The Appeal of the Harlem Shake

The “Harlem Shake” meme is one of those extremely simple things that has captured the collective imagination of our culture, like planking or photobombing. According to The Verge, 45,000 versions have been uploaded to YouTube in the last week alone. Even The Today Show threw their hat into the dance circle (because seeing Al Roker gyrating on his desk was definitely on my short list of things to do before dying).

Like most people, I’m guessing, I don’t like the song. But I like the meme. It’s got an interesting dramatic arc that manages to pack a lot of meaning into a short period of time, without dialogue and with minimal conflict.

The pattern the meme follows, or its “set of rules” I guess, involves a single dancer wearing some sort of head covering, dancing in a subdued manner for fifteen seconds. Usually a bunch of people are sitting in close proximity to the dancer in this initial section, not paying any attention. Then the bass drops, and the scene cuts to everyone suddenly dancing spastically for another fifteen seconds.

The point is to show the dynamic of an individual spurring a collective to action. The subdued manner of the single dancer, as well as the fact that he or she dances alone in a crowd of people, is meant to suggest a certain social resistance. The pay off is meant to show how individual action can inspire others to join in and create something bigger than any one person could have done alone. The fact that this meme is so variously represented — that there are many, many examples of it, all of which basically show the same thing with minor variations — also reflects the same collectivist theme on a macro level.

There are two aspects of it that I particularly like.

One is that the individual and the collective action are given equal time, which suggests that individuals must toil on alone for a while before being joined by others. (I realize it’s mostly just because that’s how the song works, but whatever. I like it.)

It’s amusing to watch someone dance by himself, especially around other people who seem so uninterested. I do my best to never dance, ever, and so watching someone go it alone, as it were, sends chills of vicarious dread up my spine. And this tension makes the moment when everyone joins in all the more satisfying.

Then, there’s the hidden identity of the single dancer, which I believe is meant to highlight that, even though he or she is defined by being set apart, that person’s particular individualism is not all that important. The single dancer is individualism itself, not necessarily any one person. And this is profound — an ideal of individualism so broad that it can be performed by anyone.

As much as I don’t like the music, the dancing itself, or any of the people in these videos (probably), I do like the idea of a “masked man” like Zorro or the Lone Ranger causing people to spring to action, even if that action is sort of annoying. Humanity mobilized. Gets me every time.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.