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Giving in to an Infectious Viral Video: 'Harlem Shake' Internet Phenomenon Reaches White River Junction

  • A group of friends do the Harlem Shake in White River Junction while a freight train rumbles by yesterday morning. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    A group of friends do the Harlem Shake in White River Junction while a freight train rumbles by yesterday morning. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Erica Layton, left, of Hanover, and Emily Bridges, of Lebanon, hurriedly get ready to dance for the viral video as a freight train approaches. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Erica Layton, left, of Hanover, and Emily Bridges, of Lebanon, hurriedly get ready to dance for the viral video as a freight train approaches. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Adora Lee of Randolph reacts to Chico Eastridge doing the Harlem Shake in front of the Amtrak train in downtown White River Junction yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Adora Lee of Randolph reacts to Chico Eastridge doing the Harlem Shake in front of the Amtrak train in downtown White River Junction yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A group of friends do the Harlem Shake in White River Junction while a freight train rumbles by yesterday morning. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Erica Layton, left, of Hanover, and Emily Bridges, of Lebanon, hurriedly get ready to dance for the viral video as a freight train approaches. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Adora Lee of Randolph reacts to Chico Eastridge doing the Harlem Shake in front of the Amtrak train in downtown White River Junction yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

White River Junction — As the New England Central freight train rumbled past the downtown crossing around 11 a.m. yesterday, several masked performers danced frenetically in front of the tracks to music only they could hear.

The nearly 20 participants waved umbrellas, a life-sized cardboard cutout of the rock band KISS, a “keytar” hybrid of a guitar and a keyboard, a portrait of an elderly couple and their dog, among other things. A Hartford police cruiser rolled to a stop at the intersection, the officer inside watching the commotion with a look of bewilderment as the dancing went on for about a minute before ending abruptly.

Just like that, a corner of the Upper Valley was in on the joke — tacked onto a list of hundreds of localities and thousands people who have produced their own versions of the Harlem Shake, a viral video dance craze that has been sweeping the Internet for nearly two weeks.

At 30 seconds long, Harlem Shake videos follow a uniform pattern and are set to a song of the same title by American music producer Baauer. The first 15 seconds feature a solitary masked dancer as a drum beat begins to tick away in the background, and the next 15 seconds are marked by a sudden explosion of mostly-improvised dancing by several people — the aesthetic chaos of it all bolstered by the bass-driven music.

At yesterday’s rendition in downtown White River Junction, which was organized by Chico Eastridge and Zsuzsa Mitro, there was chaos in abundance. The second half of the video, which features the entire group of performers dancing, was originally intended to be filmed to coincide with the 11:15 a.m. arrival of Amtrak’s Vermonter, but the train ended up arriving about 15 minutes ahead of time, catching Eastridge off guard.

Eastridge looked around at a group of performers who had assembled early as the train rolled toward the station, “Does someone want to dance in front of it right now? Put on this hat!”

But when everyone else froze, Eastridge himself sprang into action, throwing on a makeshift mask that resembled a white pillowcase before pressing the record button on the video camera, which was set up on a tripod. He then dashed across the street as the camera filmed what would end up being the first 15 seconds of the final product, the Amtrak train passing by the backdrop in a blur of grey.

Shortly after the train pulled into the station, more performers were beginning to assemble in front of the Tuckerbox Cafe. There was talk about how to best proceed with filming the second half of the video, now that the Amtrak train had come and gone.

About 10 minutes later, a freight train that had been idling nearby released its air brakes and begin rolling toward the station, once again surprising Eastridge as he ran up the street toward the Tuckerbox Cafe, shouting at the other participants.

“Grab KISS! Grab the keytar!” said Eastridge as the performers donned their masks and scurried across the street for the minute’s-worth of dancing.

Afterward, when the crowd in front of the Tuckerbox Cafe began to reassemble, one performer asked, “Is that it?”

Eastridge answered, “Yeah, I guess we did it.”

One of those dancing yesterday was Quintus Jett, a West Lebanon resident and assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, where he focuses on theories of technology and organization.

He described the Harlem Shake as far more accessible than Gangnam Style, a dance craze that erupted over the Summer, stemming from a music video by South Korean rapper Psy. That video, which is longer and involves a more intricate dance, experienced a similar wave of popularity, but the Harlem Shake appears to be churning up a social momentum more comparable to a tsunami.

“It’s flexible,” said Jett of the Shake. “Structured, but flexible.”

The notion of a two-week, or even a two-month, dance craze, appears to be a phenomenon directly attributable to the power of social networking.

In the 1920s, the Charleston swept the nation for nearly a decade, and the performance art of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters helped bridge the gap between the beatnik movement of the 1950s and the hippie movement of the 1960s. Even the mid 1990s Macarena experienced, and in many ways continues to experience, a more prolific tenure.

While the Harlem Shake has “blown up in the past week,” Jett wondered if the Valley could be catching the tail end of the video craze.

For instance, the cast of NBC’s The Today Show has produced its own Harlem Shake video, which Jett said was a potential sign of the viral video’s death by gratuitous exposure, but he added that he had not seen many Harlem Shake videos from Vermont or New Hampshire yet.

Eastridge earlier in the day said that he felt the dance craze was “at most a two-week trend, and we’re at the part where it’s reaching carrying capacity.”

Mitro, who utilized a combination of Facebook and text messaging to convince numerous friends of hers to attend, said that while some might view the Upper Valley as lagging behind popular Internet culture, yesterday’s viral video shoot demonstrated that the culture is “all in the now, and we are creating it.”

“We really experience this as our now,” she said. “Not in comparison to what this would look like, I don’t know, in New York, or in any big city, or how much bigger it would be or how much cooler — because our present is the meaningful thing for us, and the time is now.”

One of the people Mitro talked into showing up yesterday was Nichole Hastings, who took time away from her job at the Norwich Book Store to participate in the video shoot.

Hastings said that there is an element of freedom associated with the dance movement, which can take shape in just about any way a participant deems appropriate.

“It’s just whatever expressive movement that you want to do, and that I think is really part of the charm and the appeal, because you don’t have to have any dance skills,” she said.

As for the venue of downtown Whiter River Junction, Jett said that made sense, because that’s “where the creative folks are.”

Hastings was quick to piggy-back on that sentiment, “Some people are like, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like fun, maybe I’d do it but ...”

Mitro interjected. “Here, we do it,” she said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.