Harlem Shake goes viral — but you're doing it wrong

Published Feb. 25, 2013

Alesia Scott-Warren saw the link marked "Harlem Shake" and pressed play.

What she saw surprised her.

"I kept thinking, 'That is not the Harlem Shake,' " said Scott-Warren, 33, a hip-hop dance instructor at the Patel Conservatory in Tampa.

She thought she'd be witnessing a revival of the New York dance style that reached national popularity in the early 2000s with artists P. Diddy and G. Dep showcasing the moves in their music videos.

This Harlem Shake was not it.

This Harlem Shake, named for the song by Brooklyn trap-music DJ Baauer, is featured in thousands of 31-second videos of costumed people going crazy after the beat drops in the middle of a YouTube clip.

Scott-Warren thinks it's fun. But she also recognizes the danger in the massiveness of the meme.

"I would feel a little saddened if the real Harlem Shake got lost within those videos," she explained. "It was cool dance that was actually pretty technical. To think that it could even get lost … that would be pretty heartbreaking."

Three weeks after the first viral video launched, Googling "Harlem Shake" brings eight pages of stories and analysis of the meme before you get to one video of a person doing the actual dance.

Widely embraced, everyone from Jimmy Fallon to the 2013 NFL prospects have made their own Harlem Shake video. Recently, a roulette-style aggregator was launched so viewers could mindlessly watch Harlem Shake videos for hours on end.

But with success comes backlash.

Schlepp Films posted a video of responses from people from New York's Harlem — where the original dance was created — responding to the videos. The overwhelming response: "Stop that s---. That's not the Harlem Shake."

Internet commenters replied that the Harlem residents are all sour grapes and no one is trying to replace their beloved dance.

But it's a hard argument to make when so many creators of the videos have only other videos as a frame of reference. Theresa Collington never heard of the Manhattanite mix of body isolations and contractions that rose to popularity in the early 2000s.

But when discussing what was trending with the news staff at WTSP-TV last week the "Harlem Shake" came up. Collington, the digital director for Channel 10 News and, posted a video of news anchors Reginald Roundtree and Heather Van Ness, along with 13 other staffers, getting loosey-goosey in firefighter helmets, feather boas and other props.

"We got 10,000 views the first day," she said. "That's impressive for a single video."

The crew at WTSP weren't the first to make a video in the Tampa Bay area or even the first news team to join the meme, Saint Leo University's baseball team and kids on the University of South Florida quad got into the act. And local radio station WiLD 94.1-FM even made a game of it, asking viewers to text message the people they recognized in their version.

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Like PSY's Gangnam Style, the Harlem Shake took hold of the Internet. The supposed original was uploaded to YouTube on Feb. 2. It shows four men in body suits — some with masks — humping the air for 15 seconds until the song's beat drops, then letting loose with seriously wacky arm movements.

The important element is the jump-cut between the humping and wackiness. It's the part of the video that stuck in the cultural consciousness and has been translated more than 1,000 times over in three weeks. In its current formulation, a single (often masked) dancer air humps through a room of people going about their normal activities. Then after the drop, the video jump-cuts to everyone in the room going bananas in the weirdest outfits they can find.

It's a bit of mindless Internet fun — a joy buzzer for 2013.

But for the people of Harlem and hip-hop dance instructors like Scott-Warren, it could be a cause for mourning.

"The Harlem Shake really kind of kicked off the hip-hop dance fads of the 2000s. Each region got to participate and come up with their own," Scott-Warren said. "That was a fly dance. I hope it won't ever be forgotten."