'The Macarena' and the History of Viral Dance Music That Predicted TikTok

'The Macarena' and the History of Viral Dance Music That Predicted TikTok
Image:JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP (Getty Images)

It’s played at weddings, at school dances, at concerts after doors open, at rodeos, at senior nights, at birthday parties, at ball games, at bar and bat mitzvahs, at dive bars where dancing is encouraged. For years, it was inescapable, now less so—but it emerges every once in a while, yielding its unpretentious head, ready to help the rhythmically challenged engage in a communal dance without revealing their uncoordinated secrets. There are no foot movements, after all, leaving its practitioners to rely entirely upon the flailing of their arms and hips.

The Macarena, notable for its easily learned and reproduced dance moves—and the 1993 song “Macarena” that inspired the choreography—became a staple of 1990s popular culture, dubbed by VH1 as the greatest one-hit wonder of all time and the hottest dance craze to hit the United States since “The Twist” in the 1960s. Nearly 30 years removed, the success of the “Macarena” is as confounding now as it was then: a song and dance with a name many Anglophone Americans couldn’t even pronounce, as immortalized in a particularly nostalgic episode of Oprah, that nonetheless became ubiquitous.
The “Macarena” does, however, offer the perfect blueprint for our modern reality: one obsessed with dance trends, the comforts brought forth by a physical suspension of outside pressures, and a distraction from the current moment. There’s a reason the most popular version of the “Macarena,” a remix, begins with simple synths counting in the dancer and a sample of Alison Moyet’s laugh. It is an entreaty to have fun.

The folklore is well-documented. In 1992, Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones, who together formed the then-middle-aged Spanish pop duo Los del Río, traveled to Venezuela to perform, where they saw and became entranced by a flamenco instructor, Diana Patricia Cubillán Herrera. Monge, inspired by Herrera’s choreography, sang the chorus of the “Macarena,” that night—“¡Diana, dale a tu cuerpo alegría y cosas buenas!’” or “Give your body some joy, Diana!”—eventually changing “Diana” to “Macarena,” as an homage to Monge’s daughter, Esperanza Macarena.

According to Vanity Fair España, the track became “La Macarena,” a flamenco tune that exploded in Spain as the song of the summer—a hit, finally, after 30 years of performing together. But that version isn’t the most familiar: Their record company, having been acquired by U.S. major label RCA Records, requested a “more disco” version of “La Macarena,” and so it received a remix. In 1994, Florida producers The Bayside Boys kept the chorus, emphasized the beat, and, most critically, sanitized and translated the lyrics into English. Consider it a ’90s precursor to 2017’s “Despacito”—Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s hit in Latin America that broke stateside once Justin Bieber added his English-language verses to a remix.

The new “Macarena” exploded on cruise ships and in clubs in Miami. Soon, the dance, created by Black American choreographer Mia Frye for the music video, was everywhere. In 1996, the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it stayed for 60 weeks total, at the time the longest run for any song ever. The cultural impact of the “Macarena” only continued to explode, transcending radio play to enter politics: Long before nerdy Pete Buttgieg supporters were transforming the anthemic theatrics of Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” into a disturbing presidential campaign dance, the “Macarena” was used for relatability at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. (There’s an image of Al Gore so memorable it would inspire meme-ing, were it to have occurred two decades later.) Los del Río and The Bayside Boys had created a phenomenon, born out of stellar marketing and an addictive, repetitive hook, like so many hits before it. They just happened to do it with a dance, Frye’s dance—a magnanimous one, easy enough to learn in a few minutes, fun enough to distill the day’s worries. Hands out, palms up, behind the shoulder, behind the head, on the hips, shake the hips, repeat again.

And most didn’t know either groups’ name. Or the name of dance’s creator.

The “Macarena” offers the perfect blueprint FOR our modern reality: one obsessed with dance trends, the comforts brought forth by a physical suspension of outside pressures, and a distraction from the current moment.

