It’s called the Harlem Shake. The University of Georgia men’s swim and dive team did it underwater in Speedos. The Norwegian army did it in the snow. The latest viral dance video craze starts with one dancer — jamming out on his own — surrounded by what appear to be oblivious bystanders. But then, all of a sudden, everybody’s dancing.
The meme started when YouTube comedian Filthy Frank took “Harlem Shake” by Brooklyn-based Latino producer Baauer and played off the wild dubstep drop 15 seconds into the song. That’s when everything gets wild.
But this Harlem Shake is not quite like the original. Filmmaker Chris McGuire even went out on the streets of Harlem to get reactions to the videos. To quote one resident, “That’s not the Harlem Shake at all. That’s humpin’, and that’s not the Harlem Shake.”
So where did the original dance actually come from?
“It’s been around for decades. Most people trace it back to a street dancer named Al B, who used to entertain the crowd at the Rucker tournament, which is a legendary basketball league in Harlem,” says Jay Smooth, Harlemite and host of the hip-hop video blog Ill Doctrine. “It was brought into the mainstream by one of my Harlem neighbors, Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, who brought the dance into a couple videos he made with one of his artists, G Dep.”
As dance styles do, the trend faded as it stayed true in Harlem. But when the meme appeared on YouTube, it wasn’t anything like what Al B did.
“You’d shimmy really quickly and swing your arms back and forth, then freeze and start up again,” Smooth tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “[Al B] had a really elaborate story as far as what he saw as the origin of the dance, tracing it back to mummies in Africa, I believe, who couldn’t fully use their bodies because they were wrapped up in the mummy robes.”