The Harlem Shakedown

The Apollo Theater (D Dipasupil/Getty Images); The "Harlem Shake" (YouTube)
The Apollo Theater (D Dipasupil/Getty Images); The "Harlem Shake" (YouTube)

(The Root) — Popular culture is infamous for borrowing — and sometimes outright stealing — elements from a subculture and transforming them into something completely stripped of its origins. 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.


Harry Rodrigues, the 23-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y.-based producer known as Baauer, released a song called "Harlem Shake" in 2012. The tune became popular with enthusiasts of the rising electronic dance music genre known as trap, itself inspired by the early aughts productions of Atlanta rappers. But "Harlem Shake" didn't receive mainstream attention until a comic called Filthy Frank used the song for a YouTube video that has now received more than 4.6 million views since it was posted on Feb. 2. Frank and friends donned Power Rangers suits and did their own herky moves to the frenetic pace of the song, really going nuts when the biggest beat drops. The genuinely silly video went viral almost instantly, and within a week there were countless copycat videos filmed in offices across America.

But hip-hop fans knew that the dance they were seeing in these new videos was not at all like the Harlem Shake dance that has been around for more than 30 years. Al B, a man who used to dance during breaks at the Entertainer's Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem beginning in 1981, has gotten much of the Internet credit for inventing the original Harlem Shake, a dance characterized by wild jerking of the arms and upper body. At one point, it was referred to as the "Albee."

In a barely comprehensible 2003 interview with basketball website, Al B says the dance originated with mummies in Egypt, who shook because they didn't have freedom to use their limbs. "It was a drunken dance, you know, from the mummies, in the tombs," he asserted. "That's what the mummies used to do. They was all wrapped up and taped up. So they couldn't really move, all they could do was shake."

There's also a now-conventional anecdote that the dance is an adaptation of an Ethiopian groove called Eskita. While this lineage may be tough to prove, it, too, has taken on a viral life, inspiring videos of Ethiopians doing their traditional dance to the tune of Baauer's song.

Credit for bringing the first Harlem Shake into national households might be due to dancer and choreographer Moetion, who taught the moves to dancers for 2001 videos by G Dep ("Let's Get It"), Eve ("Who's That Girl"), and Jadakiss ("Put Your Hands Up") — though he is reportedly from the Bronx, N.Y. A trailer to a documentary that may or may not have ever emerged called Shake Down, featuring Moetion, popped up online in 2006. In the clip, Moetion acknowledges that Al B may be recognized as doing a form of the dance in the 1980s but makes a case that he actually brought it to the masses.

A wave of declaring the meme dead happened just 10 days after its inception, when Al Roker, Matt Lauer and their cohorts busted out the dance on the Today Show on Feb. 12. A copy of the clip was posted to YouTube under the moniker of "The last Harlem Shake," and Today was singled out as a "meme killer" by the Daily Beast.


If this wave starts to wind down, the original Harlem Shake may be able to be reestablished in its proper light, and the originality displayed in so-called shake cyphers can get its due. And though the co-opting happened quite by accident, the damage may already be irreversible, as it has been all but stripped of its cultural context and meaning. Once fighting video game characters and Peanuts characters are doing a dance, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, the creator of the video that sparked this current Harlem Shake viral outbreak is excited to have clocked more than 4.6 million views and earned 100,000 new subscribers to his YouTube channel over the past two weeks. But, as he announced in a video on Feb. 12, he's more than ready to distance himself from the craze.


"While it's cool to be Ground Zero and all," Filthy Frank said in the video, "I really don't give a ball sack anymore, so we can move on from that."

Tamara Palmer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and the author of Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop. Follow her on Twitter.