A crowd of SF State administration and students adorned in colorful costumes stood in a circle cheering for President Leslie E. Wong, Feb. 22, as he danced at the center of Malcolm X Plaza. Seconds later, the beat of the music dropped and the SF State student body swarmed Wong, dancing in excitement as they filmed their version of the popular video trend known as the Harlem Shake.
Through the Golden Gate Xpress blog, The Swamp, President Wong was encouraged to participate in the second version of a student-made SF State Harlem Shake video, calling the campaign #ShakeItWong. President Wong accepted the challenge via Twitter on the condition that the #ShakeItWong campaign received 100 tweets.
“When I came here I told students that I was going to be engaged with them and that whether it was in the classroom or when they perform music or sports or even silly things like this that I’d join them,” Wong said. “I think it’s important for a president to be with his students and this is just another way of doing that.”
Despite its fun intended nature, the Harlem Shake video trend has received negative reactions from the people of Harlem who find it offensive to their neighborhood and the original Harlem Shake dance. The original Harlem Shake is known for the quick, aggressive swinging motions of the arms and shoulders.
Street historians say it has a spiritual connection to traditional Ethiopian dances. The dance has been around since the early ’80s and was created by Harlem dancer, Al B. Back then it was known as “the Albee.” The dance made a popular comeback in the ’90s through hip-hop videos.
Alan David, SF State graduate with an master’s degree in ethnic studies, said he can understand why the people of Harlem find the video trend disrespectful.
“Whether people want to recognize it or not, the original Harlem Shake is an extension of Harlem’s cultural tradition expressing both the struggles and triumphs of Harlem’s African-American youth and community,” David said. “Being that the ‘new Harlem Shake’ does not recognize that there is an original Harlem Shake already in existence and by simply naming a song and dance after Harlem, where people who are not even from Harlem ‘going crazy’ or ‘acting a fool,’ it is no surprise that the Harlem community find it offensive.”
President Wong hopes viewers do not take offense to the SF State Harlem Shake video but sees it as a fun experience he shared with the students.
“I hope that in respect for the dancers in Harlem that we at least make them smile,” Wong said. “I hope people see it in the spirit that it is having fun.”
John Yassa, 18, biology major and creator and director of the SF State Harlem Shake videos, first came up with the video concept after watching other universities create their own versions on YouTube. He promoted the first video event on Facebook, and taped it on the roof of the Cesar Chavez Student Center with about 30 people on Feb. 15.
“On Facebook there was a link to John’s event on top of Cesar Chavez and I had a little time off from work that day, so why not? It’s really a great excuse to go buck wild and dance your ass off,” Sean Tai, 25, anthropology major said.
The video received over 3,000 views in one day. Yassa decided to do a second video when students who were not in the first version wanted their opportunity to be a part of the viral video sensation.
“When I heard about it from Facebook, the SFSU’s confessions page, I thought, ‘Oh my god how did you do this without me? It’s not possible,’” Larissa Thornton, 20, undeclared, said. “I had to be in the next one.”
When students received the challenge they rallied together and campaigned on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.
“I think President Wong’s participation is pretty radical, in both senses, that it’s legit for a school president to join the student body for this YouTube fad and even better that most would not consider joining students for this. I think it gave me a greater idea of his personality into perspective,” Chenoa Ladabouche, 21, psychology major said. “I know that he is focusing on the student body’s interest and by incorporating Twitter that was a genius idea. It was very creative.”
In two days the goal of 100 tweets was accomplished and #ShakeItWong became a school-wide event.
“That was my motivation at that point. As soon as I heard he was joining it I thought this has to happen,” Yassa said. “What other school has their president in their Harlem Shake video? He’s gotta be pretty awesome to come down and dance with a bunch of college students.”
When President Wong confirmed his participation more students agreed to attend the event. The SFSU Harlem Shake version two event page reached over 400 confirmed participants. But not everyone wanted to participate. Students like Joey Kao, 22, Asian American studies major, declined to partake in the video. He thought that the Harlem Shake trend was over and it was too late to make another one.
“I believe in the cyber world trends move faster than our fashion,” Kao said. “New video trends top the next, every one to two weeks and then you see something amazing again.”
But even though Kao did not plan to participate, he respects President Wong for his involvement with the video.
“I believe that President Wong doing it is absolutely rad. I feel like this is a scene straight from the movies when the principal wants to impress the kids,” Kao said. “I don’t know President Wong personally, but I do know not one Harlem Shake video out there has the president of a college doing the dance.”
Participating or not, students were impressed by President Wong, who kept his promise and starred in the video. Accompanying him were members of the administration who were happy to participate, including Linda Oubre, dean of the College of Business.
“I heard about this through my staff and my students, and then my niece is visiting and I told her about it and she was really excited,” Oubre said. “I’m here to support President Wong and the students because we teach leadership and this is perfect leadership.”
Students commended President Wong’s involvement for bringing the student body together in a positive way they have never witnessed at SF State.
“In the three years that I’ve been here, this is the biggest amount of collaborative spirit towards something that I’ve seen on campus and it’s nice to have something like this bring us closer together, especially with our reputation as a commuter school,” Avinash Changavi, 21, computer engineering major said. “I really hope this newfound spirit lasts and grows for future events, for students to look forward to coming here, and to make college a better place for everyone.”
President Wong hopes that everyone can use this experience to see the different ways the school can come together and enjoy its community.
“We can be serious, we can be engaged with big ideas and do a lot of different things,” Wong said. “Bottom line is we’re all citizens here and part of that is having some fun together.”