Have you ever sat in a railway station, a subway station, or an airport waiting and suddenly a group of seemingly random people breaks into a routine of organized dance? That’s flashmob, or flash mob, dancing.
It’s a recent fad in public dance displays and public performance art and it’s even being used as an advertising tool; one featured sixty flight attendants in Shanghai’s international airport. It’s a very catchy way to attract attention and to pass on a message.
For the flashmob set in Shanghai, the purpose was to tell the crowd of travellers that it was time to celebrate China’s spring festival, a traditionally busy travel period.
Flashmob Dancing Through History
Is flashmob dancing really a new fad? It’s actually a recreation of something that has been around for a long time. Basically, flashmob is performance art. The apolitical acts of groups like the 1960s Yippies used street theatre to present their take on political issues and to make the general public aware of their concerns.
There are similarities between flashmobs and street mob political demonstrations. Both require careful planning and use a large number of people orchestrated to make a unified front or a unified presentation; organizers intend for the presentations to entertain or amuse, but also to shock or horrify, making them memorable at the very least.
Some may think flashmob started with the political activists of the 1960s, but the roots of this fad date back much further. When you consider that the term implies a public display that combines poetry, music, and/or the visual arts to create a ‘happening’ (another term frequently used), we can trace these events throughout much of human history.
In particular, looking at the early 1900s, the Dada artists combined poetry and the visual arts to create artistic events. In 1919, the German Bauhaus included theatre workshops to explore the relationships between space, sound and light. Exiled by the Nazis in the late 1930s, Bauhaus instructors founded the Black Mountain College in the United States to incorporate theatrical studies with the visual arts. Even the Beatniks of the late 1950s stereotypically created coffeehouse poetry-art performances.
But are these any different from the Schubertiads of the early 1800s, where artists, musicians and writers congregated to share their artistic talents? It is human nature to create and it is human nature to share our creations. What better way to share than through performance?
The Flashmob Craze
Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, recruited participants from local bars to present a well-planned event at Macy’s Department Store; this resulted in the first modern flashmob – in Manhattan in 2003.
The main attraction of a flashmob is that it’s an event that catches the general public by surprise. On a typical day, a flashmob could pop up anywhere at any time, from Victoria Station, which was overrun by more than 4000 dancers, to locations as varied as Times Square, Amsterdam, the Tate Museum and even downtown Chicago during an opening celebration for a new Oprah season.
The opening of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games sparked an amazing flashmob dance featuring 3,000 or more performers on Robson Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The Sound of Music at Antwerp Central Station
One of the more memorable flash mobs occurred in March 2009 at the Central Station of Antwerp. More than 200 dancers took over the station to perform their version of The Sound of Music’s popular song, Do Re Mi. It was an advertising stunt for the Belgian television program conducting a search for someone to play the leading role in an upcoming production of The Sound of Music.
Rembrandt Comes to Life in a Shopping Mall
Another popular flashmob happened in April 2013 to promote the reopening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Performers dressed in period costume overran a Breda shopping centre to reenact the event that became the theme of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Night Watch (1642). The shopping centre saw animals and mounted soldiers enter from all directions and at all levels of the centre to finally assemble on the main level in a large frame, posing for Rembrandt’s painting.
For many, it’s about the music, the dancing and, generally speaking, having a good time. Like one of the Shanghai flight attendants told the Guardian, “I think it was just like being in a big party, incredibly happy, and it had that sort of atmosphere, too. Everyone was taking photos, shouting and cheering.”
Flashmobs Remain Popular, but are They Legal?
While the general population tends to appreciate these flashmob events as an exciting interlude in an otherwise mundane day, some municipalities are putting a stop to these public displays. Braunschweig, Germany, is enforcing the already existing law of requiring a permit to use any public space for any event. The United Kingdom has stopped a number of flashmobs due to concerns for public health and safety, especially in railway stations.
Still, for many performers and spectators, flashmobs cause a joyous, communal reaction and continue to garner public attention for their very public art.