In 2005 when Matt Harding heard that a video he made of himself dancing in front of international landmarks across the globe was blowing up on YouTube, he had one question:
"What’s a YouTube?”
The video, “Dancing 2005,” had over 650,000 views when Harding discovered it—a lot for the earliest days of the popular video-sharing site. The imposter, posing as Harding, took the video from Harding’s personal website, created a fake PayPal account and was asking for donations.
“I tracked the guy down and I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know who you are, but I’m pretty sure you’re not me,’” Harding laughs. “He wrote back to me and said that he had collected $235 in donations and he’d be willing to share 5 percent of it with me.”
But perhaps the most amusing part for Harding was that the series of dorky dancing clips was a joke at first—a fun way to remember the trip he took across Southeast Asia after quitting his job as a video game designer. His travel companion prompted him to do the dance midway through the journey, and the idea stuck.
“I made the video just as a memento,” Harding says. “I certainly didn’t think the video was going to speak to people in any profound and interesting way like it ended up doing.”
Three videos, a Stride Gum sponsorship and hundreds of countries later—as well as the birth of his son, Max, somewhere in between—Harding is still dancing.
After a four-year hiatus from Internet stardom, in which most of his fans probably wondered where the hell he was, Harding came out with a fourth video in the series titled “Where the Hell Is Matt” earlier this summer.
But this time it’s different—he’s learned the dances of the countries he’s visited and a heck of a lot about the world in the process. In this Q&A with Smithsonian.com, Harding breaks down the evolution of his videos, why he thinks the world is safer than it’s ever been and what dancing with the world really means to him.
In your earlier videos, it’s just you dancing in front of landmarks. But in your latest one, your family has a large presence. Why the change?
It means a lot of different things to me on a bunch of different levels. There are a lot of things I wanted to say. The last shot of me with my girlfriend, Melissa, and my son, Max, on my shoulders is me, in one sentence, saying, “This is really important to me.” A lot of people watch the video and they are sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for a sponsor’s logo to pop up in the end, to see who paid for this. I funded the video myself and I wanted people to know that there’s not a corporate message here—this matters a lot to me. It’s an expression of what I believe is important and what I want to pass on to my kid and my family—this is what I think really matters.
What really makes it personal is how hard Max is laughing when he’s on your shoulders—it is just absolutely beautiful to watch.
I get a lot of concerned mothers warning me about shaken baby syndrome. If they only knew how much that kid shakes—he does it on his own. [Laughs]
But that shot always gets to me, too, actually—especially the first time I showed it in front of an audience. I usually have to get up and talk after showing the video, and I’m always a bit choked up.
I also realized that if I didn’t put Max in the video, he was going to be annoyed at me for the rest of his life. We [Melissa and I] kind of went back and forth: Did we want to be that exposed? It’s our yard, it’s my son—it’s a really delicate thing, but I also realized that there’s a flip side if he’s shut out of it. It’s a little weird to have the whole world looking at your kid saying, “Hey, your son’s really cute,” but it’s turned out really well.
What else is different about your latest video?
There is a darkness in this one that is really a big part of the video. I don’t think it would work without it. And that’s something we struggled with because the tone comes largely from the music. If it’s all happy, happy, joy, joy, it feels very wrong when you’re looking at places like Rwanda or Afghanistan, where you’ve got to acknowledge the darkness. The power of dance and laughter allows us to process, cope with and transcend all of the bad stuff.
So it was a judgment call, really, about including places like Somalia and the Sudan. I think the most important thing that people can do is go to these places and show a side that you don’t usually see. Pretty much everything you hear out of Somalia is going to be bad news, but that’s not necessarily the reality there—all the time, anyway.
In your AMA [Ask Me Anything, a popular feature on Reddit], you commented how your global travel reminded you of the expression “man bites dog.” In what ways have your traveling experiences shown you something different than what is reported in the media?
You can go pretty much anywhere in the world now and be virtually assured of your safety. And I include places that we don’t think of as safe at all: North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. People are glad to see you for the most part, honestly. We don’t realize that because we’re constantly being battered with the message of all of the terrible things that are going on in the world, and I don’t blame the media for that.
