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Lessons from a Dance Seen Round the World

By now, many of you know of “the dancing guy” who has posted videos of himself doing the same goofy dance over and over again in different countries around the world. (If you don’t, check out his Web site, Where the Heck Is Matt?, or view his 2008 video below.) Almost everyone I know has heard of him (his real name is Matt Harding); in the past few weeks, Matt has enjoyed a second wave of fame, following a couple of years after his 2006 entry into the “regular guy celebrity” ranks.

I have received a link to Matt’s videos from a university professor, a high school student, a boat builder, an athlete going to the Olympics in Beijing, and a longtime yogi who has spent most of the past six years at retreats in India. The latter was the most effusive of the group, and even knew the music that accompanies Matt’s dancing, which seemed to hit even closer to home: “This is one of the most moving things that I have yet seen … the vocals are by a 17-year-old singing in the Bengali language, the poetry of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.”

All were completely taken by the quick-cut videos of a guy named Matt doing his own endearingly dorky dance in all corners of the globe on two distinct trips, one in 2006 and one just this year. The question isn’t so much where the H-E-double hockey sticks is Matt, but why the heck people care so much — and what ordinary travelers can learn from one man’s dancing journey around the world.

Matt’s efforts aren’t any sort of high-tech feat; in fact, they’re just the opposite. Matt tapped into the vehicle of choice of instant celebrity culture by uploading his videos to YouTube, thereby joining the many “regular folks” who have become a phenomenon themselves within the phenomenon that is YouTube. Matt did it all with a handheld video camera and some text overlays, nothing your average 11-year-old couldn’t produce.

Except Matt had taken his videos in all corners of the globe, and apparently in a relatively short period of time — on some sort of global walkabout in which the entire world was made to seem to have one thing in common: Matt’s goofy dance. And therein lies the rub: Matt chucked it all and hit the road, with the stupid videos to prove it — and he got famous to boot. Is there anyone reading this who does not know someone who, given the chance, would like to buy a plane ticket, fail to show up at work and appear months later as a featured video on the main page of YouTube?

Five-minute Internet fame aside, Matt has pulled off an enduring fantasy among homebound and responsibility-laden people everywhere: to drop everything, get on a plane and live the life of a globetrotter for a while. Americans in particular harbor this dream of world travel in the 21st century. Since the “On the Road” or “Travels with Charley” fantasy is all but dead — as Charles Kuralt once said, the U.S. highway system has made it possible to drive from one coast to another without ever seeing anyone — we imagine getting on a plane to go to a place where the scenery, language and customs are completely new to us.

But what Matt’s videos largely conceal is the reason that is that few of us really, truly want to do what he did. Chucking it all requires a degree of discomfort and uncertainty that, deep down, few Americans really want to endure.

Matt’s dancing clips in some of the world’s most remote locales show none of the time and effort it took him to get to those places. He seems to do what so many of us thought we would be able to do in an era of cheap airfares, fast jets, telecommuting and extreme mobility: to travel around the world with relatively little effort.

And yet few of us actually do it. Matt’s popularity comes from the same mechanism that makes books like “The 4-Hour Workweek” sell a lot of copies, but change only a few lives — because what he does ain’t that easy to pull off, or always that pleasant to endure.

The nitty-gritty realities of travel more closely resemble the work humans used to shunt off onto mules; being covered with the same dust for days and weeks (one of the FAQ’s on Matt’s site asks “Why are you always wearing the same clothes?”), hauling ourselves and our stuff through airports and train stations, sweating over greasy computers in Internet cafes, then sleeping in a near-stable only to get up and do it all over again. Long lines, cramped spaces and high prices are keeping us away from the airport and closer to our own stables, a practice that has been given the unfortunate buzzword “staycation.”

But not Matt. Matt makes the difficult look laughingly easy, and because it is so hard, it’s all the better that he went ahead and did it for us — and then came home and did the work of a data mule too, hauling the best parts over to YouTube for us all to enjoy from the comfort of our desk chairs.

The type of journeys Matt has taken aren’t for everybody, but travelers of all kinds can learn a few lessons from his experiences. His videos inspire questions — why did he choose that spot in Africa? How did he get that giraffe to walk right behind him while he was dancing? Who did he get to hold the video camera for him, and what did they think of the whole thing?

This last query is the most intriguing question to my mind. The dance seems like an ingenius way to put yourself right inside a place and its people, rather than merely passing through it or inhabiting the tourist fringes of a place. As you watch, Matt’s videos become less about the goofy dance and more about the quotidian wonders and happier coincidences of life on the road.

But even as Matt encounters others, he never loses himself. As Gertrude Stein said, wherever you go, there you are, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, to thwart or conceal, or to repress. To quote another, more modern source — the hippies — let your freak flag fly. Matt does his stupid dance, something his friends likely ridiculed him for at some point, and does it without fear, reticence or stage fright. And the whole world loves him — even wants to be him! Wherever he goes, there he and his twitchy dancing style are, and that’s just great; the same goes for the rest of us and whatever goofy shtick we take with us, the world over. A leopard can’t change his spots, a snake only sheds his skin, and Matt dances the same whether he’s in Mexico or Morocco, Argentina or Australia, Istanbul or Constantinople.

In the end, perhaps the greatest lesson is that, when memories of long lines and quotidian hassles have faded, when the dust has been cleaned off and the digital photos filed, what we hold onto from our travels are the strongest, most pungent experiences — the best memories of all the places we’ve danced.

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