Tag Archives: dance

The Problematics Of The Fake Harlem Shake

[Editor's note: We know...we know...enough with the Harlem Shake! This dissection by Sezin Koehler was just too good not to share. Consider this a coda to our discussion of the controversy.]

by Guest Contributor Sezin Koehler; originally published at Sociological Images

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 The Harlem Shake is a syncopated dance form that first appeared on the New York hip-hop scene in the early 1980s.  Here is what it looks like:

In 2012 music producer Baueer created an electronic dance tune, unfortunately calling it The Harlem Shake. Baueer’s song inspired an Internet meme in which people rhythmlessly shake their upper bodies and grind their hips in a tasteless perversion of the original dance.  For example:

This fake Harlem Shake meme has become so ubiquitous that it has been “performed” by the English National Ballet and gone further globally with a video from the Norwegian army, and in Tunisia and Egypt, where the song and imitation dance has become a protest anthem.

The irony of an African-American cultural relic being whitewashed to the point where other people of color perform its bastardized version is not lost, and this takes on a whole new level as teams with majority African-American members such as the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets add to the fake Shake canon. Personally, I’ve been “video-bombing” anyone I see incorrectly referring to the new version as the Harlem Shake with this:

A major problematic of this meme is that it takes an already marginalized group in America–one whose history and culture has often been appropriated and co-opted in fetishistic ways by the white majority–and makes a mockery of not just them, but an entire dance tradition.  This is not lost on residents of Harlem, many of whom recognize cultural appropriation and malrepresentation when they see it:

In spite of a number of calls online from African-American writers, artists, scholars, and supporters like myself to bring attention to the real Harlem Shake, every day there is instead a new group adding to the misappropriated dance. When you Google “The Harlem Shake” you must scroll through pages before you reach any posts about the actual hip-hop tradition.

This literal erasure of black culture and its replacement with an absurdist movement and meme needs to be considered in light of African-American oppression and institutionalized racism in the United States. Supplanting the sinuous artistry of the Harlem Shake with frenetic styleless arm-flailing and hip-thrusting is yet another brick in a grand wall of symbolic and structural violence that further relegates an entire culture to the margins, both on and offline.

As the Harlem residents said in response to the meme: “Stop that shit.”

P.S. Here’s how to actually do the Harlem Shake. 

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan informal ethnographer and novelist living in Lighthouse Point, FL.

Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing: The Case of Lindy Hop

by Guest Contributor Lisa, originally published at Sociological Images

This post is dedicated to Frankie Manning. Frankie died this morning of complications related to pnemonia. He was one month shy of his 95th birthday. I will really miss him.

Frankie is a lindy hop legend. He choreographed the first clip below and is the dancer in the overalls.

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In the 1980s, there was a lindy hop revival. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. Named after the “hopping” of the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh Jr., it became wildly popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, traveling from the East to the West Coast and from black to white youth. Since its resurgence, Lindy Hoppers have enjoyed a national scene with websites, workshops, competitions, and city-wide social events that draw national and international crowds.

Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.

So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people. Let’s look at how this plays out.

This clip, from the movie Hellzapoppin’ (1941) is perhaps the most inspirational clip in the contemporary lindy hopper’s arsenal:

By the way, the dancers are in “service” outfits because of the way lindy hop scenes featuring black dancers were included in movies. Typically they would have no relationship to the plot; they would occur out of nowhere and then disappear. This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the movie was going to be shown to those white audiences that were hostile to seeing any positive representation of black people at all. Continue reading

Not Another Dance Movie!

by guest contributor Robb Garvey Thompson, originally published on Blackline

Black people love to dance, and everyone knows it. Don’t believe me? Watch any black awards show. You can have the most elite black people in the country, wearing the finest designers, sitting dignified, but once you add a Kanye West performance to the mix, you’ll find them grinding and dancing away on the floor. It’s almost as if we can’t help it.

You can also take a look at black films across the board. Almost every “black movie” features a scene where the actors “shuck and jive” to some dance-worthy tune, proving the stereotype true to all other races: that black people cannot resist a good beat.

Now I’m not saying that dancing is a bad stereotype. I mean we have worse (i.e: fried chicken, watermelon, hook-ups, rims, gold teeth, etc.), but I hate that it’s just expected that we just have to move to a good 808.

Black people attribute this “booty shaking gift” to when “we were in Africa,” and we danced around the fires naked and uncontrollably. Somehow, after being in the States for more that two centuries, we never lost site of our roots. Experts say that even after Kunta lost his foot, he still hopped on beat.

