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‘Fortnite’ Is Doing the Impossible — Persuading Tween Boys to Learn to Dance…in Public

This summer, I saw something that blew my mind.

I was at the pool, and there was a group of tween boys all standing in a circle. But instead of doing what boys that age usually do in groups (fart on each other, talk endlessly about video games), they were dancing … in public.

Allow me to put this in context. There are cultures and social groups that respect dancing and freely dance in public. This is not one of those cultures. And there are young men who are gifted at dancing, confident in their ability, and eager to show off their moves. These are not those young men.

Up until a year or two ago, you’d be as likely to see these boys trading gardening tips as you would to see them dancing in public. The middle school years are like that — a time when kids suddenly become extremely aware of the judgment of their peers. They dread embarrassment or standing out in a bad way. And that quickly translates to “standing out at all.”

As a parent, it’s bittersweet. You can remember and even sympathize with their entry into the world of social pressure, but you hate watching the innocent joy of childhood slip away. Which puts me in the strange position of being grateful to my parenting nemesis — “Fortnite.”

If you have been living in a cave on Mars with your hands over your ears, “Fortnite” is the video game of the moment. It’s a battle royale fight-for-survival where players compete to be the last one standing as they all try to kill each other. (There’s more to it, of course, including building and team elements. If you have a spare eight hours or so, ask a nearby kid for details.)

So where does the dancing come in? Well, the game has purchasable in-game emotes that allow you to make your in-game avatar dance. The dances themselves are pulled from pop culture and internet memes. There was even an online contest where people submitted videos in the hopes of being the next “Fortnite” dance.

You’ve seen “Fortnite” dances even if you didn’t realize it. Many of the kids you’ve seen “flossing” picked it up from “Fortnite.” The simultaneously kicking, fist-pumping dance is considered by my son’s friends as the easiest (aside from “Infinite Dab”), but the highest prestige comes with nailing the “Orange Justice” dance.

“Fortnite” dances have done a lot to increase my pop culture cred with my children. I’ve talked them into watching “Scrubs” based merely on the fact that the “Default Dance” is the one done by Turk in the series. What’s more, this season saw the introduction of the Running Man, which has made me a respected historian and supplier of dance tips, something I never thought would happen.

It’s not just my children. “Mary,” a good friend, mentioned with amusement the admiration she received while chaperoning her daughter’s middle school dance — and all because she not only was able to explain how to do the Running Man but also followed it up with a tutorial on the Cabbage Patch.

But the thing that made her happiest was seeing what happened at that dance. That is, dancing. Too often, middle school dances are comprised of groups of girls dancing together while the boys stand off to the side, snickering and occasionally pushing one of their number onto the dance floor. The sacrifice will stand there awkwardly for a moment before fleeing back to the safety of the wall.

That’s not what happened this time. This time, the boys were dancing, too. They showed off their “Fortnite” moves to each other and even (gasp) danced with the girls. I mean, they were only doing “Fortnite” dances, but we shouldn’t expect miracles here. Unless “Fortnite” introduces the foxtrot in a new season. (Think about it, “Fortnite.” Use your power for good!)

On the plus side, they do have flamenco dancing. Plus that impassioned Kevin Bacon solo dance in the factory from Footloose.

Why does it matter? I could say something about how dancing is good exercise or breaking down social walls. Those are good things. But what I really like is that thanks to “Fortnite,” my boys and their friends are still able to experience the pure joy of dancing for dancing’s sake. For a few moments, they’re able to escape the rigid confines of tween social rules and dance “like nobody’s watching.” We lose that soon enough. Now they get to keep it a little longer.

Plus, I cannot emphasize enough how much I love that they brought back the Running Man.

What do you think?

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