July 8, 2008
A Private Dance? Four Million Web Fans Say No
By CHARLES McGRATH
There are no weekend box office charts for online videos. But if there were, near or at the very top of the list right now might well be a four-and-a-half-minute video called “Dancing,” which more than four million people have viewed on YouTube, and perhaps another million on other sites, in the just over two weeks since it appeared. It’s the online equivalent of a platinum hit, seeping from one computer to the next like a virus.
The title is not misleading. “Dancing” shows a guy dancing: a big, doughy-looking fellow in shorts and hiking boots performing an arm-swinging, knee-pumping step that could charitably be called goofy. It’s the kind of semi-ironic dance that boys do by themselves at junior high mixers when they’re too embarrassed to partner with actual girls.
The dancer is Matt Harding, the 31-year-old creator of the video, and with some New Agey-sounding music playing in the background, he turns up, grinning and bouncing, in 69 different locations, including India, Kuwait, Bhutan, Tonga, Timbuktu and the Nellis Airspace in Nevada, where he performs the dance in zero gravity.
He started doing it at work, years ago, when he was living in Brisbane, Australia. “I’d dance at lunchtime or during an awkward pause or just to annoy people,” Mr. Harding said. “It was sort of a nervous tic.”
Now he’s on the streets in Mumbai one minute, balanced on the Giant’s Causeway rock formation in Northern Ireland the next, and then he’s in a tulip field in the Netherlands or in front of a geyser in Iceland. Sometimes Mr. Harding dances alone. On a Christmas Island beach he has an audience of crabs, and on Madagascar he performs for lemurs.
But more often — and this accounts for much of the video’s appeal — he’s in the company of others: South African street children in Soweto, bushmen in New Guinea, Bollywood-style dancers in India, some oddly costumed waitresses in Tokyo, crowds of free spirits in Paris, Madrid and rainy Montreal, all copying, or trying to, his flailing chicken-step. Mr. Harding even dances for a lone military policeman (unmoved to join him) in the Korean demilitarized zone.
In many ways “Dancing” is an almost perfect piece of Internet art: it’s short, pleasingly weird and so minimal in its content that it’s open to a multitude of interpretations. It could be a little commercial for one-world feel-goodism. It could be an allegory of American foreign policy: a bumptious foreigner turning up all over the world and answering just to his own inner music. Or it could be about nothing at all — just a guy dancing.
However you interpret it, you can’t watch “Dancing” for very long without feeling a little happier. The music (by Gary Schyman, a friend of Mr. Harding’s, and set to a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, sung in Bengali by Palbasha Siddique, a 17-year-old native of Bangladesh now living in Minneapolis) is both catchy and haunting. The backgrounds are often quite beautiful. And there is something sweetly touching and uplifting about the spectacle of all these different nationalities, people of almost every age and color, dancing along with an uninhibited doofus.
Children, not surprisingly, turn out to be the best at picking up on Mr. Harding’s infectious vibe. There’s frequently a grown-up, on the other hand — especially one in the front row of a crowd — who tends to ham it up and make a fool of himself.
The other remarkable thing about the “Dancing” phenomenon is that it is, to a very considerable extent, a creation of the Internet. It doesn’t just live, so to speak, on the Web; it was the Web that, more or less accidentally, brought it into being. The current video is actually the third iteration of a project that began in 2003, when a friend, using a Canon pocket camera with the capacity to record brief videos (when it was still something of a novelty), shot Mr. Harding doing his dance in Hanoi.
It was the equivalent of taking a photograph as a souvenir, Mr. Harding said in a phone conversation recently while driving with his girlfriend in Northern California. Mr. Harding, who grew up in Westport, Conn., skipped college at the suggestion of his father, who didn’t see the point of paying tuition for someone he thought was unmotivated. He has been employed in a video game store and as a designer of video games, but prefers just to travel. “It’s one thing I’m really good at,” he said.
He collected all the dancing shots from that first trip in 2003, edited them into a little video with a soundtrack from an adaptation of a traditional song from the Solomon Islands, performed by the group Deep Forest, and, at his sister’s suggestion, posted it on his Web site, wherethehellismatt.com. (No reference intended to the “Today” show feature “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” “I’m almost never up that early,” Mr. Harding said.)
The video went up in the fall of 2004, before YouTube or the other big video upload sites, but even so it quickly became a hit among the people trolling the Internet back then. “It got picked up by somethingawful.com and sites like that,” Mr. Harding recalled. “Usually, what they showed was people getting hurt or doing something really stupid, so I was bracing myself for abuse, but everyone seemed to like it.”
So did the newly formed Stride chewing gum company, which offered to underwrite Mr. Harding’s subsequent travels, virtually no strings attached. (In the 2006 version the Stride name pops up in the corner of the screen every now and then, and, in the newest video, the company is acknowledged at the very end, but amazingly, in this era of shameless commercial tie-ins, Mr. Harding is not obliged to wear a Stride T-shirt or deliver a little pitch for the product. Exactly what connection the company sees between gum and a guy dancing, but not chewing, remains a bit of a mystery.)
In 2005 Mr. Harding released a second video much like the first — exotic locations, guy dancing, New Agey music — except with better sound and camera resolution, and in 2006 he went back to Stride and asked if he could repeat the venture, this time with other people dancing along with him.
The idea first came to him in 2006, he recalled, when he was dancing with some street kids in Rwanda. “If I had tried dancing with kids in a mall in San Francisco, say, I probably would have got arrested,” he said. “But in Africa there aren’t any barriers, and there’s immediate access to this kind of joy and irreverence.”
He added: “Those first videos were something I needed to do for me, but I realized then that watching me dance was getting a little old. The new video pushes a different button — you’ve got all these different people doing the same thing. I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if you could capture that?’ ”
The new video has better photography still and a score, called “Praan,” that Mr. Schyman orchestrated for a 25-piece band. For the lyrics, he and Mr. Harding decided to stick with a language other than English (because it’s less of a cliché, Mr. Harding said) — but how do you find someone who can sing Bengali? On the Internet, of course. Mr. Harding’s girlfriend, Melissa Nixon, who works for Google, discovered Ms. Siddique on YouTube.
Mr. Harding is aware that fame on the Internet is fleeting, and needs novelty for life support. On the one hand, data is never lost — it’s floating out there in cyberspace forever — but, on the other, our memories (and those of our computers) are limited and subject to constant upgrades. A video is downloaded, sent to a friend or two and then quickly forgotten. Who anymore goes back to look at that animated dancing baby that was all the rage in the ’90s? So Mr. Harding isn’t certain yet whether he wants to make a sequel.
“I wouldn’t want to make another video unless there was something to say that I hadn’t said,” he explained. “I’m going to see if there’s something more to be done, but if not, I’m happy with what there is. I don’t want to pop the bubble.”