BEIRUT: It started with a mask and a raunchy hip thrust. The Harlem Shake, a viral YouTube video trend, hit Lebanon several weeks ago and has been recreated by random strangers on the streets of Beirut, university students, club-goers and office workers. The dance video phenomenon began with a group of Australian teenagers who posted their half-minute version in January, which has since been replicated worldwide. Homemade Harlem Shake videos hit a peak of 4,000 versions uploaded on YouTube every day.
In other parts of the region, the dance evolved into a tool of social and political protest. In Tunisia, the Harlem Shake has pitted young secularists against conservative Salafists, who condemn the dance for its witless profanity.
Likewise, in Egypt, young secularists took a cue from Tunisian youth and performed the Harlem Shake as an act of protest against the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
In Lebanon, however, the Harlem Shake remains as a kind of stress reliever and inspires a little lighthearted competition, according to participants of local renditions.
Nader Dagher, a local entrepreneur, has participated in two Harlem Shakes, one mass-organized shake in Gemmayzeh and a spontaneous dance at his office at Seequnce, a startup accelerator.
“It’s a funny trend. You never know what to expect; the more creative, the funnier it is,” Dagher said.
“The point is to make people laugh more than the other.”
The dance videos share a common format. A single dancer kicks off each Harlem shake with a mask – Spiderman, an elephant, the Scream – doing a hip thrust among apparently uninvolved and uninterested bystanders.
In the case of the Gemmayzeh’s public dance, a girl in polka dot pajamas and a ski helmet began the intro hip thrust in Gemmayzeh.
The video suddenly cuts to the crowd of bystanders now in costume and odd props – plastic swords, toy dolls or Mexican sombreros – partaking in uncoordinated, chaotic dancing.
But the dance requires more gall than talent as the purpose is to broadcast them on YouTube and draw a live crowd of bystanders.
Friday’s noontime Harlem Shake at the Lebanese American University attracted what a student described as the entire university. Classes stopped to get a view of the event, students went out onto building roofs to watch and people packed the campus grounds to get a look at their classmates’ Harlem Shake interpretation.
A number of night spots have performed Harlem Shakes.
Life Beirut club in Karantina held an event themed on the Harlem Shake and called on its club-goers to come dressed in random costume.
Garage, one of the narrow Alleyway haunts in Hamra, prompted their regulars to film a version, turning the typically low-key pub into a raucous scene of table-top dancing.
The random dance at Seequnce offered its employees, a young range aged 19-30, with some momentary stress relief, Dagher said.
“We didn’t have time to get costumes so we went with everything we had,” he said. “One girl zipped herself into a sleeping bag, two girls wore the same shirt so they were stuck together, there was an umbrella ... we used everything that was useful.”
The Harlem Shake has also created a little healthy competition within and among universities. American University of Beirut has posted at least four videos, each claiming to be the best.
At the American University of Science and Technology in Sassine, organizer of the university’s rendition, Wassim Makary, said the Harlem Shake brought students together. “I think of it as having fun. It was good for the university, I got to know a lot of people I didn’t know before,” he said.
About 30 to 40 people participated with no choreography or plan, and attracted hundreds more bystanders.
“I got all the costumes: Batman, ghosts, ‘sperm man,’ gas masks, fancy ball masks. Some people got naked. There were two mummies and we lit one on fire,” he said. “You just need that first person with a mask and then the rest get involved.”