Friday, September 7, 2012

A Simple Pleasure: The Matt Harding Videos

I believe there are plenty of simple pleasures in life.  Some are guilty pleasure like Madonna songs (shhh, don't let that get out.) Some are sinful pleasures, like just about any Elysian ale or a Dick's Deluxe with two fries and a chocolate shake.  Reading Joe Posnanski's blog or any book by Timothy Egan is time very well spent.

I am not much of an internet surfer.  That doesn't mean I don't spend way too much time on the web, but I'm pretty focused on where I go.  Saying that, I'm eternally grateful to my journalism buddy Sandra Coyer for introducing me to Matt Harding's dancing videos.  I happened to be working with Sandra at WJEA's summer camp when she shared Harding's 2008 video.  It showed about four and a half minutes of this strange white dude doing this silly dance in various locations around the world from the Panama Canal Zone to the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, from the Solomon Islands to Rwanda and Seattle. Not only did Matt do his silly dance in exotic and interesting locales, as the video proceeds invites dance happy fools in to share Matt's strange dance predilection in places as diverse as Papua, New Guinea, Dublin, and Buenos Aires. In the background is a hypnotizing audio track sung by a young Minnesota woman of Bangladeshi descent in Bengali.  It is compelling and emotional.

When I saw the video for the first time I beamed from cheek to cheek.  I was filled with joy and a lump formed in the back of my throat.  I'm not sure why.  It was just a short video of the white guy doing this silly dance with a bunch of people on the internet.

As soon as I got home from Ellensburg I immediately looked up Matt Harding.  Well, actually, Matt dancing because I couldn't remember his name.  He has a website called Where the Hell is Matt with links not only to this 2008 video, but to two earlier videos. The first, made in 2005 is self made, full of shaky video and thin audio, unedited with Matt traveling around the world doing his silly dance.  The second video, made in 2006 with sponsorship from Stride gum is better edited with better sound quality and clearer visuals. 

As soon as Lorri got home from work I asked her to watch them too.  After some minor resistance she sat down and caught the 2008 video.  And immediately burst into tears. We agreed there was something amazingly joyful about these short films.  Not only a joyfulness but the connectedness that people from all over the world offer through their own silly visions of Matt's silly dance reduces all the world's complexity and diversity, it's strife and its various inequalities to the desire to enjoy something as simple in wanting to share in one man's ridiculous jig. 

Whether on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Gasworks Park, in front of the Sydney Opera House, or in a school in Auki, the Solomon Islands, or a a side alley in Sa'naa, Yemen, Matt is mobbed by ecstatic silly dancers.  In the cities the dancers are mostly adults.  One can only suspect why they are there, but clearly they've seen the videos and want to be in on a bit of the fun.  However it is the more "scenic" locales that are most affecting.  Soweto, South Africa; Timbuktu, Mali; Tagatay, the Philippines.  Matt is surrounded by joyous children, cavorting with Matt, sharing their version of his joyful sashay.  In Auki, Matt is so affected by the enthusiastic youngsters, he stops his dance because he is overwhelmed by the laughter and excitement of his young partners.

I share these three videos in the first couple of days of each school year with all my classes.  It's a way we can start talking about observation and themes in my American Studies class.  It's just a half hour or so, and everybody loves them.  In my Newspaper Production class it's an opportunity to start thinking about interviewing and what questions they'd like to ask Matt.

Yesterday I was rewarded when I showed my sophomores the videos to find a new video released in 2012.  In this flick, Matt again is traveling and dancing, but this time he's not showing off his dance, he's learning new dances.  In many respects this movie may be the most poignant, the most connected of the lot.  A great new song by Alicia Lemke that Matt helped write.  It's awesome.  It's moving.  It's special.

I haven't shared a lot of the back story to the videos.  Matt does a great job of that on his site.  If you have 15 minutes to burn, you have time for these four videos.  But they're a bit like potato chips.  You won't watch them once.  You'll try to understand why they make you feel the way you do, and you'll watch them over and over again.  And when you don't quite understand, you'll watch them again.  They're a salve for the weary soul.

Matt makes his home in Seattle with his girlfriend and collaborator Cynthia Nixon.  He was interviewed by the Seattle Times in 2006 and contributed to "And This I Believe" on PRX radio.

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