Drop Knee Tribute

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Drop knee history

In early footage of Duke Kahanamoku riding waves at Waikiki on a heavy wooden board, he is seen riding facing forward in parallel stance, reaching a foot back and dragging it to turn his board slightly. This foot dragging is both the root of turning surfboards and the start of the drop knee stance.

The earliest surfboards were very heavy, flat, and finless. Turning them was difficult to say the least. The first non foot drag turns performed on them were probably gondoliering maneuvers done by stretching a foot back and shoving the tail to the side.

As surfboards evolved in Hawaii and southern California, fins were added and lighter materials used, but the boards still had characteristics that made the drop knee preferable to the flat foot turn. Fifties surfboards had rounded (50-50) rails, rounded bottoms, and little rocker. When pressing down on the edge of the board the round bottom with round rails rolled like a log. With a flat foot lean turn, the surfer would fall off, but with the drop knee, enough rail dug in and held to create some drag or maybe a little turning edge, producing a turn or cutback.

In the films of Bud Browne and Bruce Brown drop knees by fifties surfers such as Dewey Weber and Johnny Fain can be seen. The bodily contortions used by these early drop knee-ers look like excessive force was being used, and indeed it was. The weight of the board was certainly a factor, but other reasons exist, which I will touch on later. But the turn by this time works; these surfers bring their boards all the way around heelside in a complete change of direction.

During the fifties, foam boards such as the Velzy "Pig" were produced and ridden well by Weber and others. They were in the neighborhood of forty pounds, but were still much lighter than the balsa boards that came before. With maneuverable boards like the "Pig" the drop knee was off and running. By the early sixties, surfers such as Lance Carson, Mickey Dora, and Phil Edwards can be seen in numerous films using the turn with a variety of functions and individual style.

Where to look for drop knee examples

Look no further than the most widely available surf movie around, Bruce Brown's Endless Summer. The model for one of the drop knees I will take you through is Robert August, whose turn I call the "essential" drop knee due to its spare, clean design and economy of motion. In the film, August uses the turn as a bottom turn and cutback, cross steps out of it toward the nose, and walks backwards to execute it as a cutback and pullout. In otherwords, he covers all the drop knee basics.

Dewey Weber can be seen in the Surfer's Journal Great Waves of California tape.

Phil Edwards, like Robert August, was a master of the smooth, functional drop knee. His style was the model for many modern surfers who have reinvented the drop knee, among them Wingnut, Joel Tudor, and Kevin Conelly. Phil Edwards appears in many of Bruce Brown's films. A good example is Surfin' Hollow Days.

Also check out Wingnut's Art of Longboarding videos to see Wingnut and Kevin Miske.

Kevin Conelly is another one to look at for modern drop knee mastery, as well as drop knee variations such as the reverse drop knee, and can be seen in Chris Bystrom's Blazing Longboards.

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Adapting the drop knee to long skateboard


The drop knee can be done on any longboard, including a modern longboard with kicked tail and flexible deck. Since it's a classic surf turn, however, I prefer to use a flat, heavy, extra long, stiff, surf style board. The board used in these pictures is a Gravity Hardwood Classic of 54 inches, approx 14 pounds. It has 66mm soft wheels for a smooth ride. It feels and looks like a surfboard. I set the trucks very loose in the back and a little tighter up front. I put a pad made from an ordinary kicktail underneath the tail that makes it easy to drag the tail in wheelie carves without grinding it down. There are pieces of traction tape up the board, with space in between to make pivoting as well as walking on the deck possible.

There are photos and more details of my boards on the Surface Motion gear page.

I like to wear sliding gloves or wrist guards. If you're learning to do cross stepping and arching drop knees, it's a good idea to wear knee and elbow pads because the board will fly out from under you.

Integrating drop knees into other skateboard maneuvers

The drop knee itself is always executed in a context, in that some other turn or maneuver will flow out of it. This comes out of the original functions of wave riding itself. In some cases I show the followup turn, and in one case I show the set up maneuver that precedes the drop knee. For example, the Robert August turn is followed by cross stepping to the nose, and the Wingnut drop knee is preceded by a cross stance and followed by a "soul arch" toeside turn.

Of basic importance is the direction of the wave, whether it breaks to the surfer's forehand or backhand. When a surfer who surfs natural foot is riding a right wave, or forehand, the drop knee typically is used as a cutback to the curl. When that surfer is riding a left, or backhand, the drop knee will be used as a bottom turn. The context that I viewed these turns in surf films will then influence how I use them in skateboarding.

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To learn the drop knee it's best to learn on a gentle hill or flat street. This skating is done in New York's Central Park, on a flat and gently rolling open square. Once you've gotten the hang of the turns, you can move to a ramp or bank to get the sensation of surfing, exploring the role of the drop knee as a bottom turn or cutback.

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Go onto Drop Knee Tribute pg. 2.: Dewey Weber tribute turn with interviews with Wingnut and Kevin Miske.

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Copyright 2005 Keith Johnson
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