The Harlem Shake: Keep the meme, save the dance

February 22, 2013

A little more than a decade ago, a nerdy, lanky black teenager from the Bronx stood in front of a mirror in his bedroom. He had come home from a dance party at a debate tournament and was duly embarrassed that, of all his friends, he had the least amount of rhythm.

For two hours, he gazed into that mirror trying to learn a dance he had spotted in a hip-hop video with G. Dep and P. Diddy for the song, “Let’s Get It.” He shuffled his shoulders; wiggling arms from side to side. Soon, he got it. And he vowed he would never be embarrassed to dance at a party again.

That kid was me. That move was the Harlem Shake. And it completely frustrates me to see what has been going on with my beloved dance, although I’m sure I’m nowhere as peeved as some who live in Harlem, who view the dance as the latest thing to be mangled and robbed from the country’s cultural black mecca.

I rarely step out to make bold statements in print for fear of perception of bias. Here I will make an exception: The Harlem Shake meme should not die until groups of committed dancers reclaim it from the jowls of foolish oblivion.

I am by no means a musical purist. I prefer “American Idol” winner Kris Allen’s version of “Heartless” to Kanye’s overly Auto-Tuned original, and my parents, who are from Jamaica, have come to accept that No Doubt’s rock-based ska was the closest thing I’d get to purchasing a complete reggae album.


Alabama fans do the Harlem Shake during Alabama's NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on Feb. 16 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Vasha Hunt/AP)

But there is a fine line between cultural reappropriation and cultural evolution. Those examples actually show some fidelity to the original craft; what has congested the Internet Superhighway does not.

For the past two weeks, grainy 30-second videos of bizarre bacchanals set in offices, swimming pools and even supposed army bases to electronic music have been overwhelming everyone’s Facebook feed.

“Do the Harlem Shake,” a devilish voice demands in the song, produced by a Brooklyn-based DJ named Baauer. No one appears to be listening to him.

The Harlem Shake features staccato chest movements while wiggling arms and shoulders from side-to-side. It is tricky and coordinated. This Harlem Shake seems to involve masks on a bare-chested men pelvic-thrusting in the air. Groups of folks, almost always majority white, post the clips in hopes of becoming the web’s Next Viral Thing. “Today” had one, which the Daily Beast claimed would kill the entire meme (it didn’t). My college football team had a video, too. Unfortunately, so did my high school, which disappointed me to no end. As New Yorkers, we should know better.

Chris McGuire, a 33-year-old filmmaker, also got in on the game in hopes of advancing his career and pushing an agenda of legalizing marijuana. His “Stoner Edition” version was generally well-received, save from some angry comments complained he was mocking the actual dance. McGuire, who is white and from Long Island, told me he originally thought there was only one Harlem Shake.

So he took to a street corner in Harlem for five hours. He pulled out his iPad and showed the video to Harlem residents. Their response, he said, was nearly unanimous. People were surprised, shocked and offended.

“I feel like they’re disrespecting us,” one person says in the video. The issue was far from glib, in a place like Harlem, where some longtime residents fear its place in black culture is being erased by the steady march of gentrification. Like the District, Harlem is a Chocolate City that is watching its black population plummet. Not all dance moves associated with cities gain such wide appeal. In such situations, it is only natural that the dance would become a point of geographic pride.

And why not? As a dance, it’s awesome. No one was surprised when the county’s most prominent lanky black nerd, President Obama, subtly alluded that he could do the dance move during his first presidential campaign. (He brushed off his shoulders, a typical Harlem Shake move, when speaking of negative a attacks against him). It didn’t bare any gang affiliation, unlike the Crip Walk, a jig so controversial that it was banned from MTV.

It went beyond racial lines. Pink, the pop rock and R &B songstress, has done a little Harlem Shake in her videos, as do some of my friends of all ethnicities.

And, thankfully enough, it wasn’t freak dancing. No one would ever give you the stink eye for Harlem Shaking too close (perhaps only if you were wiggling close enough that a stray arm might punch them in the face) and no one would suspend you from school.

So why then, should a perfectly acceptable dance be deranged into something so crude that Susquehanna University athletes were suspended for their version of the Harlem Shake, which involved simulated sex acts?

No. Keep the meme alive. But instead of doing something ridiculous, actually learn how to do the Harlem Shake. While there might be controversies about reclaiming certain elements of our culture (see: the N-word), there should be little debate about trying to preserve a respectable, wholesome dance.

A confession: Last Sunday, my friends and I decided we, too, should make a Harlem Shake video. This being self-conscious Washington, some of them would only do the video if their faces weren’t seen. In preparing for the video, I instantly understood the appeal. They push the limits of personal zany. I’ve watched our video dozens of times, uncontrollably laughing with each watch. I could imagine the camaraderie born in a staid office environment through preparing and performing one of these things.

But before my friends started, I insisted everyone in the video at least attempt to learn how to do my favorite dance, the Harlem Shake. It was fun and educational, and one of those few times when I felt a little cool.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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