New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

‘Harlem Shake’ represents cultural evolution of digital age

If you’ve ever seen a “Harlem Shake” video, the first thing you probably noticed was that no one is doing the actual Harlem Shake — or at least somebody has pointed this out to you. The original Harlem Shake of the 1980s is a provocative dance performed by shaking the shoulders and arms, but the dance done in the recent viral videos is just hip-thrusting.

While many find these videos absurdly humorous, some object outright, claiming a lack of honesty to the original Harlem Shake. On Feb. 18, a response video was published on YouTube, titled “Harlem reacts to ‘Harlem Shake’ Videos.” The video has garnered over eight million views thus far. A group of filmmakers conducted street interviews with Harlem residents to record their views on the video trend. The interviewees affirmed the idea that the dance has been completely reworked and has lost any real meaning. Consequently, people in Harlem are worried about the corporatization of the dance and perversion of their historic community’s image.

While many in the United States view the Harlem Shake as a silly Internet meme, the dance has surprisingly become the center of multiple political protests in the Middle East. Activists in Egypt and Tunisia have begun using the Harlem Shake to protest the Muslim Brotherhood. Last week in Egypt, about 400 young men did the dance while demanding that Islamist Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi step down.

Now, Egyptian activists are preparing for violence after they announced they will hold a “protest shake” in front of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Mokattam on Thursday, March 7. They are creating a group titled Satiric Revolutionary Struggle, which will boldly try to reach the Muslim leaders through satire — a move unheard of in the Arab world.

Thus, the Harlem Shake represents a paradox in that it does not actually mean anything, yet has manifested as a global phenomenon for various reasons with a new message each time. In 1981, it would have been unthinkable for a cultural neighborhood dance to be watched, performed and remade around the globe — let alone used as a tool for protest in the Middle East. But the often inane replicas of the shake represent an interesting trend — namely that the pace of cultural evolution seems only to have intensified in the digital age, and this evolution is now bridging a geopolitical divide that, in the past, seemed to break the globe into pieces.

A version of this article was published in the Monday, March 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected].

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    Gayle DriveMar 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    The harlem shake has never meant so much as it does now! It is now a symbol of young freedom fighters railing against the imposition of theocratic governments.