While there's a renegade posse of San Franciscans who hate musicals -- elusive as the Yetti, but rumored to be true -- who spout the "too contrived" argument, I think we can all agree that Flash Mobs are fairly awesome. They take the best part of musicals and forgo the rest, infusing a random street corner with the kind of ebullient surprise usually reserved for stripper-grams and liquor-stuffed pinatas.
Julien Rey -- Frenchman and Janet Jackson devotee -- is one of the forces behind the San Francisco's own Bay Area Flash Mob, serving as one of five co-founders and the prime choreographer/dance instructor. Rey, who moonlights as a software engineer, came to our humble city by way of Osaka where he honed his skills as a backup dancer for a drag queen.
"I was going to a gay bar frequently for karaoke -- I kind of like to show off sometimes -- and this queen said, "hey would you like to be a backup dancer? I said, 'hell yes!' He really taught me how to be break down dance steps."
What began as a sequin-clad dream soon devolved into an abusive grind however. Rey says the drag queen demanded grueling rehearsal schedules and began to humiliate him in front of the other dancers.
"I thought I would never perform again, he really traumatized me!"
Happily for us, Rey stumbled across Thrill The World in 2009 and his PTSD dance blues were banished forever. Together with Jennifer Arbuckle, Carol Johnstone, Jacqui Magee and Marcia Nisam, they created BAFM in January 2010 to pay tribute to the one-year anniversary of Michael Jackson's death.
"It all started because of MJ -- we all loved him." These days, Rey leads at least one all-out street performance every three months. Since the first launch in 2010, BAFM has performed "20 big ones," but more than 100 if you include fundraisers and benefits, weddings, and other miscellaneous stage performances (like Bootie SF) that keep the dancer's moves razor-sharp.
Rey says BAFM tries to pay tribute to pop artists from the 80's who've had a long career and an indelible mark of cultural influence. "The new generation, they know Rihanna, Katy Perry and they think it's new!" BAFM doesn't flinch from contemporary heavyweights either; just last June they knocked out a Lady GaGa medley for Pride.
BAFM -- which meticulously recreates delectable dance moves from pop music videos -- is more than just spontaneous tail-feather shakin' however; like so many San Franciscan organizations, it focuses on fostering a newfound community.
"I think BAFM has several powers," says Rey. "It gathers people for a love of dancing, for the love of one artist. It also has the power of giving self confidence to people and the ability to accomplish something together. Whether you're a good dancer or bad. Old or young. Gay or straight. Your background just doesn't matter. Everyone supports each other."
BAFM is also a nonprofit, comprised of volunteers. Rey personally teaches every Wednesday and Sunday, only asking for small donations ($3) to pay for the studio rentals. Any extra money goes directly toward bolstering BAFM badass dedication; Rey flew in renowned Rhythm Nation choreographer Anthony Thomas last September to teach his signature moves personally.
While BAFM is largely celebrated -- in fact Rey was just given the Jefferson Award which honors outstanding community service -- he says the group does come up against bureaucratic bullshit and the occasional hater.
From aggressive bikers on the Embarcadero and no-permit hassles on Pier 39, to threats of shut-down at the Westville Mall and an outright plug-pull at the Moscone Center, BAFM gets its share of adversity. Rey says it all comes with the territory.
"What we do is always unpredictable and a little dangerous. Someone can get injured, someone can stop our music."
Currently, Rey is choreographing his biggest project to date; a full rendition of Janet Jackson's Together Again plus a five-song medley. Twice-weekly rehearsals began in early January and the final performance is poised to hit the streets at an undisclosed location May 18.
"Janet Jackson inspires me," says Reys. She's my no. 1, so this time I wanted to do a lot." Rey insists dancers could and should still join the movement; there are four songs yet to learn. And if you're feelin' especially committed and woebegone about missing the first half of rehearsals, you can always self-teach with Rey's online tutorials.
"We try and keep the final location secret until maybe a week before the event, but because we're trying reproduce the music videos and bring back those memories, we're all wearing the outfits. So people know something is about to happen."