-jack plank while rolling their pelvises toward the floor. It was a tamer and less direct allusion to sexing. It seems that in this boy band era, stage humping could either be performed raunchily by one designated “bad boy” member or by the whole group as abstract choreography with a degree of plausible deniability around the sexual nature of the move. This is a theory I’d love to confirm, but when I reached out to some famed boy band choreographers, I encountered a resounding silence—save for one, who responded, “respectfully I have to decline... God bless you.”

In 2005, the R&B group Pretty Ricky’s single “Grind on Me” ushered in a new era as their tour demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for grinding on the stage. Their single then unleashed a viral sensation in 2007 when a group of young guys calling themselves Peer Pressure, a.k.a. Ottoman Humpers, listened to the song while passionately humping ottomans on-camera. Their notoriety inspired a rival air-humping group, Fantasy Boiz, who went viral with a video of themselves humping the floor and the air (but no ottomans). As one member, Artavia “Da Prince” Jameson, told MTV at the time, “Girls, they look at [our videos] like we’re making love in the air, but there’s really a passion we put in it. You gotta have emotion and smoothness to make these moves look a certain way.”

A few years later, Peer Pressure was asked to perform at the Air Sex Championships Tour, a comedic event in which people compete in screwing the air. Host Chris Trew says Peer Pressure got on stage and “fucked an ottoman,” before he raffled off the ottoman. Trew has hosted the tour since 2009 and watched approximately 10,000 total hours of air humping, which makes him “the Malcum Gladwell of this prestigious sporting event,” he points out. People are drawn to Air Sex as “a safe way to satisfy your curiosity to watch people fuck,” he explains. “It’s often goofy or so silly and that makes it okay for people to participate in watching. It’s like ‘no, I wasn’t actually turned on or thinking about real sex are you kidding, they were JOKING.’ People do this all the time with jokes.”

In the 2010s, stage-humping was dominated by the Magic Mike franchise. First, there was the 2012 Steven Soderbergh film Magic Mike (Channing Tatum artfully humps the stage), then the 2015 sequel Magic Mike XXL (Tatum humps a table), and finally the 2017 premiere of the live show in Las Vegas. (Tatum did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did his TikTok lookalike, Will Parfitt, who performs in the unaffiliated Magic Men Australia show. I tried all the angles.) I can say from my personal experience watching Magic Mike Live that the show’s humpage is not the comedic specter of “ghost sex” or an ottoman orgy, but sex-like movements folded into a well-choreographed dance routine.

Alison Faulk, who co-choreographed the live show, as well as the films, says the stage hump is best used as, well, a climactic moment. “The thing for us in the live show is that we don’t want to be one-note, we kind of like to sprinkle it throughout the show,” she said. “If you lead up to that, it resonates a lot more than just all of it all at once. It brings you on a little bit of a journey.” When the live show’s dancers do breakout that move, the audience inevitably goes wild. “I think they’re waiting for that,” she said. “They tend to be really excited about that part of the show, the fantasy or the idea of those men. It feels so physical and so real.”

Faulk says that Tatum—or “Chan,” as she calls him—put floor-humping on the map when he danced to Ginuwine’s “Pony” in the first Magic Mike film. “That was a pretty big moment, culturally,” she said. In that scene, he does the knee-pumping hump that was adapted for the live show. Another signature Magic Mike move is the “dolphin dive,” a move pulled from breaking in which a man slowly goes into something like a handstand combined with a hump. Since then, the dolphin dive has become a trademark of some K-pop performances, especially with the band BTS. The singer Lee Tae-min does enough floor humping to inspire fan compilation videos. The dolphin isn’t rabbit-like thrusting, or even repeated snaking of the torso, but a single, isolated, slo-mo hump. Faulk says that this kind of athleticism combined with the floor hump is a one-two choreographic punch.

But Sapakie points out that the 2010s era of floor-humping was not limited to men: In Nicki Minaj’s 2014 video for “Anaconda,” she and her women backup dancers thrust their pelvises against the floor in a style reminiscent of Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” That video, says Sapakie, paved the way for the current period of stage-humping, which belongs to women. There was Megan Thee Stallion’s mesmerizing 2020 video for “Body,” which features dance routines alongside a few moments of her grinding against the floor in a see-through bodysuit. Her video with Cardi B for “WAP” similarly highlighted hip-thrusting floor moves; and, of course, their Grammy performance featured an oversize bed that functioned as stage.

Regardless of who is doing the humping within a choreographed dance, says Sapakie, it’s an expression of power. “If you’re the person doing that action, you’re the person in control,” says, Sapakie, who choreographed Jennifer Lopez’s pole dance routine in Hustlers, which features stage-humping in the splits. “There’s something very dominating and powerful and forward about that move. You’re not being passive with your sexuality. You’re saying, ‘This is me, I’m owning what I feel.’” Viewers might identify with or aspire to that powerful position, or they might imagine themselves on the receiving end of it, she says.

Mostly, the aim of humping choreography is to elicit a reaction—sometimes, any kind of reaction. It could be arousal or it could be shock. “That movement can be really polarizing,” she says. “We want you to feel something.” Stage humping will always do the trick.

A previous version of this piece mistakenly referenced Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” It has been corrected. 

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

DISCUSSION

anneelliott1993
anneelliott1993

Yeah. I have a reaction to this. My reaction is “this looks tone deaf, with any interest in what I find sexy, and it feels like sexual assault. Get the fuck away from me.”