Friday, February 22, 2013

West African Roots Of The Harlem Shake Shoulder Movements

Edited by Azizi Powell

Since the Harlem Shake video craze erupted on the internet in February 2013, there has been renewed interest in the origins of the Harlem Shake dance. The "real" Harlem Shake dance emphasizes rhythmic shoulder movements. This rhythmical dance is in stark contrast to the just-for-fun mish mash motions that mostly costumed people do in the recent Harlem Shake videos.

The Ethiopian Eskista dance is often cited as the source for the "original" Harlem Shake of 1981, which was then popularized in 2001 by its inclusion in a number of Hip-Hop videos. However, in my post on the Harlem Shake The Harlem Shake (Origins, Old School Examples, & Internet Meme), I suggested that it's much more likely that someone who knew about the Eskista dance and saw the albee/Harlem Shake dance, recognized the similarities between those two dances.

This post showcases seven videos of songs from Benin, West Africa. While the music is worthy to be listened to on their own merits, and the entire videos are quite interesting to watch, in this post I would particularly like to direct viewers' attention to the shoulder movements that are performed by the dancers. I'm not a dance historian, nor am I a dancer, but it strikes me that these shoulder movements* are quite similar to the Harlem Shake's shoulder movements.

*Are these shoulder movements called isolations or popping?

This is not to say that these Beninese dance movements are the direct or even the indirect source of the Harlem Shake. This also is not to say that these Beninese dances are the only examples of dancing that includes shoulder movements in Benin, West Africa or in traditional dancing from any other African nation.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners

(These videos are presented in no particular order.)

Example #1 alekpehanhou agbon hou agbon

polorishas1, Uploaded on Feb 28, 2009

Example #2: Abomey Hogbonou

vignon2000, Uploaded on Jan 6, 2008
A Benin: bomey Hogbonou
Here are three comments from that video's viewer comment thread:

fanhopem 2008
"I like this song because it talks about reconcialition between ethnics in Benin."
Rasprogress, 2009
"Come to think of it, Haitian Kreyol sounds so much like Fon. I've been enjoying this clip so much. Me do Apke mon confrere."
"Fon" is an ethnic group and a language. Click for information about Fon.
Outreachat, 2010
"This is exactly like the bolojo music of the Egba-Egbado, the Egun's neighbours in Nigeria. There are elements of the old sakara tradition of Yusuf Olatunji in it as well. Those of us in Nigeria must continue to hope that the renewed attention that Tope Alabi is giving bolojo in her gospel music will elevate the quality of modern interest in the form. Bolojo (at least that's how I know what I've just heard) is a very fine, intricate form of call-and-response music."
Unrelated to the dance movements in this video, I just want to say that I love those women's hair styles which contemporary African Americans call "Nubian knots".

Example #3: Didolanvi Félix

polorishas1, Uploaded on Feb 21, 2009

Example #4: Anice pépé Nayé

BENIN CHANNEL Uploaded on Aug 30, 2009

Benin Musique

Example #5: Agbadja, Gbessi Zolawadji (Benin)

Chapeauson, Uploaded on Jan 25, 2010
Tous mes Respects à Gbessi Zolawadji et ses talentieux chorégraphes.Notre tradition fait notre force!!!
This video also showcases body patting the source of African American patting juba (commonly known as hambone). Some forms of pattin juba can still be found in historically Black Greek lettered fraternity and sorority steppin’ routines.

Click for a post about the Hambone - African Roots & Contemporary Examples

Example #6: Benin- Ange Ahouangonou - Kpagbe se

yel Yel, Uploaded on Apr 24, 2008

kaka music from benin
“Kaka” is a type of rhythm.

Example #7: BENIN SAGBOHAN Miétonouwè

Frere Kandevie, Uploaded on May 29, 2008

Extract from Roots (West Africa)
This vocalist's/musician's name is Sagbohan Danialou ("Danialou" is his personal name & "Sagbohan" is his surname).

Here's a quote from about the Agbadja rhythm & dance that I believe is performed in video example #5, and perhaps also in other videos on this post:
"The Famous Ewe Rhythm And Dance.

It's probably Agbadza, if there's only one traditional rhythm you remember upon return from Ghana or Togo. To tourists without any knowledge of Ewe drumming, this fun piece is simply known as "the chicken dance". You'll know why when you see it!..."
"The Ewe (Eʋeawó "Ewe people", Eʋedukɔ́ "Ewe nation"[1]) are a people located in southern Togo, southern Benin, and south-eastern parts of the Volta Region of Ghana."
With regard to the Agbadza dance being called the "chicken dance", it should be noted that the 2006 African American dance "Chicken Noodle Soup" is based on the earlier Harlem Shake.

Click for a post about the Langston Hughes poem "Note On A Commerial Theatre" (also known as "You've Taken My Blues And Gone". That post also includes my critique of the Harlem Shake video craze.

Thanks to the featured artists for their musical legacy. My thanks to all the vocalists, musicians, and dancers who performed in these featured videos. Thanks also to the commentaters who are quoted in this post and to the uploaders of these featured videos.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. As an aside, in the video given above as Example #1, notice the way the lead singer hooks his small cane around his neck. Members of the historically Black Greek lettered fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, Inc. do the same thing. Click for the first in a series of posts on "Cane Performances In Black Fraternities & Sororities (Videos)".

    Also click "ALOKPON-Hommage aux Roi de Savalou" for another Beninese video which includes the singer holding a small cane.

    This is not to say that these African canes directly influenced the cane carrying traditions of some historically Black Greek lettered fraternities or sororities. But I wonder if the European/American tradition of gentlemen carrying canes came from the African traditions of men carrying decorated staffs?

    I also wonder what the significance is of those small canes. Are they symbols of authority & status like fly-whisks?

  2. The video given above as Example #2 also features the lead vocalist carries a small single blade axe & a long narrow stick. The young female dancers also dance with a long narrow stick.

    In one scene, the lead singer bends down to pay homage to a dignitary & that dignitary touches the tip of his small cane to the singer's back. (6:07)

    I should also mention the animal (elephant?) tusk horns in this video. I love that sound!

    That same video also includes scenes in which the lead singer is "dashed with money" (5:01 & 5:46). My sense is that this West African tradition of showing appreciation for someone (on a special occassion such as marriage, or showing appreciation for their singing, dancing, or musical performance) is the source of the African American tradition of recognizing a person's birthday by pinning dollars on his shirt or her dress top.

    As you can gather, there are a number of reasons why I find this video quite interesting from a folkloric standpoint. And I also find the music aesthetically pleasing. :o)