In the 1990s, few songs created dance crazes so ubiquitous that the choreography equated the success of the single. The “Macarena” arrived a decade after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” whose iconic zombie moves of the music video remain burned in pop culture’s collective memory, and nearly two decades after “Electric Slide” and Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” But its closest precedents included “The Chicken Dance,” penned by Swiss musician Werner Thomas in the 1950s (then called “Der Ententanz,” or “The Duck Dance”) before music producer Stanley Mills made it a hit stateside in the 1990s with an English language cover (sound familiar?) could be viewed as a hokey grandparent to the “Macarena,” much like, well, the “Hokey-Pokey”—another vintage dance craze with ambiguous origins.

And while the “Macarena” is an outlier, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Following its phenomenon, Latin pop crossed over to the United States—after the success and tragic murder of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, artists like Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, and Menudo’s Ricky Martin broke through, frequently re-recording their Spanish-language hits into English at the turn of the millennium. Audiences wanted music that sounded “Latin,” even if it wasn’t in Spanish, and “Macarena” was the precursor of that curiosity. And like all successful, successive musical moments, it wasn’t immediately embraced. “It really is the Latino payback for the bunny hop. It’s also the first serious challenge to ‘A Horse with No Name’ as the century’s largest musical black hole,” wrote Matthew Alice in the San Diego Reader in 1996. “The Macarena is dangerous. I think they’re testing it on lab rats even as we speak.”

Audiences wanted music that sounded “Latin,” even if it wasn’t in Spanish

Eventually, the “Macarena” faded. The song and dance moved from “ridiculously popular” to “obsessively repetitive,” and popular interest waned, due to radio overplay. No choreography inspired the same kind of admiration until the year 2000, when Chicago MC DJ Casper, also known as Mr. C the Slide Man, released the “Cha-Cha Slide”—a song originally written for an aerobic workout, so, with easily recreated moves—simpler than “The Electric Slide,” and later, the “Cupid Shuffle,” but addicting all the same. In 2021, both the “Macarena” and the “Cha-Cha Slide” emerge at weddings—or wherever there’s a desire to dance with limited skills—but the height of popularity outside of these settings has passed.

I’ve been thinking about the “Macarena” now that there is, once again, another palpable, modern obsession with dance. TikTok has not only popularized choreography, it’s nearly demanded it from any celebrity (or celebrity hopeful) who choses to engage with the platform: many viral “challenges” are dances; songs (and the musicians who perform them) become hits largely because of how easily parodied the moves are. Doja Cat, and her “Say So” dancebolstered by TikTok star Haley Sharpe and Laura Dern’s daughter Jaya Harperis proof enough. There are countless others, ranging in genre, but the success of the dance is usually based on its simplicity—just like the “Macarena”—and its ability to be recreated.

The first major TikTok dance trend I can recall is the “Renegade,” choreography created by Jalaiah Harmon, a 14-year-old Black girl from Atlanta, who quickly found her dance stolen from her: co-opted by brands, verified users, celebrities, and even the NBA, which invited white TikTok creators to teach cheerleaders the popular dance. Unfortunately, Harmon is just one of many young Black creators online who’ve had their ideas taken from them: the dance is known, her name as its originator less so. There are similarities in the story of the “Macarena”: artists of color getting effectively written out of, or forgotten next to, their own art—for Los del Río and Mia Frye. But Harmon’s case is much direr. It is a direct representation of TikTok’s failings, how the platform routinely marks content from Black Americans as objectionable, according to The Washington Post.

It’s not just Harmon: the future success of Black TikTokers is limited to discriminatory gatekeeping. When dance, a bodily art form, becomes a trend, it can act as a microcosm of a racist industry. And those fads fade even faster, now, then the “Macarena,” and they never reach the same level of ubiquity. The “Renegade” feels like ancient history.

It is unlikely that TikTok will produce a “Macarena.” (Partially, it’s because they are solitary acts—dancing alone or with a few friends in front of an iPhone camera instead of being made to join in a group of strangers completing the choreography at a sporting event. The isolation makes it unlikely to inspire those outside the TikTok generation to participate, thus limiting its appeal to other demographics.) But there are clearer obstructions: competition is continuous; there are simply too many dances vying for the same viral success. The accelerated pace of the platform far exceeds the channels responsible for making the “Macarena” a hit—radio and television versus the endless void of online choices.

And yet, the “Macarena” endures in some ways that are visible in TikTok dance trends. It offers a template for future movers: keep it simple, stupid, and create choreography that appeases everyone. If it does, they will dance.

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