The first time I saw Alfonso Ribeiro was on Broadway. I was maybe 13 years old and so was he — we were born a couple of months apart, both of us from the Bronx. He was the lead in the Tony-winning musical The Tap Dance Kid. Anyone looking at Ribeiro would’ve said, “You know, I think that kid’s got something. He might never be on anyone’s A-list, but clearly there’s some real talent there.” What they wouldn’t have said was, “I’d bet that kid will be famous for that one dance he does.”
And yet, here we are, more than 30 years later, and when you hear the name “Alfonso Ribeiro” all you think of is this:
“It was never even intended to be funny; it was just that he was dancing,” Ribeiro revealed to Variety last week, explaining the origin of what would become known as “The Carlton Dance.” “The dance is ultimately Courteney Cox in the Bruce Springsteen video ‘Dancing in the Dark;’ that’s the basis. Or in Eddie Murphy’s [Raw], The White Man Dance as he called it. And I said, ‘That is the corniest dance on the planet that I know of, so why don’t I do that?‘”
So he did. And in so doing, obviated everything else that came before in his career. Today, no one remembers he was on Silver Spoons or knows that he directed scores of episodic TV or that he did voicework in Spider-Man or Extreme Ghostbusters. All that audiences know is The Dance. And a good part of why is because Ribeiro has been so willing to transform himself into a meme.
Here’s Ribeiro leading a Carlton Flash Mob:
Trucking it out on Dancing With the Stars:
With Will Smith on The Graham Norton Show:
All of this feels so unfortunate because the thing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air proved — aside from the fact that, yes, Will Smith was primed to be a star — was that Ribeiro was a gifted comic actor capable of much more than wheeling out this dance whenever someone asks…or offers a check. Imagine if every time we saw Mark Wahlberg, he had to get into the Calvin Klein briefs to the haunting strains of “Good Vibrations” by the Funky Bunch.
In fairness, Ribeiro has done okay for himself as a TV host on shows like GSN Live, Unwrapped 2.0 and Catch 21. It’s just sad to see someone reduced to a punchline, which is precisely what “The Carlton” is — an easy laugh, a nostalgic tickle. And more, to see Ribeiro so seemingly eager to take part. I get that a guy’s gotta get paid, and if you’ve got a thing that people want to pay for, no reason not to let them, especially in a Hollywood just as eager to dispose of people. If you’re not part of the circus, well, you’re not part of the circus.
(And to pretend there’s not an unfortunate racial element at play would be myopic: It is uncomfortable to watch Ribeiro do his one thing in front of predominately white audiences without being given the opportunity to say more than the average athlete after a game.)
I just wanted to, for a moment, remember a 13-year-old kid with seemingly boundless potential, dancing across a Broadway stage with the world ahead of him. No way he could’ve known that a dance would be both his salvation and his prison.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. All of that said, he wishes he had a namesake dance.