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From 'Thriller' to Matt Harding: Why we love watching people dance online

July 14, 2009 |  6:30 am


It seems that every few weeks or so brings a new YouTube video sensation that features people dancing in public, usually in unison and in large groups. From last year's Michael Jackson "Thrill the World" performances to the recent Sasquatch Festival (tweeted by Ashton Kutcher) to Matt Harding's around-the-globe danceathon, these viral hits celebrate the coming together of strangers to physically bond, celebrate and be merry.

Though the phenomenon feels new, it is of course part of one of the oldest trends in human history. People have been congregating to dance since civilization began. The digital means of dissemination are recent, but the act itself is as ancient as eating and sleeping.

The popularity of these videos speaks to something innately attractive about watching random people subsume themselves into a larger mass of synchronized bodies. Is the appeal instinctual? Sociological? Psychological? Each time one of these videos surfaces, Culture Monster can't help but refer to Barbara Ehrenreich's 2007 book "Dancing in the Streets," a cultural analysis that explores the eternal human urge to break into communal dance and celebration.

Ehrenreich writes: "When such danced rituals originated is not known, but there is evidence that they may go back well into the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age. At one recently discovered site in England, drawings on the ceiling of a cave show 'conga lines' of female dancers, along with drawings of animals like bison and ibex, which are known to have become extinct in England ten thousand years ago. So well before people had a written language, and possibly before they took up a settled lifestyle, they danced and understood dancing as an activity important enough to record on stone."

That's all well and good, but why does dancing remain so contagious today? And why do we like to watch others do it -- especially when it is online? Ehrenreich suggests in her book that part of our attraction has to do with the nature of our culture of sedentary TV consumption and iPod isolation.

But the primary attraction may be that group dancing functions as a social equalizer of sorts that implicitly defies society's social and economic hierarchies. We are all equal (or at least become equal temporarily) when we dance together. To watch or engage in communal celebration is to participate in something unpredictable, dangerous and rebellious.

The Filipino prison inmates who recently reprised their "Thriller" tribute to Michael Jackson (see the above video) were doing more than just expressing their love for the self-proclaimed King of Pop. They were, in a way, performing an act of protest. They were expressing something complex and repressed, something that could at any moment break out into chaos and disruption.

"People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state and corporate power, solidarity is their sole source of strength," Ehrenreich writes in her book.

So the next time you go online to watch a video of people breaking into spontaneous group movement (a "Thrill the World" comeback is said to be in the works), remember the cultural and psychological impulses that are powering this irresistible urge to groove. They are a lot more complex than the numbers suggest.

-- David Ng