The dance craze is back, and it's bigger than ever

Singular lady: Beyonce and her backing dancers in 2011 with the move that started a new craze.
Singular lady: Beyonce and her backing dancers in 2011 with the move that started a new craze.

It starts with one person. A lone soul on a computer screen, moving to the beat of their own drum, surrounded by a sea of bodies who are unaware, or maybe just don't care about, what is going on.

Then the beat drops. Suddenly the screen is filled with people masquerading as panda bears and Power Rangers, people zipped inside sleeping bags, faces obscured by pantyhose, all writhing, pulsating, hip-thrusting on, over and around one another. It's utterly ridiculous, but for 32 seconds it almost makes sense.

This is the Harlem Shake, the latest dance craze infesting the world via the internet. But it's not alone, with Gangnam Style, Soldier Boy, Lean Back and others appearing on a fast-growing list of funny names and even sillier dance moves becoming voyeur-fodder.

Go on, take a nosey around YouTube - but be prepared to lose yourself in a maze of millions of home-made videos showing keen dancers, and wannabe fame whores, cowboy hopping or thrashing away in clown masks. At its height in early February, more than 4000 Harlem Shake videos were being uploaded to the internet every day. And it's not just homework-avoiding teenagers caught up in it.

Rugby teams, foreign military, newsrooms and even the cast of Shortland Street have all jumped on the bandwagon and uploaded their best moves. For all the noise suggesting technology is turning us into desk-bound lumps, veteran Kiwi choreographer Shona McCullagh says the internet is transforming the way we move.

"Screens are a powerful sharing tool and in the same way that our children's verbal language is influenced by the number of American programmes they watch - my daughter apparently is taking 'math' at school - their movement is also influenced.

"Gangnam Style (courtesy of Korean pop sensation Psy) is a global craze and demonstrates what a huge impact a seemingly silly horsey movement can have on the world, like many other dance crazes that have preceded it. Dance can revolutionise our world and has, many times, throughout history."

Once described as "drying your bottom with a towel as you get out of the shower, while putting out a cigarette with both feet", the twist, in 1960, was a marketer's dream. Unlike formalised foxtrots or tricky tangos, it was a piece of cake; no-one could say it was too hard. No-one could claim they couldn't dance when the song hit the jukebox. No-one needed to feel sad when they weren't asked to dance by someone else, because group renditions were better.

While it may have started as something of a saucy teenage rebellion, the twist soon hit the mainstream with everyone from school kids to America's first lady Jackie Kennedy spotted shimmying away. In the 50-odd years since, everything from dancing like a chicken, to spelling out acronyms of the disco generation and vogueing like Madonna has come and gone. While Chubby Checker, the man behind that first song - and those moves - relied on television to plant the seed, times have changed; thanks to the internet, new trends and ideas sit in our pockets 24 hours a day. Ideas travel faster and wider than ever before.


If anyone was going to make a mark using the worldwide web, it shouldn't be a surprise Miss Beyonce Knowles kicked things off. Ever witnessed that bum-shaking move that has embarrassed many a tipsy novice? Yip, that was hers. Meanwhile, the video for her song Single Ladies (Put A Ring On it) - shot in black and white, with no special set, just the leotard-clad diva and two back-up dancers twisting wrists and flicking hair - has been watched more than 200 million times on YouTube since 2009. It has the honour of being the first, albeit unofficial, major dance craze of the new millennium and the internet.

Apparently it took Knowles 12 hours to get the one-shot video perfect, but that hasn't stopped a generation of fans trying to copy the routine. Taryn Kerr is the Auckland woman behind Diva Dance Classes, a place where anyone can throw on some track pants, a pair of heels and head along to learn the latest music video routine from Jennifer Lopez, Pink or Kesha. This week, the "iconic" Single Ladies is finally on the menu. But this isn't just about becoming carbon copies. Kerr and her fellow dancers are using dance as a way to connect with their "alter-egos".

"So many times, as the audience or the spectator, we look at it and think, 'God, I wish I could do that or look like that.' So the classes provide a chance to learn it. And you realise you can be just as fierce as Beyonce or Rihanna."

The idea is simple: every six weeks the class learn a new routine grabbed from a music video or online sensation. There is a professional dance teacher leading the way and a studio where they practise every Monday night. But that's about as regimented as it gets. The group is full of friends, and friends of friends - about 20 of them - who could be a bum-wiggling representation of society - all shapes, all sizes, all ages, and both men and women.

"We are all from different backgrounds but we all bond over these songs, these dances and our love of them. It's promoting expression and fierceness, and also sexuality. You feel so attractive after you've done it and it transcends all the traditional shit that women have to be."

Dr Grant Bollmer, Massey University media studies lecturer, says by employing and embracing the language of dance, local communities are now becoming global ones, in spite of obvious challenges.

"In emphasising dance, these videos rely on a set of images or actions that give people something in common in spite of differences in speech. This clearly has implications for how we imagine our relations to each other and,ultimately, what constitutes 'community'."

The internet and social media have only helped broaden and speed up the way these communities form and exist. Dr Bollmer says once upon a time, when television was the king of information gathering, audiences sat, watched and absorbed. But the interactive reality of the internet means being involved, and more importantly, being in control of what you consume.

"Television was thought to be a vast wasteland that produced complacent couch potatoes. Many people still think this about a lot of media - especially video games. But alternative media and fan fiction have shown us repeatedly that people actively engage with media, forming communities around what they consume.

"Today, with the internet and social media, our assumptions about activity and passivity have seemed to reverse. Unlike television, we assume that the internet allows us to be active, engaged, and creative."The key to something like Harlem Shake gaining universal traction, he says, comes down to an organic recipe - and fans can tell what is real and what isn't.

"If a corporation attempts to manufacture a viral phenomenon, often fans and audiences feel betrayed by a company - or worse, they feel like the company was assuming that their fans are dumb and easily manipulated."But that doesn't stop someone like choreographer McCullagh from taking inspiration from pop culture. In fact, the New Zealand Dance Company's artistic director believes it is dance that creates culture, not the other way around.

"Dance has always been at the forefront of culture and has often been highly controversial. Think of Elvis' first televised pelvis shake and the recent ban an American school principal put on grinding at school dances. And what is really interesting at present is the way street dance is being morphed with other dance genres, cultural dance and contemporary for example." 

McCullagh and fellow choreographers can't help but think about the way people move outside the traditional boundaries. She says the dancers she works with in the NZDC, many of whom are in their teens and early twenties, move differently to other generations, and they are constantly opening her eyes. "Their bodies reflect society now.

As an older choreographer working with younger dancers, a certain lexicon of language inhabits your own body and you can fall into familiar patterns of moving, so it's interesting to set tasks for younger dancers to see how they respond to ideas you are interested in exploring."

Through these young professionals, and the schools the NZDC works with, McCullagh sees the real-world impact of "fads" like Harlem Shake.

"There is a great freedom, confidence and sense of individuality in the way kids and teenagers are approaching dance in the 21st century. Dance used to be something that many young people thought they had to go to a class to learn, but now movement is shared within communities and peer-to-peer teaching literally goes on in playgrounds and the street. I love the way that new dance styles spread like wildfire through the internet. Global teaching is alive and well." 

Psycho: South Korean singer Psy gallops through his hit “Gangnam Style”.
Psycho: South Korean singer Psy gallops through his hit “Gangnam Style”.

Sunday Magazine