Menus Subscribe Search

From Gangnam Style to the Harlem Shake, Why We Just Can’t Resist a Dance Craze

• February 26, 2013 • 11:20 AM

The “Harlem Shake”—a pop culture phenomenon that’s part dance and part costumed chaos, all performed to a techno song created by Brooklyn-based electronic music producer and DJ Baauer—has taken the world by storm, topped the Billboard charts, and sent YouTube into convulsions. The original 30-second video on the site went viral and has attracted more than 12 million views so far. But like a virus, the real point of the Shake is to replicate, and subsequent “Harlem Shake” videos collectively created and uploaded by imitators have garnered more than 175 million views to date.

A typical video goes as follows: one person, usually in costume— say, a feather boa and a pink onesie— begins to dance or shake their torso, while others in their company look on, seemingly unaware. Ten or so seconds into the video, the others suddenly appear in costume shaking to their full potential.

While the Shake originated in Harlem in the 1980s, the dance resurfaced when Baauer laid down some new beats to complement the old shimmying movement. Predictably, the young embraced the dance first. College campuses around the world have hosted their own Harlem Shakes in recent days including University of California Santa Barbara …

… University of Guelph …

http://youtu.be/gvEim1glg2M

… and Western University, to name a few.

The University of Georgia’s men’s swim and dive team managed to move the dance underwater where they (impressively) break it down at the depths of the school’s pool.

This dance is not just for the young. A CBS News Team, firemen (in a firetruck!), and a battalion from Norway’s army have performed their own renditions (and attracted millions of views).

But as a dance craze, the “Harlem Shake” is not original for its movement, or, given “Gangnam Style,” for the moment.

Arguably, this dance move is a cross-cultural phenomenon that never totally died out. Before the Harlem Shake videos of late blew up on YouTube, the shimmy—much like the Shake—has long been a traditional belly-dancing move, performed in the Middle East as early as the 12th century.

In the modern era, popular songs like “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” released in 1921, and Mae West’s appropriation of the dance, testify that trends of rhythmic shaking have shimmied through America since the early 20th century.

West’s description of the shimmy encapsulates these sentiments and may explain why she was one of the first white women to famously incorporate this move into her own shows: “[Dancers] stood in one spot, with hardly any movement of the feet, and just shook their shoulders, breasts, torsos, breasts, and pelvises. We thought it was funny and were terribly amused by it. But there was a naked aching, sensual agony about it, too.”

International stars including Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Shakira regularly wriggled, writhed, and of course, shimmied in their music videos and live performances over the last decade. And any time in the last couple years, you could turn on “Dancing With the Stars” and expect to see a contestant or two to break into a variety of torso spasms.

Nor is the Shake unique for its combination of hilarity and sexuality, which a recent NPR article argues, are essential components of any dance craze.

Shimmying, or in this case, “Harlem Shaking,” arguably blends comedy and sensuality quite overtly—how else could you explain video after video of scantily (and ridiculously) clad people doing inane things like spastically gyrating or, in one video, a dancer’s decision to air hump another Shaker in a green gorilla suit?

What’s more, the videos where the Shake is done in the most absurd settings tend to get highest viewership.

Much of the same can be said for the Harlem Shake’s immediate dance craze predecessor, “Gangnam Style.” In “Gangnam Style Decoded,” the Global Post’s Asia Editor Emily Lodish suggests that the popularity of South Korean rapper Psy’s song—which launched the now famous horse dancing routine—can be explained by its “mix of the familiar and the erotic,” which she credits as a recurring “recipe for success” where dance crazes are concerned.

His “clownish” self-representation makes him “very accessible” said Lodish, in reference to the many scenes where he parades around Gangnam, one of South Korea’s wealthiest neighborhoods, in bright suit jackets, bow ties, and a loud set of shades.

While many dance crazes are undoubtedly silly, they are also arguably irresistible. (I’ve found myself joyfully succumbing to riding a fake pony in the last couple months, and I still do the Macarena from time to time.) Additionally, dance fads may be understood as challenging, or representing, the angst of an age.

“Gangnam Style” could be considered a response to growing economic inequality in South Korea and on an international stage; “Harlem Shake” seems more a like release as it allows its participants to devolve into chaotic merriment together—offering a break from the demands of everyday rigors.

Baauer explains his song’s popularity more simply: ‘I think it caught on because it’s a goofy, fun song,” he told The Daily Beast. “But at the base of it, it’s my song and it’s making people want to dance. That’s the best feeling in the world to me.”

UPDATE: Meanwhile, it now seems humankind has spent, collectively, almost three millennia doing the Shake, as this graphic details.

Harlem Shake | Postmortem of a Video Craze – An infographic by the team at YTD Youtube Downloader

Olivia Cvitanic
Olivia Cvitanic is an editorial intern with Pacific Standard through the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Carsey-Wolf Media Internship Program. She is currently a fourth-year student at UCSB pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Global and International Studies and a minor in Professional Editing.

More From Olivia Cvitanic

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.