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Harlem Shake Inspired by Harlem Mom

By Jeff Mays | February 25, 2013 6:59am | Updated on February 25, 2013 8:43am

HARLEM — The inspiration for the original Harlem Shake is a 69-year-old retired childcare worker who is the mother of 12 children.

It was Sandra Boyce's dance moves that inspired her second-oldest son, Albert Leopold Boyce, to create the dance that started off as the "Al B." Albert died in 2006 at the age of 43 from heart failure.

Now, with thousands of videos across the web showing people dancing to a song by a DJ named Baauer called the Harlem Shake, Boyce said her phone has been ringing off the hook with people wanting to talk about Al B.

"That was my dance. He just added the shake," Boyce said while doing a demonstration at her Harlem apartment. "This new thing is not the Harlem Shake. When Al was dancing, we told him to try and put a patent on it."

 Sandra Boyce said looking at the picture of her son makes her happy and sad at the same time.
Sandra Boyce said looking at the picture of her son makes her happy and sad at the same time.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

Baauer released "Harlem Shake" in May, but the song went viral when a video of people dancing to it was released earlier this month. The videos start with one person dancing, then cuts to others dancing crazily when the beat drops. Participants wear everything from costumes to just their underwear.

YouTube estimates that in a couple of weeks there were 12,000 videos uploaded to the site, and as many as 4,000 in one day. They had accumulated about 44 million views.

The Harlem Shake that was created by Boyce and inspired by his mother gained popularity in 2001 after it appeared in a video for a song titled "Let's Get It" by rapper G-Dep.

But Boyce actually created the dance in the 1980s and used to perform it at the Entertainer's Basketball Classic tournament at Harlem's iconic Rucker Park, according to tournament founder and CEO Greg Marius.

It all started out as somewhat of a joke. Al B., whose family said had a serious drinking problem, would often wander onto the court during the tournament or at halftime, Marius explained.

Sandra Boyce said her son used to do clerical work for a bank and started drinking heavily after the relationship with the mother of his two children ended. A picture of Al B.'s now 20-something  kids hangs on her wall showing them as elementary school students.

"He was the life of the party, but the party got to him sometimes," said family friend Tony Arias. "He was just a natural performer who liked being around people."

Around Harlem, Al B. was also known as Al Cisco for the malt liquor beverage of the same name that he favored, Marius said. Cisco was so potent that it earned the moniker liquid crack in the 80s.

"He would be drunk, and when you went to get him to get off the court he would start laughing and performing the shake," he added.

The crowd loved it, and the dance became known around Harlem as the "Al B." Soon he was doing his dance as a part of the halftime entertainment show. It wasn't long before local kids picked up the dance, Marius said, and soon Al B. became a neighborhood celebrity.

A picture of him with the rapper Eve at Rucker Park sits front and center in Sandra Boyce's living room. In it, his face is puffy and his eyes are closed.

"Every game when he walked in the park, he would shut the park down with that dance," said Marius, adding Al B. always credited his mother for his moves.

"It's the movement of the arms and the swagger behind it. It was creativity at its finest," he said, explaining the dance's appeal.

Arias said Al B. was tall and lanky, and the movements just seemed to come naturally.

After G-Dep came out with "Let's Get It," some people were upset that Al B. didn't appear in the video.

"We got mad... because we were like, 'How hard would it have been to get Al and put him in the video?" Marius said.

Sandra Boyce said her son created another dance called the "Mummy" because he felt his original had been hijacked. Whereas the Harlem Shake involved shoulder shimmying, waist-twisting and back-bending, the Mummy was more stiff and included a giant step.

Sandra Boyce said her son received offers from hip-hop executives to purchase the rights to the dance, but he refused.

For Marius, the viral video craze is bringing back old feelings.

"That man is in his grave turning over right now because that's not the Harlem Shake. That's people shaking like they have a disease or something," Marius added.

But Al B. never stopped doing the Shake. Boyce's brother Tyshoun, 20, remembered going to the Rucker tournament in 2006 and seeing his brother dance.

"He was dancing so good for him to be so sick," Tyshoun said.

Sandra Boyce said her son needed a heart transplant but that doctors told him they couldn't give him one as long as he was drinking heavily. Two days after performing at the tournament, Al B. died at the age of 43.

"He danced at that last tournament like never before. He always said he was going to go out like a star," said Sandra Boyce, who said the funeral was overflowing with mourners. "He said, 'I'm a celebrity.' And he was."

Neighbor Lashon Kempson, 26,  said she grew up in the same building as Al B. She remembered him helping the kids in their building with homework and buying them treats from the corner store. Al B. loved doing the shake, she said.

"The Harlem Shake was all Al B.," said Kempson. "I liked the way he shook his body. Everybody loved it."

All the kids of the neighborhood had mastered the Shake, said Kempson, as she swung her shoulders to the side, keeping her waist still in recalling his old dance steps.

"I've been doing it since I was younger, so it was strange to see it in the music video and now to hear the name all over the world," she said.

Marius said Al B. is one of 30 people he plans to honor this summer as part of the basketball tournament's 30th anniversary. He plans to have dozens of kids on the court doing the original Harlem Shake.

"Maybe all of this noise about the Harlem Shake is just him in heaven trying to get some attention," Arias said.

Looking at the picture of her son on the Rucker Park court with Eve makes Sandra Boyce sad and happy at the same time, she said. But shown a video of the craze going around the web, Sandra Boyce said she's not upset.

"It looks like kids having fun," she said.

In a way, it's keeping the best memories of her son alive.

"Al's been dead for seven years, and they're still doing his dance," she said. "He left it here for the rest of us."