The media is supposed to say, “Here’s what happened today that you should know about,” and it’s usually bad things. It’s not the media’s job to say, “Hey, everybody, guess what? Things are relatively safe right now! They are a lot safer than they were even a generation ago, crime is down and there is less war going on.” I travel a lot and I’m always amazed to see this. We react to visceral stimuli—we hold that in our heads, but in actuality we’ve managed to create for ourselves a safe, open global civilization. It’s happened very recently—we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for it—but it really is pretty remarkable the world we live in right now. Part of the purpose of the video for me is to say, “Hey! Look around! Look what we did, this is pretty fantastic.”
The clip of you dancing with the children in Rwanda in your 2006 video is a perfect example of that. What about your experience there changed the way you planned for future videos?
It was the first time I was in a place where I didn’t know what to film. Usually it’s very easy: I go to places that have landmarks. In India I’ll go to the Taj Mahal, and even somewhere like Borneo, I’ll go into the wilderness. It wasn’t on the radar at that point that I should be dancing with people because I’m not much of an extrovert. I’m the last person in the world who would be gathering a crowd of people together and saying, “Hey, everybody, let’s dance!” It’s really funny that that’s ended up being my job.
When I was in Rwanda, it was the only thing I could think of to do. I went up to a group of kids and I started dancing and they started dancing. It made me happy just to watch it and it made a lot of other people happy watching it. That was the epiphany moment of “Boy I’ve really been doing this wrong.” What this should really be about is meeting people and using my dancing as a conduit, as a rallying point, to get other people dancing around me. That changed the focus to one that I think is much more robust. There’s much more we can do with it.
What is the first image that pops into your head of a moment when you really connected with someone while dancing?
The most memorable moment for me was dancing with the woman in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on Kim Jung Il’s birthday in 2011, which turned out to be his last. We were able to watch and participate on the periphery of the mass dance celebration, but they [the guards] weren’t going to let me film it. When the dance ended, they shuffled everybody off onto the bus. That’s when I ran into the crowd of North Korean dancers. It was very scary because I didn’t have a plan, so I put the camera down and just started dancing by myself. The North Korean dancers thought it was hilarious and started cracking up, and the laughter short-circuited the security apparatus. All of the guards who were standing there who would’ve stopped me were just kind of frozen in place, and I realized we were at a stalemate as long as I kept dancing. That’s the moment I see as symbolic of this whole thing that I do: Me standing there in North Korea dancing until I figure out what I’m going to do next.
I kept trying to encourage people to come and join me, but no one was going to dare to step out until this one woman just came forward, bowed and started dancing. I couldn’t believe it, because I was in North Korea, you know? I didn’t think anybody was going to stick their neck out like that, but she did. It was just her and I dancing for those ten seconds until they shut us down. The courage it took for her to dance with me just really knocked me over. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in making these videos.
How does your experience in North Korea translate for a place like Syria, where you had to blur out the dancers’ faces?
That was a really hard decision that I struggled with right up to the last minute. When I shot it in 2010, the Arab Spring had not happened yet, so there really was no consideration of the safety of the people appearing in the video. They knew what they were getting into and they were happy to do it, so I shot the clip and I spent the next two years with the footage in the can. I kept track of the Syria situation, watching it get worse and worse. When it came time to make the call and put the video out, I decided I didn’t want to remove the clip, but I couldn’t in good conscience show their faces. It doesn’t take much to put someone in danger in Syria right now. A lot of people suspect after they see it [the video] that women can’t be seen dancing with men there, which is the case in some Middle Eastern countries, but not in Syria. I was relieved to see a lot of Syrians who have seen the video commenting that they were really glad that it got included.
How do you prepare before your first time going to places like Syria, North Korea and Gaza?
When I go to a new place I’ve read bad things about, I have that same nervous feeling over and over again and I’m always re-learning that lesson. When you’re actually there it’s almost always a lot safer and friendlier than you think it’s going to be.
Specifically I think about Afghanistan, which was a really eye-opening experience for me. For five days I stayed in Kabul with this guy David, who was a Danish dance teacher who had just moved to Afghanistan. He couldn’t open a dance school in Kabul because dance is prohibited by law, but he was able to open an afterschool circus training school for kids. It was only after staying there for a few days that I realized that there really wasn’t any kind of security in his house: He didn’t have a lock on the door, he had a guy sit by the door watching things, but he wasn’t armed or anything. David told me that the way Afghans see things, if you’re carrying a weapon, you’ve done something wrong—you are a person who has enemies and that’s why you have to arm yourself. But if you walked down the street with nothing in your hands or your pockets, then you’re friendly and no one is going to give you any trouble.
