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Viewpoint: (Don’t) do the Harlem Shake

BY PAUL SCHREIBER

Published February 24, 2013

Last week, a group of University of Michigan students crowded the Diag and the Reference Room in the Hatcher Graduate Library to add to a collection of recent viral videos inspired by “Harlem Shake,” a track by Baauer. Like many of the other clips, the University’s take on it starts off with a single person so eloquently thrusting his crotch in Wolverine apparel until Baauer’s beat drops, when a mass of students appear clad in neon jumpsuits, boas, rainbow socks, masks, my great aunt’s faux-fur collection from the 80s or nothing at all. For the next 30 seconds, everyone in the frame is gyrating and dry humping the ground, air and each other so vigorously that I’m concerned that bath salts and Four Loko are a thing again. Of course, the video has blown up in an “I’m Shmacked” fashion, with close to 85,000 hits since Feb. 16.

What confuses me the most about the popularity of these fad clips is that they don’t in any way feature the real Harlem Shake, a dance with a long history that originated in Harlem in the early 1980s. It was first referred to as the “albee,” named after Harlem resident Al B, creator of the dance.

It wasn’t called the Harlem Shake until its popularity grew outside of the Harlem community. The dance gained mainstream recognition in the early 2000s. Blah blah blah — I know you don’t care. What I’m trying to say is these videos completely and unabashedly disregard the Harlem Shake and its rich cultural history.

Perhaps I’m being a tad overzealous. Couldn’t these videos just be a way to reinterpret old traditions and create something new? Isn’t that what creative process and exchange is all about? A survey of the video says no.

These videos don’t have an inch of creativity in the first place. They’re unoriginal duplicates of a bunch of bored kids with cameras making absolute fools of themselves.

But even if it has nothing to do with the original dance, aren’t these videos just harmless fun? Think again. Far from harmless, they’re offensive and belittling. Bottom line, the Harlem Shake phenomena is appropriation without proper recognition of a dance that has been culturally significant to Harlem for 30 years.

Who am I, really, a Midwestern white boy to flaunt my almost obsessive opinion about a dance that I only think I could do after five shots from a place that I’ve only visited. To that I say you should watch SchleppFilms’ video, a compilation of street interviews of Harlemites’ reactions to a variety of Harlem Shake videos. Apart from the astonished, confused and offended jaw drops, headshakes and eye rolls, community members had a lot to say about this recent fad, including:

“It’s an absolute mockery of what it was because there’s actually a sense of uh, rhythm that goes along with it.”

“It’s actually an art form, a dance art form, that doesn’t have the respect that it should deserve.”

And my absolute favorite: “Y’all need to stop that shit.”

What’s really disappointing to me is that members of the University of Michigan have — albeit unknowingly — openly and proudly insulted not just a dance, but also a vibrant, lively, diverse community. We need to stop and think about the implications of what we do when we need a fun distraction because we’re uninterested, hungover and don’t want to do what we’re actually here to do — to respect and appreciate a plethora of diverse cultural expressions. It’s time to find a new hobby, Michigan. Next time just plug in some G. Dep, watch Harlem’s reaction and learn the real Harlem shake.

Paul Schreiber is an LSA senior.


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