Is it any wonder the Harlem Shake went viral?

February 14, 2013

Is it any wonder Harlem Shake videos have gone viral? It’s all in the jump cuts, which add that little jolt of magic. Plus, the song’s beat is hypnotic, the setups are quick and the routines only last half a minute.


Ryan Seacrest is one of the many celebrities to jump on the Harlem Shake trend.

In the mold of all those lip-synched “Call Me Maybe” videos posted by soccer teams and soldiers, 30-second micro-clips of folks looking perfectly respectable one second then bouncing around with amped-up Mardi Gras abandon to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” the next have been spreading on the internet faster than the flu.

Cumulatively, they’ve been watched more than 44 million times this week, and YouTube reported that more than 12,000 Harlem Shake videos had been uploaded by close of business Monday. They all follow a simple formula: There’s a mundane setting—dorm room, office, kitchen—and one person in some kind of odd headgear starts wiggling his hips while everyone else ignores him. Then the beat pops on “Harlem Shake” and—magic moment!—cut to the whole room going wild. (Though no one’s actually doing the real Harlem Shake, a slightly trickier dance from the 1980s with more hip swinging and shoulder shaking—there’s a hefty bit of creative borrowing happening here.)

What’s interesting about this trend is that the videos have been getting better and better. By today’s standards, the earlier versions—and we’re talking from two weeks ago, so they’re positively ancient at this point—look slow and plodding. There are obvious pauses around the jump cut, making it a bigger snag in the videos’ flow. Compare that to these:

But nothing has yet topped the sexy, kooky virtuosity of the University of Georgia’s  men’s swimming and diving team:

If you’re wondering how they managed to stage this impressive underwater floor show, clustered in what looks like a human coral reef of sinuous legs and flailing arms, turning flips and jogging in place with assorted props (sleeping bag, bike, broom, table and chairs), well: There wasn’t much to it.

“We just brought a bunch of crazy stuff to the pool,” says Conor Sweeney in an interview on the team’s website. He’s the clip’s solo aqua-dancer with the hard-working abs, wearing a “Star Wars” stormtrooper mask repurposed from Halloween. “We were just like, ‘Go underwater and hold your breath and do something crazy for 20 seconds.’” Adds swimmer Jameson Hill, “There wasn’t really a whole lot of logistics. It was so last-second.” There you have the secret of the Shake. Simple. Silly. And don’t overthink it.

So what are you waiting for?

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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Ron Charles · February 14, 2013