School Climate & Safety

The Harlem Shake Is a Thing and, Yes, You Should Know About It

By Ross Brenneman — February 21, 2013 1 min read
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The Harlem Shake is a dance that started in Harlem. It’s existed in the United States for decades, and possibly in an earlier form since before that. Because of a recent YouTube video, it is now everywhere, and because schools are everywhere, it is in schools now, too. If you’re an educator, it might be a thing you have to familiarize yourself with. So here you go:

This is the real Harlem Shake:

Here’s another version.

Less than three weeks ago, the online legions became enthralled with a video posted to YouTube and performed to the tune of a year-old dance song, “Harlem Shake,” by Baauer:

We know not how the Internet decides the Next Big Thing, but at some point, this video spawned tens of thousands more videos, the biggest meme since Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” (If you haven’t heard of that one yet, there is no hope for you.) The video became associated with the song, and the song with the original Harlem Shake.

The Harlem Shake in the video is not the real Harlem Shake, however, and saying they are the same thing is like saying Coke Zero really is the same thing as Coca-Cola—it’s not even attempting sincerity. The true Harlem Shake has roots going back theoretically to the ‘80s, if not earlier. And like many aspects of black culture appropriated by white society (i.e. jazz, rap, any word that’s added the suffix “izzle”), there’s some feeling that this is cultural desecration.

The meme has reached a new pinnacle of success, too. Earlier today, the Billboard Hot 100, which tracks music popularity, said it would include YouTube data in determining its rankings. That announcement has now catapulted Baauer’s song to #1 on the list.

You might’ve gotten away with not knowing about the new version of the dance, except that students at Brownsville Area High School in Brownsville, Pa., received two-day suspensions for using a classroom to perform their own video. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the school board president called the video “very graphic and very vulgar.” That’s probably stretching it, but maybe we’re just desensitized. Students in Shreveport, La., have also been suspended for their Harlem Shake efforts. A Queens student has been both arrested and suspended for organizing a schoolwide version.

But for teachers, this could offer an opportunity to discuss how culture spreads. Or at least what the school rules say about dancing in the classroom.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.