Friday, June 29, 2012

My Flash Mob Story

Okay, I’m just going to admit that it’s been way too long since I updated here.

Subsequently, if you come back here from time to time, you will now be subjected to a story that I have quite literally never told anyone:

The Time I Was In a Flash Mob

Now, there’s a bit of backstory here, so hold on for a moment.

First, the term Flash Mob didn’t exist when I did this, which might explain why I sort of mentally filed it away and forgot about it (there’s another reason, but I’ll come to it at the end).  The world of YouTube and cheap digital cameras has made it easy to capture and upload these types of things for the world to see.

But this was back in, I’m going to say, 1992.  If my research is accurate, the name Flash Mob didn’t exist until 2003.  And if anyone had videotaped the one I was in, trying to get anyone a copy would have required multiple VCRs and a lot of free time and postage expenses. 

It was a one-shot deal, it was over in two minutes, and then I totally forgot about it.

Here’s how it happened (more backstory, folks!).

Starting in the summer after eighth grade, I began attending a music camp every year.  I would pack up, my family and I would drive to the campus it was held on, they’d drop me off on a Sunday and then come back and get me on a Saturday.

The upshot was, when they came back, they got to see me perform in whatever I’d signed up for.

The rule was, you had to be in at least one large group (choir, band or orchestra) and then you could either take classes or sign up to be in another, smaller group.  I usually did the latter, with Musical Theater being my additional choice.

I just realized, about five minutes ago, that this meant I memorized anywhere from 30-40 minutes of music, plus some dance steps, in five days every year for four years.  I suddenly find the performers on American Idol a lot less impressive.


I passed on musical theater one year so I could take some extra classes.  In particular, 20th Century Music, Commercial Composition, and Choral Choreography.

I took the last class because I was, at that juncture, preparing myself to be a music teacher.  I figured as long as I was there, I might as well learn something that could help me in my future career.  Good gravy, I’m a boring dude.

So, I took the class.  Much of it was about ideas.  Ways to make another concert by a bunch of high school kids more exciting, either through basic choreography, costumes, or staging.  We did some of each. 

And in the middle of it all, we did some dancing.

The man leading the class was, in my estimation, a brilliant dude who had clearly been teaching for a long time and who had a ton of ideas to fall back on.  One of his suggestions was choosing a popular song, locating the music video for that song, and stealing the choreography of the video for your presentation.

Well, he probably said borrowing, but there you go.

In this case, he had selected the Janet Jackson song Rhythm Nation.

By that time, the album was a couple of years old, but it was one of those releases that had clearly grabbed the public consciousness.  It had gone platinum six times.  Everyone at the camp knew it, because all of us were teenage kids deep in the maw of pop culture.

Thinking back on it, I’m especially impressed that he chose a song by a black artist, making it a song all of us, regardless of ethnic background, probably knew it.

He spent a handful of minutes explaining that music videos are, of course, all about takes.  Everyone stands, then falls to their knees, and they do that six times and then they take the one where everyone hits the ground at the same time.

He also explained that no one can dance that much and sing.  In concert, all the people in the back would be dancing like mad while Janet stood up front singing and keeping a basic beat.  It sounds obvious, of course, but something about hearing it stated crystallized it for us. 

He then went through the first couple of minutes of the video, pausing and showing how he broke down the choreography bit by bit, wrote it down, and adapted it for an actual stage with no camera moves.

And we started learning it, one step at a time.

We didn’t do the whole song.  All told, we learned about 80 seconds of actual choreography, along with some simplified dance moves that could be applied to this or any other song.

And then we were stuck.  What to do with this new knowledge?  After all, if you learn how to dance, and show no one, what was the point, really?

The teacher mentioned that there was a courtyard outside the main building where we all ate.  If we waited until the last 15 minutes of the lunch period, we could perform this newly acquired move-busting for a few hundred other kids and teachers.  We all thought this was swell.

He then emphasized that this should be a secret, in order for it to have the most impact.

So we ate, we went to the courtyard, and we waited for the teacher to press play.

What do I remember about it?  I remember being curious about the reaction.  I remember the moment the music started, and about how we’d all been instructed to walk, as through mesmerized, to our appointed dancing place.

I also remember hearing some kid, off on the sidelines, remark to one of my classmates that “he knew some choreography for this song, if you want to learn it.”

Mostly, I remember it being over quickly.  The song started, we walked to our spots, we started dancing, I tried to remember everything I was doing, and then at the end of our routine, the music was still going, and we didn’t have a plan.

So the song kept playing, and we all wandered off in various directions, and then it was over with the firm click of a Stop button.

Was there applause?  Shock?  Surprise?  Did anyone tell me how awesome it was?  I don’t recall, which I suspect means that it wasn’t all that interesting to people.  It was, after all, a music camp.  People constantly burst into song spontaneously, so why NOT have a dance number?

Weirdly, I can’t even remember how well or poorly I danced.  I’m not all that great a dancer, and all I really remember was that the girl next to me was generally worse at remembering her moves, so my only hope was to be better by comparison.

It ended, and we went to class.

Back when the movie Once won an Academy Award for best song, the guy who wrote and sang it got all giddy and called out, “Make Art!”  The problem with art is, of course, that even if you create it, no one has to look at it or care about it.

I went to multiple concerts in college that were attended by less than 20 people.  The folks performing were talented and fun, but people were either busy, or just didn’t care.

And so I wonder: Is it worth it?  Probably to musicians.  They were crossing the country and I’m sure they got paid for the night, regardless of the number of people in the audience.

But for a bunch of kids in a courtyard, with no money coming in?  No fame?  Did we gain anything?

I dunno.

I guess what I’m asking is, what does it mean when you put your art into the world, and is received with a shrug?

Also, I’m glad YouTube didn’t exist in 1992.  Because seriously, I’m not sure anyone wants to see my flailing like that.