"I don't think any dance has hit like Rasputin," Carl Harris tells me over a Zoom call. "Rasputin is the OG."
I'm chatting with Carl, his sister Natassia, and their cousin Walter Poole about Just Dance 2 and its difficult Rasputin routine, which made the trio a viral sensation when they nailed it in a 2010 YouTube video. 'Rasputin' is a 1978 disco hit by Boney M. that mixes traditional disco sounds with a three-stringed Russian balalaika for a fast-paced, cross-genre audio delight – it is, as the kids say, a bop. It's featured in several titles in the Just Dance series, and is famous in the JD community for its blood-pumping choreography that's absolute murder on the meniscus.
Eleven years after Just Dance 2 made the dance routine notorious amongst community members, the choreography is taking over TikTok. Now, over 2.3 million videos have used the song as background audio on the popular social media platform. That success has sparked a debate between Rasputin Just Dance purists and those who have created a newer, much more toned-down dance. It's unclear what kicked off the return to Rasputin – videos using the audio date back to the spring of 2020 – but it's infinitely clear that completing the Just Dance 2 challenge has yet again forged a path to social media fame. It's a bizarre reminder that nothing on the internet ever dies, and that our shared cultural memories offer unlimited opportunities for virality.
I spoke to Just Dance's creative director, Matthew Tomkinson, the aforementioned Rasputin dance trio, and a handful of TikTokers who have shown off their ability to remember the choreography so many years after its in-game debut to better understand this Rasputin resurgence.
The Rasputin Routine
First, it's imperative to figure out how a '70s West German disco hit ended up on the playlist for Just Dance 2. After the runaway success of the first Just Dance, Ubisoft was trying to figure out the perfect formula for featuring songs in the sequel. "We looked at music of the time, for example The Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears," explains Tomkinson, reflecting on internal conversations from 2010. "But we felt that it was also great to have more classic music from the '70s that were great to dance to. We also realized that we wanted to have the coaches that tell you the moves to be characters."
The decision to have virtual dance coaches represented as in-game characters resulted in the iconic Rasputin coach: the figure has a bushy beard, wears a wool Papakha cap and is clearly created in Grigori Rasputin's image. "There is something unique with Rasputin – it has a very strong universe and a strong character," Tomkinson points out. "Even the name of the song is a character. If we look at the character design now, which is very simple, it's still very iconic. It fits super well with the Russian background and the music and the choreo. That's the reason that this song was so important for Just Dance."
But its magic lies not only in the archetypical coach or catchiness of the song itself, which recasts the historical holy man as a "cat who really was gone" – Rasputin is the stuff of Just Dance legend because of its famously tasking choreography. While the moves themselves aren't as technical as the floor work required for Dua Lipa's 'New Rules', the effort you'll need to complete the routine is akin to a high intensity Peloton workout.
"The thing with Rasputin is that, for most of the choreo, it's okay, but you have one part where you are on the ground, with your hips very low, and you have to do all the moves in the Russian way… It's not that difficult, but it's super physical," Tomkinson explains. And so when Just Dance 2 released, players around the world were determined to not only learn the choreography, but master it. Whether that meant expertly pulling off the kind of kicks that would absolutely blow out both of your knees or doing the entire performance without looking at the coach, the Internet fell in love with Rasputin.
It was 5am on that fateful day when Carl, Natassia, and Walter decided to tackle the Rasputin choreo, which boasts the highest Effort and Difficulty levels possible in Just Dance 2. The YouTube video begins with them standing in what they later tell me is their grandma's living room, with Carl and Walter in the foreground and a handful of family members lounging on the couch behind them. "We're about to try Rasputin," Carl says. "We're about to do Rasputin," Walter corrects him as Natassia queues up the in-game track. It was only their third time attempting the choreography, but all three have extensive dance backgrounds, so they caught on fast.
"We knew we couldn't do it too much before recording," Carl explains. "It's not the hardest choreography-wise, but exercise, energy-wise, it's at the top." That's because Rasputin pulls from traditional Russian dance moves like the squat dance and the Kazotsky Kick, which appear in the Barynya, Leto, Kalinko, and other Russian fast dances. Picture the stereotypical moves you think of when you hear the words "Russian Dance" – deep squats coupled with exuberant kicks, crossed arms, and a helluva lot of jumping.
