Matt Harding has gained a cult following for making and posting YouTube videos of himself in various exotic locales — dancing badly.
Harding ditched his job as a video game designer in 2003 to backpack around Asia. The recordings of his international jigging soon gained him Internet fame. Corporate sponsorship followed, funding more travels and new dancing videos.
In 2007, with backing from a gum company, Harding announced his intention to circle the globe again. He received more than 20,000 invitations from fans around the world to come dance with them in their hometowns. He took them up on their offers and roped others he encountered on his travels into boogieing with him as well.
The video Harding made from these travels, of communal bad dancing, went instantly viral when it was posted on YouTube at the end of June. Fueled by blog postings and e-mail forwards, the video garnered more than 3 million views its first week up.
We talk with the Internet sensation here:
So who are you besides the crazy dancing guy?
My name is Matt Harding. I live in Seattle and I used to work as a video game designer. But it's been a few years now since I've had any employment that didn't involve dancing badly.
How did the idea evolve for this latest video?
I realized my dancing isn't terribly interesting and it was getting kind of old. My favorite clips have always involved dancing with other people, so I decided to make that the focus. I just think it's usually pretty entertaining to see what people do when they're put on camera and told to act ridiculous.
You got more than 3 million views on YouTube within a week of posting this video. What is it about your video that you think resonates with people?
Well, what I'm doing is fairly universal. It's one of those things that all humans do and all humans enjoy watching. Music and dancing. Those are two big ones. Sex is a third. I left that out.
I think people are looking to be reminded that we are all the same and essentially good.
What did the planning involve to pull this off, and how long did it take you?
The video looks and feels spontaneous, but of course there was an enormous amount of work involved in creating that spontaneity.
Melissa Nixon, my girlfriend, produced the video with me. She organized the 40 or so dancing events we held around the world. I have a list of over 20,000 people who've contacted me about dancing in the video. She wrote to locals in each city I visited and worked with them to pick an ideal meeting location that people could get to easily and where we could dance without getting in trouble. She also managed the invite lists and sent out all the mass e-mails.
That system worked well for modern cities where lots of people write to me. Then there were places like Madagascar and Zambia where I don't get any e-mail. In those places, I would sometimes visit schools and make small donations in exchange for some time with the kids. Getting them to dance with me was never very hard.
And sometimes things happened that were totally unplanned. I shot the clip in Fiji in all of five minutes. I was driving along the coast and I saw a bunch of kids playing in the ocean. It felt a little weird, but I pulled over and thought "I'm going to be kicking myself for days if I don't go out and see if those kids want to be in the video." They didn't need much convincing. As soon as they saw themselves on the display screen, they were ecstatic. It's one of my favorite clips in the video.
The video took 14 months to make. I spent about half that time traveling and the other half at home, recuperating.
Who or what inspires this dance? Do you have a name for the dance?
Nope. It's just what my body does.
How did you pick your locations?
For this video, a lot of the locations were determined by where I get e-mail from. If I thought I could draw a good crowd, I went there. It was a mixture of that and my natural curiosity about places like Tonga, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea.
You've done this dancing-around-the-world shtick before, but how did the dynamic change with so many other people involved?
If it was just me dancing in front of famous monuments, it would've gotten old a long time ago. Dancing with other people is a lot more fun, and I'm able to feed off their energy. It kept me going and it kept me excited for each new event.
Any fun or interesting anecdotes from your trip?
The dance in Tokyo with the girls dressed in French maid outfits.
When I went to Japan, a local talk show invited me on and they hosted me while I was there. One of the producers took me around for a couple days. He asked if I wanted to go to something called Maidu coffee. I asked what that was. He explained that the waitresses dress up in French maid costumes and serve you coffee.
"What else do they do?" I asked.
He said they make conversation and play board games.
"What else?" I asked.
He said that was it.
I decided it was probably something we should check out, so we went. It was exactly as he said. We played a Pirates of the Caribbean board game and the loser, one of my hosts named Reijiro, had to wear kitty-cat ears as punishment.
Afterwards our maid/waitress started talking to me in English. She asked where I was from. My other host, Daisuke, said "he is a famous American dancer."
At that, the waitress covered her mouth and stepped back slowly in awe. She finally opened her mouth and screamed "YouTube!!!"
All the other waitresses came over. They all had autograph books on them. We took some pictures and then I asked if they'd be willing to dance in my video. They were very excited.
You've seen a lot of places that other people only fantasize about traveling to. What do you think you've gained or learned from all this traveling? From this recent project in particular?
I've learned a lot about what I'm capable of as a person. I tend not to worry as much as I used to, and I trust in my ability to survive whatever situation comes along.
On this particular video, I've also learned a lot about managing large groups and speaking in public. I am an expert in controlled chaos.
What did you encounter on your travels for this latest video that surprised you?
The degree to which our right to free and peaceable assembly has eroded in the U.S. You need to get permission to gather large numbers of people in any public place, and the tendency is not to give it — for a variety of reasons, and to be fair some of them are pretty understandable. Basically, liability supersedes civil liberty in the modern world.
I was stunned that we were forbidden to meet in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Department of Parks and Recreation was not interested in hearing why Jefferson's involvement in crafting the Bill of Rights made their policy ironic.
[The Washington, D.C., Department of Parks and Recreation says it is unable to grant permissions for the Jefferson Memorial because that falls within the domain of the National Park Service.]
What do you hope people come away with after watching your video?
A wildly exaggerated view of the natural joyfulness and goodwill of our species. I make humanist propaganda. I try to trick people into thinking the world is wonderful so they will act accordingly.