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Presenting the Real Harlem Shake

More than a goofy meme, the Harlem Shake is a dance with long roots

smithsonian.com

A young dancer does the Harlem Shake in the music video for the 2001 song “Let’s Get It.”

In the past few weeks, the Harlem Shake meme has swept the tubes. These quirky little music videos have a catchy but formulaic structure, set to Brooklyn producer Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues’ song Harlem Shake. Nearly 100,000 spoofs of the simple gag have amassed millions of views. KnowYourMeme found that the videos had been watched more than 44 million times, as of a week ago. But where the internet goofery persists, says The Root, it’s burying the long history of the original Harlem Shake.

Not a song but a dance, the Harlem Shake began more than 30 years ago. The Root:

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 InsideHoops.com, 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.”

From its birth in the New York borough, the dance entered the wider consciousness through music videos decades later. Meanwhile in Harlem, residents interviewed by filmmaker Chris McGuire seemed rather displeased with the co-opting of the term “Harlem Shake.” 

“If this wave starts to wind down,” says The Root, “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.”

For those keen to right their ways, a step-by-step video shows the basic underpinnings of the original dance. And though the cultural associations may have been blown away, the viral spread of a goofy video could turn out to be the vector to share the story of a rich piece of American history.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Harlem Transformed: the Photos of Camilo José Vergara
Coming Up Harlem
The Boys Choir of Harlem Sings a Song of Hope
Legends of the Apollo

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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