The Real Story Behind The Running Man Challenge

The dance is more than a hashtag—it’s been at the heart of Jersey’s club dance scene for years.

Once a dance craze reaches The Ellen DeGeneres Show, it’s gone, for better or worse, peak viral. Earlier this week, the #RunningManChallenge—where people upload clips of themselves doing the Running Man dance to a popular ‘90s song—was introduced to 4 million viewers across the U.S., from soccer moms in pasty suburban enclaves to senior citizens in West Palm Beach. The dance’s view-count on various social platforms swelled thanks to a dizzying range of contributions, spanning truly weird videos of Dragonball Z’s Goku going super sayian on it, to impressive clips from NBA and NFL players, to newscaster spasms worthy of WorldStarHipHop fail compilations.

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It’s been a lot of fun for those who’ve participated in the months-old challenge and for everyone who’s watched the thousands of comic iterations on Vine or Snapchat. But the dance has long been a central element of New Jersey club culture, in cities like Newark and Trenton and in neighborhoods across the state. Which is why, when the #RunningManChallenge creators went on broadcast television and said they were responsible for the dance itself, people from the club scene weren’t pleased. At least one dancer from Newark was emailed before the Ellen appearance and was told the appropriate credit would be given, but the #Challenge creators failed to live up to the promise. “[They] made the challenge, but not the dance. You can’t say you made the dance,” says Jayhood, one of the scene’s top producers.

The Running Man, in its present-day iteration, revolves around a style of music called “Jersey club,” which got its start in Newark during the late-'90s as an offshoot of Baltimore club. Eventually it grew into a distinct style of music ranging from 130 to 140 B.P.M., with hard kicks and catchy vocals, spreading first across the Garden State before reaching communities around the world. (To be clear, today’s Running Man is totally distinct from the '80s Running Man; everyone from MC Hammer to Vanilla Ice performed that one for years, exaggeratedly running in place, bringing their knees up high and punching their arms out forward.)

A video posted by Jared Nickens (@jnickens_) on

The challenge was started by Kevin Vincent and Jerry Hall, teens from Hillside, New Jersey, a town on the outskirts of Newark. About four months ago the pair posted a batch of videos to Instagram; the clips depicted Vincent and Hall doing the move to “My Boo,” a Miami Bass R&B track from 1995 by Atlanta’s Ghost Town DJs. The original video has around 8,000 likes so far. But it didn’t really blow until Jared Nickens, Damonte Dodd, and Jaylen Brantley—players from the Maryland Terps college basketball team—made their own versions a few weeks ago, with one of the most popular videos receiving 32,000 likes. Once Nickens, Dodd, and Brantley got involved, the dance craze began commanding the eyes and bandwidth of internet denizens globally. The impact of the videos have been so significant that, as a result, Ghost Town DJs' 20-year-old track has climbed to the top of the iTunes charts.

But the move itself—in which dancers cross their legs, bend their knees, and rock their feet in a back-and-forth motion—has a deeper and richer history than its virality has suggested. It's a central element of Jersey club dance styles, and most other moves revolve around it. The Running Man gets mixed with almost anything, like The Slide, Bunny Hop, or Rock Your Hips; all of which are different Jersey-born moves. “If you're a Jersey club dancer, you need the Running Man to start off your circle,” explains a dancer who guys by the name Mark, who’s from Newark and part of cTe, a local dance group. “If you don't have that down pat, you're not a real Jersey club dancer.” In short: every dance either leads off with the Running Man or is combined with it. “If you hear club music, the Running Man is the first thing that comes to mind,” says Anii, another well-known dancer from Newark and a member of Team Lilman, a collective of dancers, promoters, and artists helmed by DJ Lilman. These groups are common in the scene and their most active members are typically in their late teens. Sometimes members are paid, whether for videos or for bookings at events, but mostly they do it for the love of the culture.

“It’s a just Jersey club thing. We just want to make sure that everyone knows it came from the scene here.” —Jayhood

Although Atlanta and adjacent cities are often credited with the birth of modern dance obsessions that find fame on social platforms, Jersey too has been an incubator of pervading dance moves—and the Running Man is easily the most recognizable.

Lilman, the well-known DJ and promoter behind Team Lilman, and the cTe dance team receive the most credit from artists, dancers, and internet commentators for popularizing Jersey’s Running Man. “I was throwing a party at the Boys & Girls Club in late 2009; my team and the cTe dance group got in a circle like they always do at Jersey club parties, and they came up with a little dance,” he said, recalling its origins. “At that point, it was just a dance. Nobody really knew what it was, we were just turning up, celebrating the night. It was a natural thing. I just put a name to it a few days later.”

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Soon after, cTe, which was arguably the biggest dance group in the state at the time, made a video including the Running Man that went viral locally. The group was also featured in later videos by Lilman, including the Big O-assisted “Jersey Slide” and “Back It Up And Dump It,” on which Juice Boy made an appearance. These became the tracks that propelled the Running Man into the heart of the Jersey club scene.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that an internet craze has decontextualized a dance move with deep community roots. The Harlem Shake comes to mind—that unfortunate viral juggernaut from 2013 based on something that had nothing to do with the original Harlem Shake, which is often credited to Al B, a fixture around Harlem's Rucker Park basketball court.

But for many, including Jayhood, claiming credit for the dance isn’t as important as setting the record straight. “It’s a just Jersey club thing,” he says. “We just want to make sure that everyone knows it came from the scene here.” In fact, the Running Man is very similar to another Jersey club dance called the Pattycake, which took off around the same time and features the same footwork but includes actual Patty Cake solo hand clapping “with a Jersey club swag,” according to Mark.

In the weeks since the video first went viral, a number of “My Boo” Jersey club remixes have popped up online, created by the likes of Jayhood and DJ Smallz, DJ Tr!ck$, and DJ 809. Jayhood says he’s trying to get an official video made for this and DJ Smallz's remix, and plans to feature the kids who started the challenge. It’s an attempt to bring matters full circle in a way that lets everyone share a piece of the spotlight.

“Newark is known for negative things and you only hear about violence and crime on the TV,” Anii says, “but here we’ve got someone on Ellen doing something positive instead, so I salute him for that. I respect it.”

The Real Story Behind The Running Man Challenge