The far-reaching influence of the Dancing Baby

Arguably the first viral video, the Cha-Cha baby, turns 20 this week – how has it shaped the cultural landscape?

At the end of a gruelling hour of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, my year six computer class – provided we had all been well-behaved – would be treated to the playback of one of the internet’s first viral videos: the Dancing Baby (aka Baby Cha-Cha). It put us in a trance, enraptured by a surprisingly agile newborn cutting a rug to Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. The choreo was hilarious, and the short video probably owed its success to welcome chain letters cropping up in AOL inboxes.

The Dancing Baby was the brainchild of the six-person Character Studio development team at Unreal Pictures and Kinetix/Autodesk, an early 3D graphics company. The Cha Cha version featuring the 3D-modeled baby dancing was released as a royalty free file that users could manipulate as they saw fit. However, only when it was condensed into an animated GIF by web developer John Woodell in late 1996 did it rip a wide tread through the WWW and begin to pop up in the zeitgeist. If the Baby were real, he would be 20 years old this week, most likely wowing crowds as a back-up dancer for FKA twigs. But how have his effortless moves infiltrated popular culture over the intervening years?


This much darker iteration of the Dancing Baby comes courtesy of visual mindfucker Jesse Kanda, who has been behind the sinister aesthetic that has helped shape the sounds of Arca. “When I come up with that first spark for an idea, it reminds me of playing with toys,” Kanda told us. “When you’re a kid you have this whole universe in your room – you can voice-act all your different toys like they’re characters.” For “Trauma Scene 1”, the baby is triplicated and the effect is intoxicating. Does it owe its existence to the Cha Cha Baby? Perhaps not, although the resemblance is uncanny. Maybe this is the long, lost inbred cousin…


For Aphex Twin’s horrifying six-minute “Rubber Johnny”, multimedia artist Chris Cunningham delivered a Paranormal Activity-style alien beastie with an overlarge head and iridescent eyes. Once you get past being creeped out, the man-baby actually has some enviable moves.


The Cartoon Network’s animated series Chowder demonized the Dancing Baby for the sole purpose of annoying its characters. “For the love of Mike! Make it stop!” yells Schnitzel. Okay, sure, it’s a bit annoying, but only if you’ve got it on a loop. The animators on this show took the baby for a satanic ride to hell’s gate – a Buddha-belly baby complete with horns and ginger hair hatches out of an egg and clumsily terrorizes its onlookers with a rendition of “Boom Chakka Chakka Chakka Boom”.


In a total U-turn, the baby is reincarnated as a dancing Jesus in The Simpsons episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes” when Homer visits a website for the Springfield Police Department. “If there’s a better use for the internet, I haven’t found it,” Homer says, basically summarzing how my entire year six computer class felt in 2001.


The first appearance of the Dancing Baby in the mainstream took place on 90s-defining TV series Ally McBeal in an episode called “Cro-Magnon”, which aired January 5, 1998. McBeal wakes up to discover a ghost-version of the baby by her bedside, dancing like no one is watching. Maybe she’s watched it one too many times and can’t shake the baby?