Flash mobs—the convening of a group of people for a random-yet-organized activity—have manifested in different ways since their strange origins as a writer’s social experiment in 2003, in which the writer invited people to simply gathered at a certain location and time. Since then, the social phenomenon has included everything from pillow fights to synchronized cell phone shouting. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2004 definition of “flash mob” included the definition of those “who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.”
But what happens when the activity isn’t pointless, but rather artistic? Dance flash mobs, a sub-phenomenon now a couple of years old, are gathering steam. Both social organizers and dance institutions are exploring the opportunity to harness the thrilling spontaneity of dance as a means to charm and interest the public. Essentially, a dance flash mob is a group of people gathering at an open space who suddenly break into a choreographed dance routine usually to the delight of an unsuspecting audience. As part of Dance/MetroDC’s Dance is the Answer, a festival celebrating dance and movement in the nation’s capital, seven different dance flash mobs performed 13 times throughout the city and its environs this past April and May. We recently spoke to Peter DiMuro, director of Dance/MetroDC, about incorporating flash mobs into the 2010 festival.
NEA: How was turnout for the flash mobs at the Dance is the Answer festival?
PETER DIMURO: It was different for each one of them. The question we tackled [with the flash mobs] was, how can we make these different for DC? Because DC’s such a different animal, with such a national and international character. For example, nobody’s ever tried to do seven or eight of these at the same time. So we tried something of a pyramid scheme, if you will. Each of the dances had two choreographers, and four “lieutenants” in charge of teaching students, and getting the [choreography] videos online. And then students would learn them online and/or in the rehearsal studio. And then they would begin teaching them on their own.
“Mamma Mia” had the biggest attendance, with 65-85 people a class. Their dance online was getting about 3,000 hits in a week on their flash mob page. People would go there because of a spike of advertising from other web pages. [Bowen McCauley Dance and DC Cowboys] embedded the video on their own website—their followers got so excited because of the thrill, and this company reaped the benefits.
NEA: How did you first get interested in the idea of dance flash mobs?
DIMURO: Watching the Brussels train station—the “Doe, a Deer” was the first one I saw—and it got me very excited. The London train station. The Oprah one, a lot of people in Grant Park—it was very moving.
Another one I saw was one somebody sent me—of an opera from an Italian flash mob. They were in a regular meat market during their weekend shopping. There were all these little old ladies and men with satchels. People are all of a sudden singing arias across this food market. This surreal thing that happened was that people didn’t know how to take this, but got sucked into the drama. The scene ends after a quartet of love songs and a waltz. People started grabbing these little old ladies and men and waltzing with them. It became about engaging with people in the moment.
NEA: There must be quite a range of people who come to do these flash mobs. Any memorable moments from the month?
DIMURO: At Dupont Circle there were 200 people in the mob dancing, and at Ballston Mall as well. There are videos up now; people started to upload them themselves. I got thrilled because of both the participants and watchers. During the “Jump in a Line” and “Help” ones at Busboys and Poets, this woman in her 50s and her husband came up to me. They were cloggers from Virginia. She and her friend had learned [the choreography] online and drove all the way up to participate. Sure enough, as the dance started, the women got up, but by the end, their husbands had gotten up and were shuffling along too. Apparently they had learned it online as well, but were too embarrassed to mention it. And they were just traditional middle-class looking folks having driven from way out there just for this event.
At the event run by DC Cowboys and Bowen McCauley in Dupont, there was a 94-year-old lady in a wheelchair, Margarita, who asked to be wheeled to the event. By hook or by crook she wanted to see it.
NEA: What do you think about this seeming juxtaposition of people getting more isolated because of the Internet, and yet this wonderful activity that’s possible only because of mobile connectivity?
DIMURO: Well, I was recently reading an article about kids who are getting more isolated because of texting and tweeting. If you pull back and look at different times—when people played cops and robbers with sticks and stones, or Legos, whatever medium—they still learn social skills.The medium changes, but there’s something about including a task that’s other than just meeting somebody, something about engaging in another activity, the making of art, learning a dance, experiencing art in a safer place. If I can get the person to go to the event live, then that’s great. Or to have the person join, that would be awesome. Everybody has some portal experience; they go into it wherever they’re comfortable. They may not go to [live] East Indian dance by themselves, but they will go online.
NEA: Any exciting events planned in the future for Dance is the Answer?
DIMURO: We’re planning something even more Washington-centric, a confluence of national and grassroots efforts around the power of group movement...and that inspiration might come from the great convenings on the Mall--like the Million Man March, and gatherings of all kinds.
There’s an intersection of dance/movement with some social awareness. There was a “Dance of Change” during Obama’s transition movement. Somebody was yelling out “Change!” and the dancers would make a quarter turn. It’s non-didactic, but aware of the moment. Our “Going to the Chapel” dance doesn’t mean we’re for or against gay marriage, just acknowledgment that it’s happening. It creates a message that’s thought-provoking.