The Original Harlem Shake

Most of you have been exposed to the viral Harlem Shake meme that has been making its rounds on the Internet. The meme features 15 seconds of someone dancing while everyone pretends not to notice, and then when the song says, “Then do the Harlem Shake” and the bass drops, and the video cuts to a clip of everyone dancing all crazy and wearing costumes and using props. The videos are about 30 seconds long and feature the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer.

The meme has been sweeping the globe. Arthur even jumped on the bandwagon last week and Trent University has a Harlem Shake shoot scheduled for Monday, February 25.

While all in good fun, the meme has prompted some criticism from the residents of Harlem, who argue that this new Harlem Shake is nothing like the original and is potentially obscuring the origins of the Harlem Shake dance.

Throwback to 1981 Harlem. A man named Al B, who performed during breaks at the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park, created what came to be known as the “Harlem Shake.” In a very obscure interview, he quotes the dance as a “drunken dance” that the mummies would do in Egypt. He said, “They couldn’t really move. All they could do was shake.” The dance has also been traced to an Ethiopian dance called “Eskita.”

Since then, the Harlem Shake dance has been featured in a couple different music videos, including “Chicken Noodle Soup” by DJ Webster and Young B, and “Let’s Get It” by P. Diddy and G-Dep, featuring Black Rob. The actual sample from Baauer’s hit comes from the song “Miller Time” by Plastic Little.

Certainly, the current Harlem Shake meme is very different from the original Harlem Shake dance. In fact, other than the name, the two are unrelated. However, there are some similarities, especially considering that a lot of the “dance” moves in the meme resemble a “drunken dance.”

In the video “Harlem Residents Respond to the Harlem Shake Meme,” there seems to be a lot of confusion about how people are misrepresenting Harlem. Concerns about the Harlem Shake being white-washed are somewhat justified. For example, the song “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which featured the Harlem Shake, spoke about living off of soup and soda for dinner and the poverty that comes with growing up in Harlem. It was also about the unity among Harlem residents. The song by Baauer has nothing to do with Harlem culture other than the one “do the Harlem Shake” sample.

It’s understandable that Harlem residents are concerned about their culture being mocked. In a borough that has a history of poverty and oppression, cultural sensitivity is going to run high. While a dance may not seem sacrilege to many people, dance was and still is a form of emancipation for the residents of Harlem.

However, the concern that the meme will cause the original Harlem Shake to become lost is simply unfounded. A look at the statistics shows that the opposite is true. Since the meme went viral in early February, videos that feature the original Harlem Shake have jumped a million plus in views. A scroll through the comments sections reveals that most of those new views are a direct result of the Harlem Shake meme. As well, numerous news stories have come out that discuss the original Harlem Shake and what it represented. If anything, the meme has given the original Harlem Shake increased international exposure.

In a 2003 interview, Al B was asked how he felt about other people doing the Harlem Shake and about getting credit for being the creator of this dance. His response was, “Hey, I’m not jealous of the next guy that’s doing it better than me. Listen, as long as I’m having fun.”

It’s important to be aware of the cultural origins of trends, but it’s also important to not treat every single thing as an act of oppression. Sometimes, a silly meme is just a silly meme. In the wise words of Harlem Shake creator Al B, “You know. Long as you behave yourself and you having fun, and you ain’t no jailbird, you can have fun. You can do whatever you can do, right?”

If you want to learn how to do the original Harlem Shake:

About Jasmine Cabanaw 32 Articles
When Jasmine was a child, she could almost always been found with a notebook and pen in hand, writing away. As an adult, she has written for a variety of magazines and websites, including the art magazine Juxtapoz. She was the 2010 winner of a blogging contest put on by the publishing house JournalStone. JournalStone also published two of her short fiction stories in their horror anthologies in 2010 and 2011. When she's not writing, Jasmine spends a good chunk of her time completing her history degree and working as a professional dance performer and instructor.