Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dance Like Everyone is Watching

If you're like most people, when you're in a public place you'll do almost anything not to stand out too much. You certainly wouldn't dance around crazily to music only you could hear while someone filmed you and then post that video on the internet. So I guess that makes Phil Villeneuve not like most people.

I was first exposed to the antics of Villeneuve when a friend showed me the video of him whirling and twirling to the Scissor Sisters in a No Frills grocery store. I was slightly horrified as I watched the video, the same kind of stomach-cringe I get when I watch people on American Idol or when a certain beauty pageant contestant stumbled through an answer. I'm embarrassed for them. I literally sweat watching.

But I feel there is something important about dancing and being silly and spontaneous in public. There can be a tedium to the day-in day-out rhythm of urban life that causes us to switch to autopilot. We've all seen that glazed over look as people push their shopping carts down an aisle or stare straight ahead on the subway. You feel as though you could bounce a tennis ball off their forehead and they wouldn't blink.

The reason things like flash mobs and crazy dancing people are so compelling is because of the way they play with the tedium of that urban routine. They force people to snap back into reality, because suddenly reality has become, well, surreality. This is shown best in the New York Grand Central Station freeze, where a group of people all froze at a predetermined time to the amazement of everyone else. It's hilarious to watch everyone's reaction as their boring commute is suddenly hi-jacked and turned into a Twilight Zone episode. It turned a completely forgettable act into something impossible to forget, which I'm sure is the goal of Improv Everywhere, the group that organized it.

Flash mobs, however, have become almost tedious in themselves. They all seem to have official websites and predetermined dates and times. There's the No Pants Subway Ride and the Zombie Walk, and the Pillow Fight and on and on it goes in countless cities around the world. I feel like, by reducing it to virtually one person, Villeneuve sheds all the weight built up by these mass events and gets back at the core of what it's all about--the delight of the unusual.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Villeneuve video is that everyone around him is trying so hard not to care. But it's clearly impossible to deny a grown man swinging around the pole of your subway car like a stripper. There's a few turned heads, some smirks, but mostly people are just attempting to ignore him like you would ignore that crazy man who corners you on the bus and won't stop ranting about U.S. foreign policy. He knows this too, which is why he grabs people's hats or puts his arm around them.

This is a total adaptation of city space for something other than what we've all decided is appropriate for that space. Subway cars are for commuting. Grocery stores are for buying food. Dancing is something you do when you've had that third drink and your favourite song comes on and the dance floor is just crowded enough that no one will see you jerk about. But it's good to challenge what we can do in different areas of the city and push people's comfort zones, if just for the simple fact that it keeps things interesting.

I often think about what I would do if I encountered Villeneuve dancing in my subway car or grocery store or bank. Maybe I would laugh, engage with him, and give him a twirl. But most likely I would avert my eyes and pray he picked on someone else.

Oh well. I can always watch him on YouTube.


  1. What I find particularly interesting is the presence/viewpoint of the camera. It seems that with the presence of a camera person (who any unsuspecting 'audience' member views along side the dancer) it automatically sends out the message that this dancer is a part of 'something'. That 'something' being of course a film/video shoot. The viewer (consciously or unconsciously) may give permission to Phil to do what he does because of this.

    Does this mean that they are attempting to not 'interrupt' the film shoot process by their (lack of) response? Does this mean that they do not feel 'threatened' by him because they understand his intention? Or because they understand his physical vocabulary as something that is known as 'dancing'? What would happen if the camera (wo)man was not present? What would happen if the movements he did were not easily recognized as 'dance'? How would others feel about Phil? How would Phil feel?

    The public cannot hear the music that Phil hears (that he and we as youtube viewers hear) to put his movements into context but they still understand what he is doing.

    They also perform along side him. They perform the roles which the social codes of these particular places have become embedded with. They are masterful actors supporting him by pretending to look or not look, pretending to be busy, moving in the paths they have learned to move in, at the pace which is appropriate, pretending to be shocked, angry, annoyed or amused.

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