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Harlem Shake meme obscuring dance's history, critics argue

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Students at the University of British Columbia are among the many groups who have uploaded their own version of the Harlem Shake dance craze. (Hollis Mason/YouTube)


The wildly popular Harlem Shake meme has wiggled its way into the mainstream, as thousands work to one-up each other in the now distinct internet dance craze.

But critics and actual residents of Harlem worry that the style and history of the original Harlem Shake have been lost in the shuffle.

A search for "Harlem Shake" on YouTube now yields over 8,000,000 results - and counting - as versions of the meme and "best of" compilations continue to flood the web.

The formula is now familiar to millions: a lone dancer is seen gyrating to an upbeat electronic track by DJ and music producer Baauer. When the song speeds up and the beat drops, the dancer is suddenly surrounded by a euphoric crowd - many carrying props or wearing outlandish outfits. Most of the videos are only 30 seconds long.

More than 25,000 Harlem Shake videos have been posted since early February, according to YouTube, and now everyone from seniors and swim teams to newscasters and policy wonks have uploaded their interpretations of the trend.

Compilations like the one embedded below, provide a quick overview.
 


Original Harlem Shake buried

Those searching for "original Harlem Shake" online are likely to discover the 2013 video by comedian and vlogger Filthy Frank, who uploaded the first Baauer-fuelled video at the tail end of January - and not the shoulder-popping dance with roots in Harlem from the early '80s.

Hayes Brown, a reporter and blogger with ThinkProgress.org, worries that older references to the dance have been pushed out of search engine results at a time when most people get their information from simple Google searches.

The meme first caught his eye when the Norwegian army's Harlem Shake video went viral.

Brown, who expected to see the "smooth choreography" he witnessed in his high school days in Flint, Mich., said he felt disappointed to see the soldiers "flailing" to an electronic song he'd never heard before.

"My problem was with the dancing itself. No unity, no precision, no sense that anything was going on other than pure chaos hiding under the label of a dance that's existed for years," he wrote in his reflection The Obscuring of Black Culture, Or Why I Hate The Fake 'Harlem Shake' Meme

'No unity, no precision, no sense that anything was going on other than pure chaos hiding under the label of a dance that's existed for years.'

-- Hayes Brown
Brown hesitated to be a "buzz kill" but concluded that the point needed to be made. He pointed to other outlets writing from an African-American perspective, such as The Root, which also take issue with the latest manifestation of the dance.

"Popular culture is infamous for borrowing -- and sometimes outright stealing -- elements from a subculture and transforming them into something completely stripped of its origins," wrote The Root's Tamara Palmer.

"But it is still surprising to see how the current viral video craze called the Harlem Shake has managed to almost completely supplant a vibrant form of African-American dance that was born and bloomed in Harlem."

'An absolute mockery'

Palmer goes on to say hip-hop fans watching the online phenomena unfold consider the roughly 30-year-old dance unrecognizable, noting that the original dance is often traced back to a man named Al B who used to dance in Harlem's Rucker Park beginning in 1981.

There's also some evidence that the moves were inspired by an Ethiopian dance called Eskita.

Residents of Harlem interviewed for a video by Schlepp Films seemed largely confused and unimpressed with the meme.

"I feel like they're trying to disrespect us," says one young man, who shook his head at the trend.
 


"It's an absolute mockery of what it was, because there's actually a sense of rhythm that goes along with it," adds a young woman.

Others said the trend looks like its from another planet, that it's "not the shake," and that it seems like the participants are making fun of the dance.

Now that some observers are arguing the meme has hit a plateau and can only lose cultural cache from this point forward, Palmer hopes a conversation can take place about the older dance and its origins.

"If this wave starts to wind down, the original Harlem Shake may be able to be re-established in its proper light, and the originality displayed in so-called shake cyphers can get its due."

Although YouTube wasn't even a concept when the dance was in its heyday, there are videos available online that prominently feature the dance. Special Delivery, released in 1998, provides several glimpses.
 


An instructional video uploaded last year also walks viewers through the basic shoulder, hip and arm moves that characterize the dance.

It has reemerged in YouTube search results as some attempt to learn the steps.
 


Have you participated in the Harlem Shake dance craze or watched any of the countless versions? Were you aware of the roots of the dance?

Would you attempt to learn the older version of the Harlem Shake?


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