Despite the routine being a cardio nightmare, Carl, Natassia, and Walter absolutely slay it. When someone took their video and posted it side-by-side with the Just Dance 2 coach it became an instant viral hit, with over 15 million views to date. It wasn't long before Ubisoft became aware of the squad. "It was really the first time we saw players doing very impressive dance moves on Just Dance," Tomkinson tells me. Ubisoft invited Carl and Natassia to E3, and later, the two choreographed a new routine for 'We No Speak No Americano' in Just Dance 4.
After they became internet icons, the trio returned to their somewhat regular lives – Walter is a student, while Carl and Natassia are both choreographers who frequently post dance TikToks on their respective pages. Then, the ten-year old trend resurfaced, and two-thirds of the iconic trio were summoned to strut their stuff yet again.
Rasputin gets TikToked
##ColorCustomizer where’s the lie tho?♬ Rasputin (7" Version) - Boney M.
This January, a TikTok user commented on one of Carl's videos, writing "I see Rasputin is trending. You guys should jump on that! You can outdance them all!" So, Carl and Natassia jumped on it. "Ten years ago, we went viral on YouTube for doing Just Dance Rasputin, and it's trending on TikTok right now," Carl says, grinning into the camera at the beginning of the video. To no one's surprise, the two nail it yet again, performing a joyful Rasputin routine in front of a TV playing their ten-year-old viral video in a Just Dance version of Inception.
And while Carl, Natassia, and Walter can certainly be credited with being the first/most iconic dance group to go viral for performing Just Dance 2's Rasputin, they now share the stage with a bevy of TikTokers who have hopped on the recycled trend. It's nearly impossible to discover the meme's origins on TikTok, as the audio can't be traced back to one specific viral video. It appears to have gradually re-ascended the ladder of cultural consciousness – on November 21, 2021 popular TikTok user Caleb Brown posted a video of himself dancing to Rasputin in a cut-off tank top, workout shorts, and cowboy boots. It got 3.6 million views, so I reached out to ask him what prompted the use of the audio, hoping it was Just Dance. "Someone just recommended the song and I liked it," he tells me on Instagram messenger. A dead end.
Knees game strong 😂💪🏾 #basementchronicles @nathanieljames1 @nickk_mcdonald♬ Rasputin (7" Version) - Boney M.
The Basement Gang, a famous dancing trio who dances in – you guessed it – a basement, posted a video of them goofing around to the song a few days before Brown, but didn't respond to my emails requesting an interview. Then came the barrage of videos featuring people dancing to Rasputin in a manner that can only be described as thirst trap adjacent - think undulating musculature and bedroom eyes. That's when a clear line was drawn in the internet sand between Rasputin purists and those who choose to ignore the Just Dance routine.
On January 23 of this year, droog_ (aka Paige) posted a TikTok comparing the two dances. "Once the song started trending on TikTok with a different dance, I couldn't help but see the Just Dance moves instead," she tells me over Instagram messenger. "I even did the trendy TikTok Rasputin dance, and then one of my friends commented on it and said I should do the Just Dance version, too." The comparison video has 5.6 million views at the time of publication.
While the source of the Rasputin Resurgence is unknown, what we do know is this: a Just Dance 2 routine from nearly eleven years ago has gone viral yet again amongst an entirely new generation of gamers and social media users. It serves as a reminder of the unique social milieu in which Just Dance exists - there's an incredibly passionate community of gamers who enjoy gassing each other up for completing difficult dances, but gameplay videos can and often do explode onto social media outlets, reaching the eyes of millions of people who exist beyond the confines of the community.
There are very few video games whose gameplay videos have such widespread cultural appeal, and that is precisely why we've arrived at a time where Gen Z-ers are learning a Just Dance routine that millennials were mastering in high school. The Rasputin videos are so popular not only because they're kinetic and full of joy (Carl, Natassia, and Walter embody that), but because they remind us that we can all learn how to do a traditional Russian fast dance if we just get up and give it a go – especially when our coach is an avatar of Grigori Rasputin himself. To that I say, ra ra, let's get dancing.