Every so often, BNet Editor-In-Chief me will come across something online that it so colossally weird that I put off looking into it because I almost don’t want to know anything about it. I’ve talked about this before but so much of meme culture thrives on the act of stripping away context — the less you know about something, the more universal its appeal becomes. Sometimes it’s more fun to not know about stuff, to let it float around uninterrogated as an oddity.
For months, my most nagging example of this has been the Dancing Baby Hotel. In May of 2019, the Tumblr user ejacutastic made a brief post. They wrote:
drove past a hotel and they had a pretty big digital message board and I glanced over and almost had a fucking stroke while driving because it was just playing this gif
Here’s the GIF:
This is the Dancing Baby, a piece of media that I genuinely think belongs in the Top 10 of “human works that should be preserved forever” alongside, I dunno, The Bible and the 2007 motion picture Michael Clayton. The baby was created in the mid-90s by Michael Girard. "The dancing baby," he told CNN in 1998, "actually goes back to an initial cha-cha motion that I created as a demo file years ago" for his animation software, Kinetix Character Studio. (From the same article: “Janelle Brown, culture writer for Wired News, calls the dancing baby a ‘meme,’ which Wired defines as ‘a contagious idea’ -- like the kids of the ‘South Park’ comedy series, and ‘Max Headroom’ before them.”)
Everyone loved the Dancing Baby so much that it eventually made its way onto Ally McBeal, a show about lawyers who spend an inordinate amount of time in a gender-neutral bathroom. McBeal dances with the baby, who represents her ticking biological clock.
The Dancing Baby — a perfect atom of internet content — has been around forever. I cannot explain why, but I regularly think back to this 2012 Awl piece of fanfic about what happened to the Dancing Baby later in life, as if the baby was real, like the Nirvana baby. Obviously the concept of a dancing baby is funny, but what I am also drawn to nowadays is the black void in which the baby dances. The void is a product of technical limitations, but it’s also just funny. Like the baby is appearing in a stage production.
Anyhow, after ejacutastic made their post on Tumblr, a user responded: “the sterling hotel in dallas? I h8 to tell you this but that sign is always playing the baby gif”
First of all: WHAT. Second of all: great. Where I grew up in central New Jersey there was a Loew’s Theater with an LED screen that, for a time, had bespoke animations announcing each of the movies playing. I loved driving by it. Now, that sign seems like shit compared to the concept of a Dancing Baby sign.
Another Tumblr user, pinchahs, followed up. “WE WENT??? ITS THERE???” is all they wrote. They also attached a GIF of the actual sign, shot in shaky cam footage, like the kind of thing a first-repsonder might find on an SD card after a Cloverfield event.
I can’t be certain, but I think that baby is doing the “Gangnam Style” dance. Which means that it’s been updated. This is not just the classic Dancing Baby, but a new Dancing Baby for a new millennium.
Other comments from Tumblr users:
Gaze upon it children. This is one of the gods of the internet. Manifested by Ally McBeal.
Someone bowled the biggest strike ever at that hotel and the animation is still playing
Correct me if I'm wrong but this is cited as one of the oldest memes on the Internet because people just kept fucking forwarding it to each other via email.
I moved to the North Dallas area and like, my very first trip to Dallas I saw this thing and was like “wat.”
That sign is on the way to my grandmas house and my sister and I loved the hell out of that dancing baby
I'VE HAD THIS EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE I ALMOST DROVE MY CAR OFF THE FUCKING BRIDGE ON THE WAY TO WORK
I live in that area and drive past that goddamn dancing baby three times a week....
A few users reflected on other memories of Dancing Baby signage:
There used to be a carpet store in my town that always had that playing in their sign. They've been out of business for years, but I still refer to that intersection as "the one with the carpet place that used to have the dancing baby sign"
In Anchorage Alaska there was a security place that had a digital sign near Northern Lights and New Seward Highway that would have the dancing baby gif on the OP’s post that would pop up every like 20-30 seconds, long enough you would doubt it was going to show up. We would take all our friends there to show it to them because they wouldn’t believe us
I did some cursory web-scouring but couldn’t find a ton. No Instagram photos geotagged at the Sterling Hotel in Dallas show a Dancing Baby sign. The hotel is not particularly well-liked on Yelp, but none of the 23 reviews mention a giant Dancing Baby. The 106 reviews on TripAdvisor also make no mention of the Dancing Baby.
I found a couple of tweets, one of which implied that the baby sign had disappeared at one point in 2015. It was back the next year.
I did some Street view reconnaissance just to be sure and cross-referenced it with the GIF from Tumblr, and sure enough, there it is. I was hoping to see the Baby itself, but no dice. As you can see, the hotel is right up against the John W. Carpenter Freeway, and plenty of northwest-bound drivers liekly get a good view of the baby on their commutes.
But I still didn’t have any answers. As to, like, why?? There’s a Dancing Baby billboard?
So I gritted my teeth and prepared to mildly inconvenience someone for a few seconds. I called the Sterling Hotel this evening, and a very nice worker at the front desk answered my call.
Hi, this is uuuuuhh a weird question but does the hotel have a screen on the side of it playing a GIF of a dancing baby?
[two-second pause that feels like an eternity] Yes, sir.
Okay, and, um, would you happen to know why that is?
I’m not sure, I only just started working here.
Got it. And is it playing the dancing baby 24/7?
In the times that I've looked at it, it's always been a dancing baby.
Look, I never said I was an investigative journalist. But at least I confirmed firsthand that yes, the Dancing Baby screen does exist.
The Sterling Hotel is owned by The Mian Companies, a real estate group based in Texas, solely owned by a T.M. Mian. Their website, which feels like it has not been updated since the Dancing Baby era, includes this language, rendered as a JPEG of text:
To Our Residents We are dedicated to delivering exemplary service in a quality environment. Our goal is to be the provider of choice. We understand that our customers define the standard of quality and service, and their loyalty must be earned.
Which honestly makes me even more interested in the perceived benefits and origins of the baby screen.
I called the Mian Companies main telephone number but got an answering machine. The mystery remains unsolved. But I will continue to stay on the case. This is my promise to you. If you’re from Dallas, feel free to get in touch.
uh oh here’s a tool to reverse pixelated text
the reviews on a male-male extension cable, which actually exists, are really good