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Matt Harding Dances His Way Around the World

You may have seen him doing ballet in Syria, waltzing in Austria, dancing underwater in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or even cutting a rug in North Korea. Matt Harding, of Where the Hell is Matt? fame, has been dancing across the globe for over a decade as one of the first “digital nomads.”

With tens of millions of views, Harding’s dancing videos have won him dedicated fans everywhere from Rwanda to Taiwan. The premise is simple: he travels to dozens of countries, dances with locals and creates uplifting videos that showcase the commonality of human experience and how basic expressions of joy transcend cultural barriers.

This peripatetic lifestyle is emblematic of a new generation of “digital nomads,” globetrotting professionals who build successful careers without settling down in a single location.

Advances in mobile technology have enabled them to break free of the traditional office and work from anywhere. According to a recent survey from oDesk, nine out of 10 professionals say that technology is making it easier to work wherever they want, and nearly 40 percent consider themselves to be digital nomads already.

In other words, the days of having a centralized, physical workplace may be numbered.

For our first installment in the Digital Nomad series, iQ spoke with Matt Harding about turning world travel into a career, the fascinating adventures he’s had around the globe and how technology has changed his approach to work (along with everything else).

How did you get started, and when did you realize dancing in exotic locations could be an actual business?

The business didn’t become a business right away. It started out as a goof. I was backpacking around Southeast Asia after leaving my job as a video game developer. It was 2003, and digital cameras were just coming out. I was shooting video with my friend, and he said, “Why not stand in the corner and do that stupid little dance you do?”

Back then it was unique — I was the first guy to put a video of himself on the internet dancing in various places. In 2005, someone told me it had been uploaded to a new website called YouTube, and it had already gotten more than 600,000 views. It was a video of me doing this dance in 17 different countries, and people were really moved by it because it expressed the joy and freedom of travel through dance, which is universal. Even just flailing limbs around in a graceless fashion seems to speak to people.

All that attention probably led to some opportunities …

I was contacted by Cadbury Adams, and they had a gum called Stride coming out. Viral video was a big thing and everyone wanted to get onboard, so they asked me to make one for them.

All I wanted to do was keep on traveling, and they said they’d pay for it, so that led me to travel around the world sponsored by Stride.

Did you want to do more with these videos? To deliver a message?

I was having fun, but creatively I realized I wasn’t saying very much. I wanted to include Africa in the videos, but there aren’t that many recognizable landmarks there — at least to a Western audience — so I decided I’d just find some kids and start dancing with them.

My friend took me to village called Mulindi in Rwanda, and I started dancing with a group of kids, and that ended up being the best clip I shot for that video. It got about 10 million views very quickly, which was a lot back in 2006.

I went back to Stride and said, “Thank you, but I did it wrong the first time, I should have been dancing with people.” So I spent the next two years shooting with that approach to make a bigger and better video.

Did dancing with people resonate more than dancing alone?

I was bombarded with emails, and the responses were the same: “You forgot to come here and dance with me.” I had a long list of places and people. I kept those emails, and I just wrote back and got thousands of people to come dance with me around the world.

By my third try, I finally got it right. That video got about 50 million views. All these new opportunities came about and it was something I was very passionate about. It’s been incredible and life-changing and enabled me to keep doing the things I like to do creatively.

What surprised you the most when you embarked on your nomadic career?

I was able to go to places that are considered troubled and dangerous. What I found more and more when I traveled was that although I expected people to be scary, it was the opposite: people were very friendly and welcoming. That’s true in the Middle East and even North Korea.

If you want to show the essence of a place that feels authentic, just dance with people — it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s the real thing, and it expresses this idea that the world is a whole lot safer and friendlier than we’re told to believe. It can sound kind of corny, but each video expresses that idea in a simple way.

Is it viable to have a successful career without settling down in one place?

Absolutely. Especially with technology like video conferencing and the degree to which we can collaborate digitally, there’s less and less need to be pegged down in one location for most professions.

What specific technologies do you use the most in your work?

Navigations apps, like Google Maps, are at the top of the list because they give you an incredibly clear picture of when and where you’re going to be before you even get there. Then there’s the social aspect.

For the last video, all I’d have to do is whisper to a few people on social media that I’d be in Budapest on Tuesday and thousands would show up. Social networks do that work for you of passing the message around.

I also used to rely on my laptop a lot, but now it’s just my smartphone. Using these devices used to be really expensive, but it’s gone down to being something that anybody could do.

Would it have been possible to be a digital nomad 10 or 20 years ago?

I think 10 years ago it would be much more difficult than it is today. And 20 years ago, definitely not. The ability to contact so many people and collaborate with thousands of them at a time, plus planning these shoots and sharing pictures and maps — that just wouldn’t have been possible before.

How do you stay connected when you’re in the most remote areas of the world?

Generally, it’s much easier today than it was when I first started. Now there are networks and data connections nearly everywhere, and you almost never have to disconnect. Even in Antarctica we had email, but it was slow.

What are some of the most fascinating places you’ve been to?

The places that have stayed with me are usually the ones I knew the least about before going. Bhutan is like nothing else — it’s like going through a time machine to 500 years ago.

Namibia is like the end of the Earth: incredibly beautiful landscapes but very few people there. You can drive for hours and not see anyone and have wild horses running alongside your car — a German ship sank there centuries ago and let a bunch of horses loose.

The Federated States of Micronesia are tiny islands in the Pacific that most people haven’t heard about, and there are some truly unique cultures there. For example, on the island of Yap, the currency is giant boulders, and their banks are huge fields of rocks. People pass these boulders down from generation to generation.

There must have been some surreal moments during your travels. What’s the weirdest interaction you had abroad?

I was in Tokyo, and my host there felt obligated to entertain me for the evening. He said we should go to his new coffee shop. It’s a place where the women dress up as French maids, and they play board games with you. And that’s it. So he took me there and one of the French maids came to our table and chatted with us and we played a “Pirates of the Caribbean” game. She asked what I do and my host said, “He’s a famous American dancer,” and she looked at me and shouted, “YouTube!”

What’s the one thing you never travel without?

There’s less and less stuff to bring nowadays, to be honest. When I first started, I would lay out everything I needed to bring —  all these gadgets and devices — on my bed, but now it’s almost all been replaced with a smartphone.

Even the flashlight I used to carry is now in a phone — it’s a Swiss army knife times a thousand. Although having a battery backup is pretty crucial.

Do you think we’re seeing less need for physical workplaces? Are we entering an age of work-from-anywhere?

The absolute need to be in the same physical location is changing. Is it worth the cost and trouble of getting people all in one place? In many cases, the answer is no.

You can do so much and you can find the best people when you’re not limited by geography. You can do great work really fast at reasonable cost by connecting people wherever they are.

Images courtesy of Matt Harding.

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