Flash mobs, the internet, and common ground


TXT4LIFE’s flash mob in September in Canal Park in Duluth, MN. Photo: TXT4LIFE.org

Last spring, my cousin’s wife came to DC (where I lived at the time) for a conference. Meghann works for a Minnesota-based non-profit called TXT4LIFE, which promotes suicide prevention and awareness. While she was in town, she and her co-workers mentioned that they  wanted to stage a flash mob in Canal Park in Duluth, MN. Shortly after our initial discussion, Meghann asked if I’d be willing to create something for TXT4LIFE to Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

In August, I created the choreography, and made a series of teaching videos Meghann could put on YouTube and send to the participants. This would be the way they would learn the choreography so they could show up to Canal Park on a Saturday in September and perform the dance.

I’d made two other teaching videos like this before. One was for a flash mob for a surprise birthday party, and one was for a flash mob for my friends’ wedding reception. The videos all have similar teaching structures that feature a couple of versions of the choreography: I perform the dance, I perform the dance facing the back so participants can easily follow along, and I break down the choreography in detail. I usually film myself dancing and teaching in my apartment on a FlipCam.

Using YouTube or Vimeo to teach flash mob choreography is a pretty common practice nowadays. I love that dance can be transmitted this way, and that individuals can learn choreography on their own that they then share with others in the final performance. For me, it is also a way of dance crossing boundaries. Flash mobs often recruit people who are not dancers in their day-to-day life, but have some investment in the cause (i.e: a flashmob to raise awareness of an issue), or the event (i.e. a friend’s wedding). Although flash mobs take the form of dance, the dance itself is almost secondary to the act of organizing around a topic in a public space.


Joey, Lauryn, the wedding party, friends and family perform at their wedding reception

It’s why, when I met with the wedding party and guests at Joey and Lauryn’s wedding, their friends, most of whom have not taken a dance class before, came to our one rehearsal knowing their choreography in detail. They came with specific questions about the material and complete investment in the task. Because they love their friends and wanted to be part of something that celebrates them, and in this case, that thing was a dance.

As worried as I get that dance is limited to certain populations, and as passionate as I am about creating opportunities for people to access dance, it is very much part of our culture today: flash mobs, So You Think You Can Dance, viral dance crazes, etc: they all get people dancing in a very public way, and get people excited to be involved in something larger happening within culture.

I had a conversation recently with someone about the lack of shared cultural touchstones in America today. There are more TV channels, a thousand memes, a million videos to check out on Facebook. With few shared reference points…maybe dance can be that common cultural ground.

Joey and Lauryn’s wedding flash mob in May:

The TXT4LIFE flash mob in September:


One comment

  1. Ok, this is going to SOUND like a joke, but it’s not, please stay with me.

    The immediate thing I thought of was Colbert’s “Get Lucky” dance montage. Premise: Daft Punk bowed out of performing on his show and the show rapidly put together a dance montage featuring the Rockettes, Bryan Cranston, Henry Kissenger, etc. Who knows if the narrative checks out – I don’t think that’s the most important thing, and I don’t even think the DANCE is the most important thing (but then I kind of do, I’ll get to that in a second).

    People, I think, got super into it because of a few reasons:

    1. The slap-dash-haphazardly-put-together nature of it.
    2. The willingness of “serious” people to be part of a “silly” dance, and their enthusiasm about that.
    3. People clearly having a good time.

    Even though “if it bleeds it leads” rings true in the media, why are we so enamoured with people having fun and being silly? Take the security-camera-catches-good-deeds viral video. We love feeling great! And while I agree that “the dance itself is almost secondary to the act” I think the fact that it is dance (and not, say, dozens of people reading “The Wasteland” in unison*) means something. It’s non-verbal, so everyone has a way in no matter what language they speak, or if they are 2 or 22 or 102. The movement is an easy way in for participants and viewers.

    The other part – linking back to #1 above – in both the things you made, the real-time nature of it was a big part of the effect. It wasn’t a video of people dancing at the wedding – it was actually happening! And there’s also that little part of live performance where we all realize anything could happen – it could go perfectly, but probably won’t, and that’s part of the charm and makes it more “real.”

    *Although, you know, this could happen. You’re the one in graduate school, I’m sure you could create something great. I’m just saying if you do, give a girl some credit here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s