February 28th, 2013
09:58 PM ET

What the "Harlem shake" has to do with Harlem

By Raelyn Johnson and Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) - It begins rather innocently.

An infectious track, a conservative, solo dancer and a few oblivious observers.

A mere fifteen seconds of pelvic thrusts, then, a roar of a lion, a drop of a beat...

Then, everyone goes CRAZY.

The “Harlem Shake” is the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 for the second week in a row, a top 10 iTunes download and the meme of the moment. Millions are watching variations on the “Harlem Shake” video theme in which the dance starts with one person thrusting their pelvis or dancing solo for 15 seconds, while the people in the background ignore them. Then when the beat drops, a group joins in bizarre, repetitive movements. The whole dance lasts around 30 seconds.

While this latest trend is built around the “Harlem Shake", it has scant ties with the New York neighborhood, and very little in common with the original dance that shares its name.

So just how did the phenomenon begin? It starts with a dancer in Harlem, a producer from Philadelphia and ends with you.

When Harry Rodrigues, a 23-year-old producer and DJ professionally known as Baauer, released a song called “Harlem Shake” last spring, he had only briefly lived in Harlem.  He told the Daily Beast that the idea for the title of the song came from Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little’s “Miller Time".

“A friend had shown me that track where he says, then do the Harlem shake, and it just got stuck in my head for a while, so I used it,” he said in the Beast's exclusive interview.

On February 2, 2013, comedian “Filthy Frank” on YouTube uploaded a video featuring people dressed in costumes doing jerk type movements to Baauer’s track. Then, TheSunnyCoastSkate, a group of young men from Australia, uploaded a video that is credited with shaping the format.

The University of Georgia men’s swim and dive team has done a version underwater.

The anchors of the "Today" show got in on the action with their 'shake'.

Even the English National Ballet has a Harlem shake video.

Watch: Miami Heat do the Harlem shake

But what does it have to do with Harlem?

To hear Harlem tell it, very little.

“How can I even think...they were trying to mimic the Harlem shake?" said Erika Ewing, a Harlem based actor. "Or is this their interpretation, parody and commentary on who we are as a culture and people?”

Filmmaker Chris McGuire went to Harlem to hear the reaction of Harlemites:

Some thought it was disrespectful; others were offended.

But there is one famous, former Harlem resident who supports the craze.

"I do want people to get educated on the real Harlem shake, it's something that's an art form, but anything that's branding Harlem, my hometown, I'm all for it," Sean "P. Diddy" Combs told MTV News.

The original shoulder-popping dance dates back to the early 1980s, and Albert Leopold Boyce, known as "Al B," is credited with doing the dance at the Entertainer's Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem. He died in 2006. His mother, Sandra Boyce,  told DNAInfo.com that the dance was inspired in part by her.

"This new thing is not the Harlem shake. When Al was dancing, we told him to try and put a patent on it," she told the website.

The dance evolved and adapted in New York, picked up by the Crazy Boys dance crew, and others according to the New York Times.

It was later popularized by rappers G. Dep and P Diddy in the song “Let’s Get It” in 2001.

Here is a tutorial on how to do the original Harlem shake:

There is another Harlem connection to Baauer's "Harlem Shake." Azealia Banks, a popular young rapper from Harlem, was involved in a Twitter feud with Baauer after he had her version of the song  pulled from a sound sharing service.

Banks later released her video, but the incident revealed what Baauer does know about Harlem shake: how to monetize it.


It is too early to tell how much Baauer, who is currently on tour in Europe, and on the cover of Billboard magazine, will make from the sales of the song. When Billboard changed the calculations for its Top 100 list to include YouTube views, it paved the way for the viral video to not just dominate on You Tube, but, in a first, shoot to the top of the Billboard charts.

And despite the dispute over its origins, there is one thing many increasingly agree on.

The new Harlem shake is one meme that may be nearing its end.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Greyflan

    Maybe its Meth withdrawl...Next time dont try your thinly veiled racial humor. Dont throw stones when you live in a glass house

    March 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. American

    This Obama generation continues to degenerate.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |