How a Viral Video of Cybergoths Presaged the Emote Dance Craze

Photo: Screenshots via YouTube

Given the internet’s ability to transcend physical borders and language barriers, it’s no surprise that dance videos have always been a cornerstone of meme culture. The online-dance-craze ecosystem started with viral videos like the Numa Numa Guy and Star Wars Kid, and then harnessed by more deliberate efforts like the Soulja Boy dance or Baauer’s Harlem Shake. The next evolution of the viral dance craze is the emote: premade dance animations that players can make their avatars perform. Because games have a limited selection of dances available, a popular game can propel any move it incorporates into ubiquity.

That’s what’s happening with Fortnite, which has added dance moves like the Milly Rock (in-game name: “Swipe It”), the Carlton dance (a.k.a. “Fresh”), BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” dance (a.k.a. “Hype”), and Backpack Kid’s signature dance (a.k.a. “Floss”). Attend a middle-school dance or a family wedding or any large gathering of the youth and you’re more likely than not to see these moves performed.

Perhaps the unlikeliest of these well-known moves is a dance called “Orange Justice,” which was popularized by a boy known as Orange Shirt Kid. Last spring, Fortnite held a contest in which contestants could submit videos of dance moves, and the winning move would be added to the game. While Orange Shirt Kid did not win — he placed 23rd — his video was a fan favorite that went viral, leading Epic Games to add the move anyway. His mother, Rachel McCumbers, is now suing Epic on behalf of her son, claiming he is the victim of “unauthorized misappropriation of Orange Shirt Kid’s highly popular signature dance.” (Because he is a minor, Orange Shirt Kid is only referred to in court documents as “C.C.M.” He and his mother reside in Maryland.)

The Fortnite effect is most vivid on platforms like TikTok, the video-sharing platform that lets users recycle each other’s sound bites and remix and iterate upon each other’s posts. If one scans the app’s feed, or watches compilations of memes like “We got em,” they are greeted with endless performances of Hype, Floss, and Orange Justice.

The popularity of dance moves and their transmission around the internet can lead to a number of tangled questions that the culture is currently wrestling with. What does it mean to “create” a style of dance? Can someone own a dance move — legally or even morally? If a dance goes viral, who deserves the credit? While Orange Shirt Kid’s role in the popularity of “Orange Justice” cannot be denied, he also owes a debt to his viral forebears: the cybergoths.

Cybergoth is a hybrid aesthetic that emerged in the late ’90s, combining goth and raver fashion. Its color scheme, combining black and neon clothing, was described by Vice as “too creepy for the ravers, too neon for the goths.” There is a bit of rivethead flare too — some cybergoths wear gas masks or goggles. They might also wear bright hairpieces known as cyberlox. The preferred musical style of the cybergoth is techno music, usually operating in the low to mid hundreds in terms of beats per minute.

You are probably at least a little familiar with cybergoths, even if you’ve never heard the word. Google “cybergoth dance” and your top result will likely be a video featuring a group of cybergoths dancing under an overpass in Dusseldorf, Germany. The most popular version, “Cybergoth Dance Party” has received more than 10.6 million views since September 2011. “Goth Underpass Rave” has been viewed more than 5.2 million times since January 2012. Both of them are freebooted versions, ripped from a YouTuber named GothicIke, who posted the original video, “6. Cybertreffen am 12.3.11” in March 2011.

“These meetings started around the time when the Cybergoth scene was at its peak in our area, probably in Germany in general,” GothicIke, known in the scene as Kenji Icarus, told me over email. “Clubs were filled and the dancefloor was crowded. Not the best premise for this particular dance style as it is demanding quite some space. So someone came up with the idea to bring people from underground clubs to places with more space.”

It’s not difficult to understand the need for space. The cybergoths are performing a type of dance known as industrial dance, writhing along to the beat of a remix of Lock ’N Load’s “Blow Ya Mind.” Kenji admitted over email that the style “looks very aggressive on the outside. Many people describe it as ‘fighting an invisible enemy’ because some moves look like throwing a punch or trying to trip someone up.” Dancers flail arms and kick their legs. They perform in wide-legged pants that look like JNCO jeans, and large hairpieces (known as cyberlocks or cyberloxx apparently). One of them is wearing a gas mask. According to Kenji, there isn’t really any set choreography, just a main rule of thumb: “one move per beat,” usually set to songs operating between 120 and 150 beats per minute.

For the six months following Kenji’s uploading of the cybergoth video, there was little activity. He does not have a large YouTube following and most of his other videos have a relative handful of views. “In September 2011,” he recalled “the views for the video had exploded within 24 hours (from a few hundred to over 80,000) and the comments shifted from mainly German to mostly English.”

It was not very difficult to find the source of all of this attention. “After a long moment of disbelief and a bit of research,” he said, “I found my video reposted on a site called Barstool Sports, which confused me even more, as it appeared to be a sports site/blog. From there it, reached Reddit shortly after and took off.”

