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.