Any kid of the ‘90s who sees Alfonso Ribeiro (aka Carlton Banks) immediately flashes back to his signature “Carlton” dance from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, named after his ridiculous dance moves. But have you ever wondered: were the dance moves outlined in the script? Did he improvise? What possessed Ribeiro to flail his arms and legs in such a way, with a goofy, ear-to-ear, teeth-baring grin, that he would actually be credited with naming a dance?
In an article that appeared in the August issue of Variety magazine, Ribeiro reveals his surprising secret. It actually ties back to another actor on a popular sitcom from around the same era. Courtney Cox is best known for her role as the similarly uptight Monica on Friends. But years earlier, she caught her big break as the cute, dancing girl in the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. Anyone over 30 remembers the scene, in which Cox is pulled from the audience on stage to dance with The Boss.
But if we really study the dance — break it down to its core, if you will, it looks oddly familiar to what is now known as The Carlton. Yes, add a bit of pizzazz, move the hips a bit more animatedly, and you have The Carlton!
Indeed, Ribeiro revealed to Variety that Cox and Springsteen’s moves were the basis for his signature dance. Though, he adds, he was also inspired by Eddie Murphy’s Delirious comedy special, and “The White Man Dance” the comedian demonstrates during the performance. Ribeiro called it “the corniest dance on the planet” that he knew of at the time, so he ran with it, with added hip thrust and additional gusto, of course. And, he admits, he hadn’t initially even intended for it to be all that funny — this was just how he envisioned Carlton might dance.
Ribeiro says he is as far as you can get from the Carlton character in real-life who most often would lay down his moves to Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual. Ribeiro says at the time, he had no idea who the singer was, much less how one might dance to his music. “I grew up in the Bronx,” he says. “I was a hip-hop kid.” Ribeiro was in good company in this sense, of course, starring alongside another hip-hop kid on the show in Will Smith.
So what did the script actually say? Simply “Carlton dances.” Ribeiro managed to turn those two simple words into a character move that has followed him for decades. Indeed, when the actor appeared on the last season of Dancing With the Stars (which he won, by the way), riots may have broken out had he not performed his signature dance, which was incorporated into one of his routines.
Ribeiro is getting back into the spotlight these days for more than just dancing: he is currently working as the host of Cooking Channel show Unwrapped 2.0, and this fall, he’ll take over from Tom Bergeron as the new host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. (For the kids of today, that’s essentially YouTube before the Internet.)
So next time you break out the Carlton at a party (that’s a thing, right?), you’ll do so knowing its roots.