Holding fast to a well-deserved and much-derided reputation as a lover of show tunes, I want to share a few minutes of the raw emotion, over-the top-show-biz and pure joy embedded in this little piece of performance art at the Antwerp Central Train Station. Watch it and then we’ll talk.

Okay, now that you’ve seen it, don’t you just want to take all those curious, awkward bystanders into your arms? They are afraid; they hesitate so to buy into what their hearts are telling them to embrace. Everyone — passengers, commuters, loiterers — picks up within a second or two that Something has happened here. The social contract about what is and is not supposed to go on in a train station has been broken. Don’t you just want to tell them it’s all right to stop the frenzied intentionality of everyday living and get caught in the act of joy?

The passengers’ faces seem to be saying, “What should I do now? Pay no attention to it? Hurry on to my terribly important life? Be very, very suspicious? Watch shyly? Dare to gape in wonderment and delight? Have the guts to join in?” Imagine ignoring this extravaganza!

We are so defended against unexpected attacks of anything, that even when it is happiness, we are wary. The onlookers seem furtive and child-like. Eyes dart, fingers tap quietly, hands clap tentatively. Suddenly, they are 5 years old and they have a chance to be really silly: leap into a twirl, knock out an armpit fart, or take a flying jump off the monkey bars. They look around to see if it is okay to risk happiness or if they must tamp it down for fear of humiliation. Armored as they are, and as adult as they are with their train tickets and appointments, they are so very vulnerable in this moment.

Eventually, we realize that some of the uneasy people are actually participants. Watch to the theatricality of the gestures and expressions of those in the center of the floor. They have been given license to get in there and knock it out of the ballpark. They are loving it. Even those dressed as dour businessmen and clerical workers create characters for themselves. The Sharon Osbourne-ish platinum blonde belts like Gypsy. The middle-school girls out-Annie Annie. The ringleader struts like Harold Hill in “Seventy-six Trombones.” And the finale is nothing less than “A Chorus Line” writ large.

Of course, my empathy for the passengers is possible because I am one of them. Would my heart beat faster if I considered joining them like the delightfully overcome traveler with the long skirt and rolling suitcase? Would I be the one whose mouth forms into a big O as I photograph it with my cell phone? I really, really hope I wouldn’t be like the bike rider who, hearing it, moves on.

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  • alexsandra stewart May 26, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Oh – lovely. Practiced or not, spontaneous or not, I loved it. Did wonder for a few monents how they all ‘caught on’ to the movements so quickly! – then I got it. it was fun.

  • Beth Portnoi Shaw May 25, 2009 at 8:52 am


  • Betsy Wing May 25, 2009 at 7:39 am

    oh well, my conformation wasn’t perfect, anyhow. It’s supposed to read “in the perfect…”

  • Betsy Wing May 25, 2009 at 7:38 am

    What a delight! But I think I was almost as sad as I was happy at the end to see all the participants dancing and bowing in perfect the conformation that had become more and more evident. I really wanted to believe the spectators lost their fear and joined in.