Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

When the world is your dance teacher

In 2005, Matt Harding posted a video on the internet. It’s a compilation of clips of him dancing – badly – in locations around the world. It was his video postcard of an extended walkabout, a vacation that began in 2003 when he quit his job and started following his Aussie friends on their global peregrinations. It was colorful, charming and became very popular very quickly.

A second video followed in 2006 and it was, in the best possible way, more of the same. In beautiful and remote parts of the globe, Matt dances like an idiot, occasionally watched by bewildered onlookers. The first two share the same musical DNA – the first is set to Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, and the second to a remixed track built around “Rorogwela”, the Solomons Island lullaby Deep Forest (illegally) sampled for their hit track. The 2006 video was even more popular and landed Matt a sponsorship from Stride Gum, which allowed him to continue his global travels.

Something very interesting happened to Harding between his video in 2006 and his subsequent one in 2008. We see the change about 50 seconds into his third video. It begins as the others have, with Matt dancing alone in front of scenery that is beautiful, stark or strange. And then the frame fills mobs of people who join him, also dancing like idiots. Matt goes from dancing around the world from dancing with the world.


Where the Hell is Matt, 2008

I’ve met Matt a few times, but I don’t know him well enough to make a broad, sweeping statement about his evolution as a human being. Still, I’m going to argue that sometime between 2006 and 2008, he grew up. In the 2005 and 2006 videos, he’s travelling around the world to places he’d always wanted to see, asking his traveling companions or bystanders to hold the camera. For the 2008 video, he’s travelling with Melissa Nixon, his girlfriend (now partner/wife/coparent), and they’re very consciously making a viral video. Reading Matt’s book about the experience, he and Melissa argued about the significance and ethics of the project throughout, making the decision to start inviting people from the background into the frame, and finding ways to appropriately thank people for being part of the video.

One of the ways Matt took on responsibility in the 2008 video is in how he constructed the soundtrack. The first two videos used an unlicensed – and very controversial – piece of music as their background. For the 2008 video, he commissioned an original piece of music, “Praan”, using the text from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Stream of Life. More impressively to me, he took on the controversy over Deep Forest’s use of a Solomon Islands lullaby and took on a set of trips and investigations to find the descendents of Afunakwa, the woman who sang the original song. I’ve written about Harding’s quest here, providing some context for his search for Afunakwa’s family, and I was deeply thrilled to see his post last year that he’d located Afunakwa’s descendents and set up a fund that will make it possible for them to go to school, thanks to Matt’s largesse.

I heard Matt speak at TED in 2009, and it was clear that something still wasn’t quite working for him with the dancing videos. Performing a goofy dance in front of people who’ve got rich and sophisticated dance traditions is a bit like backpacking around the world while eating only McDonalds. At TED, Matt told us that his next video would feature dances from around the world, and he proceeded to try and teach us the short snippet of Indian dance that graces the third video. It didn’t work very well – the TED crowd was insufficiently graceful or silly to pull the moment off – and I found myself wondering whether Matt’s effort to turn a silly project into a genuine attempt at connection would fall short.

It didn’t. Matt’s fourth video was released today, and it’s beautiful.

It starts with Matt taking dancing lessons: in the streets of Kigali and Seville, in a ballet studio in Syria and a gym in Pennsylvania, in a marble hall in Pyongyang. As the music builds, Matt is dancing, with professionals and amateurs, performing gestures that are a mix of local traditions and global styles. The crowds get larger, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of dancers reach out from one side of the frame from one corner of the world, to a group of dancers, apparently responding, in another corner. It’s a little like Kultiman’s beautiful THRU YOU, but this time the participants know they’re part of the larger whole, here to dance with Matt and to dance with the rest of the world.

Matt’s first two videos made me smile – his next two have made me smile and made me weep. The moments that get me are small ones, like the cut, in his 2008 video, between dancing with a happy group in Israel and a small group of children in Palestine. This time, he dances with four beautiful women in a Damascus ballet studio. Their faces are blurred out, for their safety, a gesture that’s both practical and deeply poetic. Matt dances with a regally poised woman in Pyongyang, surrounded by a crowd of men in sharp suits and women in elegant gowns. The video doesn’t engage in the awkward, empty shots of North Korea that portray the nation as a vast Potemkin village – it takes the radical step of showing North Koreans as fellow humans, smiling and laughing at Matt’s awkward pass de deux.

He still dances badly, but now Matt’s got the world as a dance teacher.

