Though music fans have often interpreted the song as a metaphor for nuclear war or a call for safe sex, Men Without Hats guitarist Stefan Doroschuk said in an online interview that "The Safety Dance" is about nonconformism and everyone's ability to leave their friends behind and strike out on their own. His brother Ivan, who was Men Without Hats' lead singer, claimed on VH1's show True Spin that the specific inspiration was bouncers hassling people in bars who would "pogo" dance to the new wave songs of the early '80s. Said Ivan: "I was telling people it's OK, you can slam dance if you want to."
Ivan explained that he considered Men Without Hats a punk band, and they were very antiauthority.
The music video looks like an awesome renaissance faire, with lead singer Ivan Doroshuck traveling around a village orchestrating a Morris Dance, which is a kind of English folk dance. Directed by Tim Pope, it was shot at a village in Wiltshire, England.
MTV had been on the air for about two years when they started playing the video in 1983. They were on their way to becoming an irreverent voice of youth culture, playing lots of videos by superstars (Michael Jackson, The Police), but also introducing some wacky lesser-known (usually foreign) artists with bonkers videos. This fit the later category quite well.
Ivan Doroschuk told the radio station Boom 97.3 in Toronto: "The song was really written about me after I got kicked out of a bar in Ottawa. I got kicked out for pogoing to The B-52s, I think, "Rock Lobster
." It was the dying days of disco. I got kicked out of the bar and went home and wrote this. I think it's a message that kids still want to hear today: yeah, it is safe to dance."
Rhythm Of Youth was the first Men Without Hats album. The first single was "I Got The Message," which went nowhere. "The Safety Dance" was released next, but it didn't boogie until a 12-inch remix, running 4:32, went to #1 on the Dance chart on June 2, 1983. The 2:44 7-inch single then got some momentum and rose to #3 on the Hot 100 on September 10.
The music video established a look for the band, which formed in Montreal as a punk-leaning outfit but joined the new wave movement, embracing the synthesizer sound heard on this track. "I think people were expecting a real new wave, techno-looking band and they got Peter Pan instead," Ivan Doroschuk said. "It created quite a stir in the new wave community."
The actor Mike Edmonds plays the little person in the video. Edmonds has appeared in several films including Return of the Jedi, Time Bandits, Flash Gordon, Dark Crystal and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The free-spirited girl who does the "and sing" retort in the video was played by Louise Court, who became editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan in the UK. On the song, Anne Dussault sang that part.
This song was used in the Playstation 2 game Activision Anthology.
The cast of the TV series Glee performed this on the show in 2010 and released their version as a single, taking it to #81 US.
This song has been used in two episodes of South Park ("Asspen" - 2002; "Where My Country Gone?" - 2015), two episodes of The Simpsons ("Make Room for Lisa" - 1999; "Bye Bye Nerdy" - 2001), and an episode of Family Guy ("Ocean's Three and a Half" - 2009). It also appeared in these movies:
Saving Silverman (2001)
The Mexican (2001)
The Informers (2008)
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Jimmy Fallon and The Roots did a "social distance version" of this song
for the One World: Together At Home concert, broadcast April 18, 2020 to support the World Health Organization and frontline workers. First responders joined in the virtual performance by playing household items; Fallon changed the lyric to promote safe practice in the time of the virus, singing, "Everybody's washing their hands."