Do you think being an American helped you travel around?
I talked to David about the fact that I was an American and he said: “That’s not the issue, it’s how you look, it’s how you are and you’re not threatening.” My mantra, somewhat ironically, is don’t be an idiot—given what I do, it seems kind of odd. Just don’t do stupid things, don’t be reckless and you’ll be OK.
Would you say that you felt reckless at times? Do you recall moments where things were thrown at you that you couldn’t have prepared for?
You develop a sixth sense and I had some bad experiences that helped me develop that quickly. I went to Kyrgyzstan and the situation was just all wrong: The plane landed at 3 a.m., I had no contact there and I ended up getting in a taxi with two guys, not just one. It ended really badly. It was basically a standoff in an empty gas station in the middle of the night where they were holding my luggage and demanding 250 Euros. I bargained them down to about 30 and then had them slide my luggage across to me while I threw the money at them and ran. That was a bad situation that could’ve gone a lot worse. I don’t want to call myself reckless, it was just pretty dumb. But that was an experience that has informed how I travel since then. If you travel enough, you’re going to have stuff like that happen, and hopefully you make it through in one piece.
On your website, in the FAQ section, you said if you do anything enough times, you get better at it. Traveling seems like the perfect example, especially after the situation in Kyrgyzstan—I’m sure you didn’t do that again.
It’s so true. It’s such a simple thing that I didn’t learn until later in life that the stuff that you’re bad at you can get better at just by doing it over and over again. It’s so obvious, but I always just kind of went, “Oh, I’m bad at this, I guess I’m just bad at it,” and then as you get older, you just realize, “No, I’ve just got to practice.” And it’s true about everything: Human interaction, travel—everything.
So we know dancing is not your forte. What did you do to learn all of these new dances?
Most of the clips we just kind of did on the spot. The emphasis is not on getting it right. In fact, the most interesting moments are when somebody’s getting it wrong and that triggers laughter or falling over—that’s the stuff that I end up using.
In the 2012 video, for example, when the dancers are motioning to each other from Greece to Egypt and Switzerland to Germany, for example, there’s definitely the impression that preplanning was minimal.
The jazz hands?
The jazz hands sequence, yes. When people goof up and go in the wrong direction, it seems to make the video more human. How does this contribute to the overall feel?
I think one of my favorite parts of the video is that jazz hands sequence where everybody is reaching back and forth. There is a feeling of interplay between the locations—each place is waving to the next place. I’d like to experiment with choreography that makes it feel like all of these places really are dancing together.
In the 2008 video, I juxtaposed Israel and Palestine in a similar way, but I regretted it a little because it’s a little bit on the nose. I try to avoid explicit combinations of places that are saying, “Look! These two places are at war and here they are dancing together.” It can work but it can also make you cringe. I wouldn’t want to put North Korea and South Korea next to each other and say, “See everybody? Can’t we all just get along?” I don’t want to be that overt.
If you could pick a place that you haven’t been to that you would go to right now, what would it be?
Iran. I would really like to go there. It sounds like a really fascinating place, but it’s difficult to get into for an American right now. It’s possible, but it’s often inadvisable given the state of things at any given moment. I tried a number of things and there was just always something going on that made it a bad idea. Like we were talking about earlier—recklessness.
It’s less about me wanting to go there and more about the people there wanting to be named as a part of this world and the global community. It’s really important to them in light of the situation, and I’d really like to do that. Yeah, that’s the top of my list.
Any others up there?
The other big one on my list—I’m not sure if it’s before or after Iran—is outer space. Mars, specifically. I’d like to dance with Curiosity in Gale Crater.
How long will you wait until you bring your son, Max, along on an adventure?
I’m new to parenting, so we’ll have to figure that out. He came on a little bit of this last trip, but he was 2 months old, so he wasn’t dancing yet. I’m not so much looking forward to making him part of the videos and all that. That’s his call, but I’m definitely excited about being able to travel with him someday.
Do you have a trip planned for the future, or are you just staying home for a little while and doing the family thing?
The family thing really changes things up. It’s a lot harder to leave now than it was in the past, but I love what I do, and I’d like to figure out a way to do more with this superpower I have of gathering huge crowds of people together all over the world. I think just about the best work a person can do is something that makes lots of people happy. That sounds really corny and simplistic, but I really believe that. It’s enormously satisfying and I just don’t really know what’s next. Hopefully I’ll figure it out.