I used Matt’s story as a way to close a talk I gave at ROFLCon in 2010, urging the audience to find ways to use the internet to connect with other corners of the world, not simply to laugh at them. There’s nothing inherent in the internet that guarantees that we will use it to connect with people from other languages, cultures and nations. But there’s no doubt the internet makes it easier to connect for those who choose to do so. Matt and Melissa’s latest work is tribute to the power of the internet to widen, not narrow, our world if we’re willing to jump into the frame and dance.


A quick postscript: I know there are valid critiques of Matt’s project, based on the carbon footprint impact of flying around the world to dance with people; about the economic, class and racial privilege that let him make a fool out of himself in the first videos, and allows him to amplify other people’s cultures in this video. And you could certainly point out that Matt’s art is now his business, and that corporate sponsors have made it possible for this video to take place. My guess is that Matt would own up to much of that criticism. But I should also point out that he’s using the video as a fundraiser for seven of the organizations who helped him dance, in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq, Haiti, Thailand, Syria, and with a truly special dance company in Oakland, California. If you found the videos moving, please consider supporting those organizations.

12 Responses to “When the world is your dance teacher”

  1. Ann says:

    I’ve watched Matt’s videos since the beginning as well, and had the same reactions watching his latest…but you so perfectly voiced all of my feelings! I look forward to finding you on different avenues of SM – for the title of your blog is exactly what I say about once a month!
    Thank you again for so aptly honoring Matt, his journey, and how he has affected and inspired all of us.

  2. Momof3 says:

    Thank you for this. You’ve expressed what I felt but couldn’t put into words.

    Our family was so thrilled when Matt put that one snippet in the 2008 video, actually dancing something he’d LEARNED from the Indian dancers. It was our favorite moment. You’re so right…his maturation has been noticeable, and a wonderful thing to witness.

  3. really well written. and so thoughtful. that energy you cannot bottle. and although the eco of flying around maybe highlighted in your post i agree that the message in this instance is something that has the power to create change and if it brings awareness to charity all the better.

  4. gail says:

    This was an incredible adventure of joy!! Thank you so much!!!! I cried through the first one, so you can imagine what effect the next ad on me. I seldom use the overused word ‘AMAZING”; now I have found a good place to use it. Thanks Matt and thank you Erin for sending it to me. What a good daughter to mother gift.

  5. gregorylent says:

    whatever it takes to create the consciousness of our global unity, we have to support …

    continue on, please … all of us

  6. Renee says:

    Thank you!! I watched them in the order presented with my daughter. We,too laughed at the first two and smiled through tears for the last tow. So utterly moving to see the transformation! Reminded of Martin Buber’s ‘I and Thou,’ that we witness the divine when we transcend and connect with each other. This demonstrates that in spades! Tonight I will watch this again before going to sleep and enjoy being moved to tears. Thank you Ethan!

  7. Liette Desjardins says:

    Thank you for giving such an insightful view of Matt’s inner and world travel. Internet can make people feel good by reconnecting us to our human soul. Right now, in our house, we are battling cancer and I know that Internet helped us be inform and made us feel good. We are all connected and this time, my heart goes out specially to the segment in Syria.

  8. Ali says:

    This is . . . exactly how I’ve felt about the ’08 and ’12 videos. I’m not saying the previous ones were in any way bad, but those two just touch me so deeply. We are part of a greater world, and those two videos work so well at pointing it out, and that we aren’t so much enemies, but we’re all humans. We’re all connected, and if we could just stop and look around, with new eyes, we’d see so much more.

  9. Great explaination of why Matt’s last video is so much more engaging. Even though I’ve never “danced with Matt”, I’m in this video.
    -Anonther Seattle fan

  10. Jamie Abel says:

    Matt has yet to disappoint me, through all of his videos and appearances. Criticism? Why? Is joy such a horrible thing to have in the world?

  11. Sandi Bird says:

    Beautifully expressed! I linked to your article from Matt’s website and I’m glad I did. I smile each time I watch one of his videos. I don’t care that he now has sponsors…or that his first couple trips were for his own benefit of traveling to places he wanted to visit. I love his ability to act goofy, dance badly and bring joy to those around him. As a global traveler myself, I become excited whenever I see people bridging cultural gaps — people who “connect with other corners of the world, not simply to laugh at them.” Thanks for your article, Mr. Zuckerman!

  12. Jamie Rhein says:

    I was happy to hear you got weepy as well while watching this 2012 rendition of Where the Hell is Matt. Something about it makes the world seem like a miracle.

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