But I believe there is more to us as a people than “getting down.” So when I found out Offsping Entertainment was releasing the sequel to “Step Up,” a dance movie entitled “Step Up 2: The Streets,” I was instantly annoyed.

I mean how many black movies about dancing can I take? We have “Drumline,” “You Got Served,” “Stomp The Yard,” “Save the Last Dance” (1 and 2), “Honey,” the first “Step Up,” and now this.

I was in for a rude awakening.

I saw the trailer, but could not find one black person in it. The movie was whiter that my orientation at Columbia. I had thought just by the title alone, “Step Up 2: The Streets,” that they would have some “street people” in it. To my own surprise, I was appalled.

I instantly started questioning myself…These white people dance better than me…Who am I? Am I Black enough? Who will the world look to for the latest dance move?

I was suddenly calmed when I saw the list of black choreographers from the movie. I realized that the dancing stereotype isn’t so bad after all. Sure, nobody likes to be stereotyped…but what if the dancing thing is true? I mean, seriously, have you seen a black person not dance to “Thriller?”

Arby’s to the Irish: can’t you take a joke?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

This Arby’s commercial is making some Irish-Americans really angry. Check out this recent letter to the editor of Irish America magazine (hat tip HighJive):

A television commercial currently aired by Arby’s restaurants features a group of laboratory chimpanzees so happy to have sampled Arby’s product that they break into a traditional Irish step dance. Rather than elicit my normal belly laugh, I was immediately reminded of the horrendous Punch and [Thomas] Nast political cartoons that lampooned our people in the past. The sting was immediate, taking my breath away.

This web site has some examples of the way Irish people were regularly depicted with simian features as “hot-headed, old-fashioned, and drunkards” and as “uncivilized, unskilled and impoverished.” Let’s not forget that not too long ago, the Irish weren’t regarded as white.

So what was Arby’s response? Well, typical, really:

We’re sorry to hear of your dissatisfaction with our current advertising.

Many times we choose to use tongue-in-cheek humor and satire in our commercials in an effort to communicate information about the Arby’s menu in an engaging and entertaining manner.

So You Think You Can (Belly) Dance?

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

It’s time to set the record straight, everyone. So here it is: belly dancing is not a significant facet of Middle Eastern culture. It’s a dance, not a lifestyle (not according to most Middle Eastern people, anyway).

I’ve had one too many people ask me if I belly dance when they hear about my religion or ethnicity. Belly dancing is something that is present in some form of another in most Middle Eastern cultures, but is not really a part of our identity. And I assure you, nowhere in the Holy Qur’an does it say, “Thou shalt belly dance.” But because of Hollywood’s old Orientalist glamour, images of belly dancing have become almost synonymous with the Middle East.

I can’t help but get irritated when someone assumes that s/he and I automatically have something in common because s/he belly dances. The truth of a real-live Middle Eastern woman belly dancing seems to validate all those silly images that come into one’s head about spangly costumes and the Dance of the Seven Veils. Belly dancing has a host of sexualized and savage images attached to it, and if Middle Eastern/Muslim women confess to belly dancing (for exercise, as a career, for fun, or whatever), those images get attached to us, and we no longer have individual thoughts or lifestyles. We don’t take care of our parents or our children, we don’t have jobs or have opinions about health care reform, we just belly dance. Like it’s all we do, all day. This is why it’s insulting when someone thinks s/he knows what it’s like to be a Middle Eastern/Muslim woman because s/he’s taken a belly dancing class or read a book about it. The image of a Middle Eastern woman belly dancing seems to take away from our identity: it erases who we really are, our different nationalities and ethnicities, our emotions, our day-to-day existence.

Now, let me assure you: my problem isn’t with the dance itself. Belly dancing is a great way to connect with one’s sensuality, to exercise, and to appreciate the body that God gave you. Nor is my problem with non-Middle Eastern women (or men) belly dancing (or with Middle Eastern people dancing).

What bothers me is the adoption of a caricatured Middle Eastern identity through coin-bedazzled bras and Middle Eastern stage names like “Amina” or “Vashti.” If you’re a non-Middle Eastern performer, why give yourself a Middle Eastern stage name? What’s wrong with a name that reflects your own ethnicity or interests? Is it not “ethnic” or “exotic” enough? Besides, how would you feel if someone else used the name your parents gave you (that perhaps also belonged to your grandmother or aunt) as a stage name for an act that most people in your culture consider shameful if done publicly? (Cultural lesson: in most parts of the Middle East, belly dancing is often a cover for illicit activities.) Continue reading