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SquarePants, cool dance

The Baltimore Sun

The YouTube video is so grainy that at first it's hard to know for sure, but then the beat quickens, the boy onscreen starts kicking like a deranged Irish step dancer and there's no longer any doubt - the Baltimore SpongeBob is in cyberspace.

And the guy who's performing what is becoming this city's most famous homegrown dance isn't even a local.

"I'm still tryn to get good at it," writes 18-year-old Jeremy Mac of McDonough, Ga., in a dashed-off message to his more than 41,000 online viewers. "Be patient."

Once nearly unknown outside the city's nightclubs, the Baltimore SpongeBob is now reaching young hip-hop enthusiasts across the country with the help of video-friendly Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace. There, in the past year or so, dozens of local teenagers have posted clips of themselves performing the SpongeBob's frenetic footwork in their bedrooms and kitchens. These segments have been accessed by tens of thousands of people, some of whom are learning the moves themselves and, like Mac, sharing footage of their attempts.

The digital proliferation of the SpongeBob and other local steps - the Crazy Legs, anyone? - suggests that the Web is changing the way popular dances spread: from dancer to dancer, without the necessity of personal contact or televised hype. Regional choreography is suddenly available to everyone, and the light of foot are learning to troll the Internet for fresh ideas.

"It is now instantly possible to disseminate dance moves that you think are cool," says Doug Fox, creator of Great Dance, a Washington-based blog about the intersection of dance and technology. "YouTube, MySpace, Google Video - it makes it so a new kind of dance can spread anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, and 5 million people could be doing it in days, or hours."

Traditionally, even the most popular dance crazes have spread more slowly, says Judith Lynne Hanna, a senior research scholar in the University of Maryland's Department of Dance. Rather than flitting from computer screen to computer screen, new dances - like the fox trot, Charleston and mashed potato - migrated along a set geographic route.

"In the old days, what happened was the dances came from the African-American community in the South and then were brought to Harlem," Hanna says. "Then you had the downtown people going uptown and picking up the dances because they were sexy."

National media exposure, from shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train to the radio play of particular songs (hey, Macarena!), also helped catapult dances to prominence.

But emerging steps like the SpongeBob may follow a different path.

The dance, those familiar with it say, evolved in the early 1990s from standard club-music moves that simply grew faster over time. The finished product - a wild, side-to-side kicking - remained nameless until a few years ago, when, several music producers believe, it became associated with remixes of the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon theme song by Baltimore DJ Jonny "Blaze" Grant.

"I guess [the dance] kind of looks like SpongeBob," says local DJ Mike "Mumblez" Foster, referring to the popular animated sea sponge. "You know, when he is underwater, running away."

Now the SpongeBob is a staple of the city's club-music scene. It's performed to the beat of songs that have nothing to do with giggly sea creatures, but its catchy, kiddie-TV name may have been crucial to its online success, says Juan Donovan Bell, a Baltimore music producer.

"You hear a name like that and you search for it," he says. And the dance starts to digitally spread. Indeed, one of the local clips, of two girls SpongeBobbing in unison, made it all the way to Rolling Stone's "10 Great YouTube Moments of 2006."

As far as some DJs are concerned, though, the magazine - like MTV, where the SpongeBob was recently featured - is just playing catch-up; it's the long arm of the Internet that spins a dance into motion at clubs across the country.

"YouTube is much bigger than people know as far as the dance scene goes," Bell says. "I check it every couple of weeks for something new. It has whatever people come up with in the club."

That includes fads from other regions, like the Chicken Noodle Soup, a body-wobbling number that is often linked to Harlem, and Chicago's Juking, a provocative kind of grinding. Baltimoreans are clicking into these moves, too, and borrowing from the Internet as much as they lend.

"It's a pretty good method to learn," says 18-year-old Johnthan "J dot" Speed, a Baltimore native and aspiring DJ who is now a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park. "If you live in Baltimore, all you know is club music. You may go to P.G. County, where there's go-go, but you don't know how to do it. So you go online and practice."

Of course, Speed could just go to a Prince George's club and learn in person. But the best part of watching new dances online, he says, is that you make all your mistakes in private.

And you can come up with some interesting experiments.

Andre Grice, also 18 and a University of Maryland freshman, recently posted on YouTube an innovation he calls the Chicken Noodle SpongeBob, a fusion of the two steps.

"You basically just get to show your skill out there, your creativity," he says. "You can put it out there online, and the whole world sees that you can do it. A lot of these dances are really hard. People fall down trying to do them."

Professional dancers, too, are surfing for new steps. Sabrina Turner, a 25-year-old dance instructor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., was tickled recently when she saw clips of the SpongeBob popping up online. But the Baltimore native also looks for inspiration from club scenes in other parts of the country.

"I'm obsessed with Oakland, [Calif.]," she says. "I look up Oakland dances and Ghost Ride the Whip," a performance style where drivers dance next to, and occasionally on top of, their moving cars.

"YouTube is so amazing because of its power, because you can find anything on it," she says. "Instead of me having to go to L.A. and take a class or find a crumping circle, or going to New York and finding some breakers or to Miami to find the booty-bass music, I can just go online. If you watch the video enough times, you learn it."

Internet dance clips will become even more dominant with the steady rise of camera phones, dance blogger Fox predicts. Instead of clumsy camcorders, which tend to restrict footage to people rehearsing at home, portable camera recorders allow video to be shot at the very nightclubs and house parties where new dances are born.

"You'll be able to see a dance you like and just take it with you," Fox says.

And maybe show the world. Baltimore's certainly proud to share the SpongeBob as part of its urban heritage, says Grant.

"The Wire doesn't show the fun side of us," he says, referring to the HBO urban drama set in Baltimore. "Now at least people see we have fun, too. Every city has crime. But we've got the SpongeBob."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

Spongebob on YouTube

The video Web site YouTube has several versions of people dancing the Baltimore SpongeBob. You can see one of the videos at baltimoresun.com/spongebob.

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