Dirty Dancing: Lawsuits loom over virtual reproductions

If you grew up in the ‘90s or have trouble sleeping, you’re familiar with “The Carlton Dance,” a slightly awkward but mostly adorable little ditty made famous by Alfonso Ribeiro on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

It’s arguably one of the most well-known dances of the past 20+ years. It’s so well known, it’s instantly recognized when replicated by characters in the digital world, like NBA 2K and Fornite.

Cousin Carlton is out to get paid for someone stepping on his toes.

Ribeiro is claiming the developers of both games have “unfairly profited” from using the dance moves he made famous without getting his permission. He claims they exploited his “protected creative expression,” and he’s asking a California federal court to order the games’ developers to stop using or selling games until the moves are changed or eliminated.

The lawsuit is timely, too: Ribeiro claims to have first swung his hips and arms to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” in a Christmas episode of the hit show, first airing in December 1991.

“Twenty-seven years later, The Dance remains distinctive, immediately recognizable and inextricably linked to Ribeiro’s identity, celebrity and likeness,” the lawsuits say.

He and his lawyers didn’t have to look far for validation that the Carlton Dance was at least in part being mimicked in Fortnite: players can buy the moves under the name “Fresh.”

“Epic intentionally induces others to perform these dances and mark them with those hashtags, which give attribution to and endorse Fortnite the game, the lawsuit says. “Epic has consistently sought to exploit African-American talent, in particular in Fortnite, by copying their dances and movements and sell them through emotes.”

For what it’s worth, Riberio isn’t alone in suing Fornite: Russell Horning, better known as the Backpack Kid, is also suing the game’s developer. His mother filed the suit (because he’s too young), claiming one of the game’s emotes is a direct rip-off of the Floss.

Rapper 2 Milly is also suing the game, claiming his “Milly Rock” dance was likewise used for profit without his permission.

The plot thickens: Forbes notes that all three are represented in their separate lawsuits by the same firm, Pierce Bainbridge Beck Prince & Hecht. Hmm…

But there’s one more thing (of course): In an interview with TMZ late Tuesday, Ribeiro might have stomped on his own dancing shoes. He allegedly said that he stole his Carlton Dance moves from someone else. His attorney, David Hecht, is trying to backtrack, saying Ribeiro didn’t really mean he “stole” the dance moves but instead used the term as a joke. “In his words, it was Ribeiro’s interpretation of what a white person looks like when they dance. That describes a copyrightable choreographic work.”

Riberio said he “took” the moves after watching Courtney Cox in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video and combined it with Eddie Murphy’s “White Man Dance.”

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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