Canevari’s Big Dance: Why We Love His Nae Nae


Mercer Bears guard Kevin Canevari (3), forward Jakob Gollon (20) and guard Ike Nwamu (10) celebrates after beating the Duke Blue Devils in a men’s college basketball game during the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. (Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

If “Dancing With the Stars” ever needs a ringer to suit up in a sparkle tux, may it turn to Kevin Canevari.

Canevari is the Mercer University senior basketball player who turned his team’s Cinderella moment into a social-media fairytale of his own — with a dance. It was one of the happiest happy dances you could ever hope to see, which he launched into after his team beat the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils on Friday.

Mercer’s March Madness run ended shortly after, with Sunday’s loss to Tennessee. But Canevari’s dance hit the big time. It wasn’t simply freestyle fun. Canevari was doing the “Nae Nae,” popularized by the Atlanta rap group WeAreToonz. Here’s the key thing: If Georgia pride was on Canevari’s mind — Mercer being down the road a stretch in Macon — so was something much more fundamental. Joy.

The Nae Nae is blissfully uncomplicated. It’s a four-count sequence with just a few set moves: It starts down low, knees bent, hips wa-a-ay out the back. You set that backfield in motion with a sweet little hip swing. (This is crucial; “You gotta get the rock right!” caution the WeAreToonz members in their YouTube tutorial.) Then spread it to your arms so they’re pumping too — one up, one down — and soon your whole body is swaying like a ship at sea. Canevari also threw in a tight spin and some crossbody hand slaps, a nod to James Brown and the Macarena. Why not?

Of course, athletes are in a perfect space to bust a happy dance, because they are warmed up and pumped up, and they’re rocking comfy shoes. But Canevari’s happy dance tapped into something primal: the desire to share your joy with others. Think of those glory days for the Redskins in the 1980s, when a group of players dubbed the Fun Bunch would spring up together for an ecstatic high-five in the endzone. (Granted, this got a little too crazy, resulting in a league-wide ban on “excessive celebration.”)

The point is, what Canevari and Redskins’ former wide receivers Art Monk, Virgil Seay and other Fun Bunchers have in common are the group dynamics, which make the dance more appealing than a solo look-at-me, ball-spiking, in-your-face display. Canevari wasn’t hotdogging on his own. He laid down his dance for his fellow teammates who were crowded around him. They applauded and cheered him on as if he was channeling their own explosive happiness –which he was.

It’s much more fun to watch communal joy than a single ego gone wild. And with that came instant fame on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine and elsewhere. In the global community of social media, the underdog with a big heart is now a rock star.

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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