Because they are dancing to a four-on-the-floor beat, and because the “industrial dance” has one move per beat, the video can fit over a wide variety of music genres. Which is to say, it is very memeable. Clips replacing the original song with other songs went viral on social media — rap songs like Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in Da Paint” or Future’s “Mask Off,” but also even more incongruous tracks, like the theme to “Thomas the Tank Engine” or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

It wasn’t particularly fun for Kenji and the rest of the cybergoths though: “At first it was really annoying as the only remix they did was with the Benny Hill theme. That joke got old very fast. And yes, people were actually making fun of us. Also most comments reached from mean to distasteful to plain insulting.”

Over time, the pain has dulled. Now Kenji says that “when I see another version or an older one that comes around for the hundredth time, it has more of a nostalgia feeling to me.” At a certain point, the sheer scale of effort put into remixing his video has become impressive. I feel relatively confident in declaring Kenji Icarus’s clip to be the most famous cybergoth footage on the internet.

Years later, the popularity of “Orange Justice” has drawn comparisons to the industrial dance seen in the famous cybergoth clip. In particular, commenters on YouTube have drawn attention to a dancer about 30 seconds into the clip whose moves are stylistically similar to Orange Shirt Kid.

Kenji said that the similarities between “Orange Justice” and industrial dance are obvious. “It appears to be relatively close to Industrial Dance. I’d say it might be an adapted version,” he said. He added a few vital caveats: “Orange Justice is faster, a bit more simplified in its variety of moves (probably due to the higher speed) and overall more fluent.”

Whether Orange Shirt Kid is familiar with the cybergoth underpass rave is not clear. A message sent to Pierce Bainbridge, the law firm representing his mother in the lawsuit, went unreturned. If I had to guess, it’s probably not the best move to publicly acknowledge any similarity between a dance one is trying to claim as intellectual property and a viral video from years prior.

One person who did acknowledge the similarities between newer dances and the old cybergoth clip is Roy Purdy, a social-media star with more than 1.8 million fans on Facebook, 2.7 million subscribers on YouTube, and 3.5 million on Instagram. Urged on by his fans, Purdy also submitted a video of his own signature dance move to Fortnite’s contest.

Like the cybergoths and Orange Shirt Kid (presumably), Purdy has no formal training in dance. The move, in which he rhythmically flails his arms while his knees and hips move from side to side, placed ninth overall, 14 spots ahead of “Orange Justice.”

In late May of last year, Purdy posted a video of himself doing his signature dance in front of a Fortnite avatar performing “Orange Justice.” The caption, “You vs the guy she tells you not to worry about,” was a slight jab at the moves’ similarities, and the fact that his move predates Orange Shirt Kid’s by a significant amount of time.

“I’m not too worried about the whole Fortnite situation,” Purdy said over the phone. “It’s more my fans who are mad I didn’t get credit. To me it’s just like a dance I did for fun, so it doesn’t really bother me who does it or who uses it.”

Before I was able to describe it in detail, Purdy even acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the old cybergoth clip. “That video’s like the first video where you see like that arm motion from the dance. That’s why I don’t really like to say I invented it.”

There’s substantial irony in the fact that recent dance crazes like “Orange Justice,” where real people are imitating behavior seen in computer programs instead of in the real world, feel aesthetically and thematically linked to cybergoth culture. I’d say much of the current, emote-dictated dance culture owes a lot to cybergoth, a musical genre dedicated to probing the relationship between man and machine. In “‘And machine created music’: Cybergothic music and the phantom voices of the technological uncanny,” music scholar Isabella van Elferen elaborates on the tension inherent to this subculture. Cybergoth songs, she writes, highlight “the musical interplay between biological and technological realities on the one hand, and the past, present and future on the other.”

[I]t is the musical ‘digital material’ originating from the convergence of music technology and music culture. But it is, moreover, uncanny digital material, as it dwells in the borderlands beyond those dichotomies of musical experience and self-consciously mediates their in-betweenness. As the phantom voices of the cybergothic sing their uncanny song, the listener is confronted with the undead spectres they conjure up: the simultaneous enthusiasm and skepticism for music technology’s autonomous creative agency.

Likewise, there is an uncanny nature to how emotes like “Orange Justice” work. Because users can trigger them at any point in time, emotes often abide by certain rules — they are granular, looped, and performed in place. The most important of these is that emotes are stationary; the axis running vertically through the performer’s body does not travel. Instead, the body stays in one place instead of moving around the environment. This limitation makes emotes heavily dependent on elaborate physicality, pivoting one’s joints in an exaggerated fashion to compensate, in a fashion very similar to the type of cybergoth dancing that went viral years ago. It also makes them a solitary experience. A bunch of players can gather together and emote at once, but they’re usually dancing within proximity to each other than with each other.

To see those odd digital limitations brought (and adhered) to in our physical realm — as emotes are performed as dance moves at parties and in viral videos more and more frequently — only heightens that uncanny feeling. What seemed like a silly viral video eight years ago has now come to typify youth dance culture, online and off. It turns out the cybergoths really were ahead of their time.

A Viral Video of Cybergoths Presaged the Emote Dance Craze