There’s a new dance craze sweeping the nation, folks, and it puts all the rest to shame. Look around: no one’s “wobbling” anymore, the “Cupid shuffle” is long gone, and the “one-two step” died with Ciara and Missy Elliot’s music careers. Right now, it’s all about the Harlem Shake. If you don’t have access to the Internet or the ability to see, there is a slight possibility that you have not yet seen a Harlem Shake YouTube video and are thus ignorant to the trendy new dance move that I’m writing about. Fear not, blind guy, because the Harlem Shake is super easy to learn:
Step 1: Download the song Harlem Shake by Bauuer, which currently has held the number 1 spot on iTunes for the past week.
Step 2: Grab some speakers, a camera, and a group of people looking to get #wild.
Step 3: Have one brave soul, preferably wearing a mask, dance solo for the first 15 seconds of the song.
Step 4: Once the beat drops, violently cut to your entire entourage aggressively writhing around the room in various hilarious/sexual positions.
Step 5: Film the entire thing. Post it on YouTube. Collect 20 million Youtube hits. Do not pass go.
That is more or less the conceit of the Harlem Shake. All over the world, supermodels, UGA divers, porn stars, Norwegian armies and entire universities have gone viral doing the Harlem Shake. Even our own university has spawned a few Harlem Shake YouTube videos, all with a couple thousand hits. You know when a bunch of Princeton engineering graduate students film themselves dancing on tables in the E-quad we are in the middle of a very serious cultural moment. The Harlem Shake is big right now—it’s Gagnam Style meets Jennifer Lawrence meets Terrace class of 2015 big. The problem is there already was a dance called Harlem Shake. And it was better. A lot better.
Unlike the bass-infused dubstep track written by a Swedish guy who has probably never gone north of 14th Street, the original Harlem Shake—a swag-infused shoulder shimmy—has its roots in Harlem, New York in the late 1980s. Urban Dictionary traces the Harlem Shake’s origins to 125th and Lexington, where gang members would shoot unsuspecting crippled people on crutches whose “staggering fall” they would then mimic at various parties. Cute, right?
Although one might assume a dance move that depicted dying cripples wouldn’t typically catch fire, the original Harlem Shake spread from coast to coast and was extremely popular in hip-hop and R&B culture. It was also extremely hard to pull off—believe me, I’ve tried. Not only does it require the Harlem Shaker to jerk and twist their shoulders to and fro in rhythm while keeping total control of their lower body, but every so often the Harlem Shaker must “brush the dirt off their shoulders” in attempt to look casual, nonchalant, and fly as fuck. It’s a truly fascinating dance. If it’s not immediately jumping off the page at you, take a look at some classic music videos from the late 90s and early 00s, like Lil Bow Wow’s “Take You Home”, Jadakiss’ “Put Ya Hands Up,” and G. Dep’s “Special Delivery.”
The original Harlem Shake is a complex, gender-neutral dance move that (gruesomely) found its origins in pre-gentrified Harlem and has, unfortunately, been completely overshadowed and rendered irrelevant by large groups of young people wiggling around. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the new, memetastic version of the Harlem Shake for what it offers the internet and Ivy themes, but I felt it necessary to go on record and say that I proudly love, remember, and miss the original Harlem Shake. Not only did the original Harlem Shake require both swag and skill to pull off, but it also introduced the rest of the country to an important cultural moment in an urban community that has since been eclipsed by Bauuer and his mob of incessantly gyrating fans.
Luckily, it seems I’m not the only one who feels this way. A new video, “Harlem Reacts to the ‘Harlem Shake’” has recently gone viral, with over 7 million hits. The video depicts current residents of Harlem watching various versions of the updated Harlem Shake online followed by their immediate reactions. “That is not the Harlem Shake,” said one man. “They’re dry humping air,” cried another. “They don’t live in Harlem. They don’t come from here. I think they’re trying to disrespect us,” stated one guy, clearly upset with the world’s newfound association between what he just witnessed and the place he calls home.
While I don’t find the updated Harlem Shake inherently offensive to Harlem, black people, or hip hop and R&B culture, I understand how and why someone who holds any of the three dear to their heart wouldn’t be a fan. Bauuer has inadvertently taken a dance move that means a lot to a historically black, urban community and whitewashed it, actively changing the future of the dance and effectively erasing some of its history—and I believe that’s something worth being upset about.
However, it seems that the trend is fading away as more and more people find themselves falling into hot water for their interpretations of Harlem Shake craze. Last month, eleven D-III football players at Susquehanna University were kicked off the team for participating in a Harlem Shake video, and just this past Monday, up to 15 Australian miners were fired for violating their mine’s “core values of safety, integrity, and excellence” by creating their own Harlem Shake video. So, I guess it might seem as though I’m making a big deal out of one small, insignificant fad that will soon be all but a distant memory. Will the Harlem Shake be so five minutes ago by the time this article is published? Probably. But was it worth it to express the little bit of sadness I feel knowing that during Black History Month, a small but important bit of black culture was all but hidden from sight? It sure was.