In the past few days I’ve been noticing more and more stories about the sudden emergence of the ‘Harlem Shake’ as a protest movement (in the most literal sense) across the Middle East. The Verge has a particularly good analytical piece on its development.
Much commentary focuses on the bizarre or trivial nature of choosing to protest something as serious as increasing social and religious conservatism with an internet dance meme. However, in my opinion this is neither bizarre nor trivial: rather, it bolsters my theory that one use of dance is as a space for expressing parts of the self that are not part of our everyday lives, or in this case, that increasingly totalitarian regimes are trying to repress out of public life. Further, the particular use of this dance across the Middle East is an excellent example of globalization at work: a cultural product has been transferred from one cultural space in which it held one specific meaning into a new area, where it holds an entirely different range of significances.
Though actually I can’t truly argue that the Harlem Shake is not bizarre or trivial when it self-evidently is. Indeed, many of the people making use of the dance specifically say that this is part of its utility, as a tool for undermining the seriousness of conservatives. Its very silliness makes it a difficult weapon to fight: a grave response to something so irreverent (such as the education minister of Tunisia calling it “an insult to the educational message”) might just make the responder look so draconian as to lack the judgement to discern the truly dangerous from the merely frivolous.
On a personal level, I must say it’s incredibly exciting to see a theory I developed being put into action at the center of such important global events right now. I have always believed unswervingly that social dance is intensely political and that it is both naive and perilous to ignore its importance as a factor in political life. I’m looking forward to watching events as they unfold–though obviously it saddens me to see that some students in Egypt have already been arrested for dancing, among other responses to the public performance of this particular dance that threaten people’s freedom of expression (including a US Federal Aviation Authority investigation following some Harlem Shaking on a flight.)
As Lord Byron wrote in a poem about dance being interrupted by political upheaval (The Eve of Waterloo), “On with the dance! Let the joy reign unconfined.”