I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Dancing With Star Wars: Pop Culture Icebreakers

by Tom Winkelspecht
June 9, 2012

I thought I’d be more surprised to see Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo. It may be that his entrance was preceded by Donny and Marie playing Luke and Leia. Having a brother and sister in the roles of sexually interested characters, siblings themselves, adds a layer of weirdness to the mini-parody of Star Wars on the Donny and Marie Show.

But it was 1977, and everyone wanted a piece of the A New Hope action. The skits throughout the Donny and Marie Show episode include a cameo by Red Foxx, a handful of songs written or rewritten to make Star Wars references, and a fair approximation of costumes. It may seem like a strange use of merchandising rights, but more than anything it shows how accessible Star Wars is. For all its strangeness, the episode performs wonderfully as a conversation piece.

The greatness of Star Wars, according to Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, is that it is “a movie that can be enjoyed by bald geezers like me and kids with pins in their noses, who otherwise would have very little to talk about, I'm afraid.” This can also be said for dancing, which would explain why you see elderly relatives hit the floor when the wedding dj starts to play a Katy Perry song. Watching a set of Run-DMC Jawas perform against a Darth Vader/Michael Jackson mash up can be socially significant, if only because of the potential for giving strangers something to talk about. Humans remain a social animal and it’s a lot easier to be communally inclusive if we have something in common.

Everybody just wants to have a good time. Pop culture provides a shared experience that allows everyone to become involved. I’m not sure what else entertainment can be judged by. Both dancing and Star Wars are part of the pop(ular) culture, something open and accessible. It’s something everyone from Kristofferson to the guy who wrote a pseudo-gospel song about the role of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, can take part in. Pop culture, as a rule, is a bricolage experience, composed from a number of sources to better allow for a wider involved audience. Star Wars was and remains a bit of pure pop culture comprised itself from portions of pop culture.

Dancing makes Star Wars fun again. At no point during the ladies of Star Wars performing a cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl” is there any mention of the racial implications of Jar Jar Binks, nor is the swirling controversy of who shot at whom first present. There is none of the usual bemoaning of Lucas’s opportunistic approach to marketing. A Star Wars dance-off is fun without any far-reaching implications. And it works. All the dancers seem to be enjoying themselves, as does the audience. That is, according to former professor of media studies Cynthia Lumby, the benefit of having a shared pop culture, that it “it invites us to engage and sometimes quite profound personal insights and emotions can be unleashed by apparently banal cultural forms.” I don’t think any of the people watching Darth Vader admirably mimic the dance from “Beat It” came to any life-altering realizations through it. I certainly didn’t. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t laugh along with the screen audience.

Pop culture is often derided as low or consumerist. This view misses the role it performs, and beautifully. To write pop culture off as superficial disallows for its ability to get people talking around the water cooler. The camera-phone footage of the jerky motions of Yoda singing Brittany Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again” becomes the stuffing of several dozen forwarded emails. It gets shared. People have a hard time connecting with other people and pop culture works beautifully as an ice breaker. Those bald geezers and those kids with pins in their noses can both get a laugh out of the performance, because Star Wars is something everyone is familiar with, at some level. That’s the power of pop culture. It’s why I laughed at Vader and it’s why whole chunks of the internet are devoted into breaking down that culture into repeatable and relatable discourse.

In the grand scheme of things, a French TV spot reimagining of the Star Wars Main Theme as a disco hit (accompanied by a squad of gold spandex C3POs) might not terribly improve the quality of a person’s life. In fairness, that might be asking too much of the footage. Pop culture doesn’t really need to change the course of mankind, it only needs to be funny enough to get passed along to a friend. It’s something to remember before writing off pop culture as empty entertainment. There’s nothing empty about strengthening or even forging social ties. Nor is there anything empty about the genuine nature of the experience. No one is going to force a laugh to please you because you sent them a clip of video game footage cut and synched to music. They’ll laugh or they won’t. Either way, you have a conversational opportunity. Instead of complaining about how Lucas manages to get a finger in every pie, we should be happy that some people like getting dressed up and filmed. For better or worse, it gives us something to talk about.

Pop Goes The Culture

Star Wars: Space Saga

The Real Force Behind ‘Star Wars’: How George Lucas Built an Empire

Tom Winkelspecht lives in New Jersey. He is currently in a creative writing graduate program.  The rest of his time is spent between watching movies, plotting his return to Chicago, and writing. He can be found in the usual places: Tumblr and Twitter.