If you lived in the early 2000s, the phrase “flash mob” might evoke a vague sense of dread. The seemingly spontaneous gatherings, often involving some sort of performance, started out as a cool-kid phenomenon and turned with daunting speed into a corporate marketing tool. By the end of the decade, there was a creeping feeling, seeing a crowd or a video of a crowd, that something was being sold to you.
Then, several years and several mood changes later, came the Flash Bobs.
Like their older cousins, Flash Bobs involve fake impromptu gatherings in public spaces. But as orchestrated by Bob’s Dance Shop – a group of five performers that its founder Vince Coconato describes as an “immersive dance crew” – the crowds lean silly, colorful and cheerfully queer. Featuring routines with disarmingly simple choreography to wedding playlist classics and performed by diverse crowds of mostly untrained dancers, they bring the inclusive spirit of viral dance challenge to the great outdoors. (And then, in the group-shared video footage of each event, back online.)
Those who strolled the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica a few Saturdays ago might have wandered into the latest Bob flash. Eighty mobbers in colorful outfits invaded the cobblestones, performing a number with disco accents on a remix of “Le Freak” by Chic. The highlight was the reveal of pop star Paula Abdul, who danced with the crowd and then hugged everyone within reach.
Abdul, who started her career as a dancer, said in an email that she considered herself a “lifer” from Bob. (She befriended the Bobs while waiting in line at the airport.) “I’ve always been a big fan of dancers and choreography,” she wrote, “but this group embodies more than movement.”
Over the past few years, Bob’s Dance Shop has built a devoted following around the cathartic power of dance party energy. “There’s a selflessness in that,” said dancer Sarah McCreanor, known as Smac, who has competed in two Flash Bobs since joining the group on Instagram. “Everyone there, whoever they are, has the same goal, which is to have fun.”
Pleasure remains a priority. But in recent months, Bob’s Dance Shop has also begun positioning its events as acts of protest. Among the top five Bobs – Coconato; the interpreter Jacob Garcia, known as Lito; dancer and choreographer Lucas Hive; musician Kameron with a K; and dancer and choreographer Malia Baker – all but Baker are queer. (And, no, none are named Bob.)
The Flash Bobs have gained momentum as conservative politicians across the United States have pursued laws targeting LGBTQ rights. Showing up “boldly and bizarrely in public places,” as a recent video caption put it, is now part of Bob’s mission.
“We like to call ourselves ‘Joy Activists,'” Coconato said. “And our activism is about queer joy because it’s really our own story.”
Coconato, 31, grew up “very closeted,” he said, in a small town in Florida. His first dance experience was as a high school class president, teaching fellow seniors the choreography “Thriller” for a pep rally shortly after Michael Jackson’s death. Although he had no dance training, he found himself to be a natural teacher. At the University of South Florida, he choreographed dances for his fraternity and staged his first flash mob — it was at the end of the trend’s first wave — for 300 students.
After college, Coconato came out to family and friends, moved to Los Angeles, and took a job at a video post-production company. One day he wore a yellow Lion’s Club shirt embroidered with the name “Bob” to work. An unsuspecting customer said, “Hi Bob! What’s your story?” Coconato playfully improvised a character he later realized was inspired by his own makeover: a gay Southern choreographer named Bob.
Coconato had considered organizing another flash mob, after his success in college. “And I had this ‘Oh, a flash mob named Bob’ moment,” he said. “It just rolls on your tongue.” In 2017, he and some friends put together the first-ever flash mob Bob, a campy romp down the same Santa Monica street that served as the most recent scene, with Coconato wearing the yellow Bob shirt.
After losing his day job, Coconato registered the name Bob’s Dance Shop, and in December 2019 he began hosting pop-up dance classes in rented studios, advertising on Instagram, and teaching. the festive choreography to whoever showed up. Classes maintained the wry spirit and some of the spontaneous feel of Flash Bob.
When the pandemic hit, Coconato and a few friends took refuge in a house in Los Angeles. With in-person lessons, not to mention flash mobs, an impossibility, Coconato recruited two of his dance-prone roommates, Lito and Hive, to help make Bob’s Dance Shop virtual.
They joined the many dance makers then offering free lessons on Instagram Live, and began filming videos of lighthearted choreography that had “great Bob energy,” Lito said, as well as sleek production values. A few months later, as their online following grew, they invited Kameron, a friend from the music scene, to join their growing team. (Baker, the newest member, joined this year to help with choreography as the scale of the group’s projects grew.)
In June 2021, as Covid restrictions eased, the Bobs have planned a big IRL celebration. On Father’s Day, they staged the flash Bob that would seal their fate: 50 dancers performing on “Around the World (La La La)” in front of a cheering crowd at Ocean View Park. Footage from the event, posted to Instagram and TikTok shortly after, went super viral.
“I think everyone was so happy — desperate, really — to be outside and dancing together, or even seeing that it was possible again,” Coconato said.
Since then, the Bobs have assaulted venues everywhere, from Grand Central Terminal in New York to Buckingham Palace in London. They have been invited to flash red carpets and appeared at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits music festivals. Last year, they were asked to ‘sow’ flash Bobs for music duo Sofi Tukker, planting themselves in the audience before being invited on stage. Now they tour with the band and with DJ and producer Purple Disco Machine.
“They are world-class mood preservers,” Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern of Sofi Tukker wrote in an email.
Over time, the band tweaked their flash Bob formula. Each event begins with a fee-based workshop, essentially a two-hour dance class, where anyone enthusiastic enough can learn a short, choreographed routine — and ends with a mob-style performance for an unsuspecting crowd. Usually the Bobs teach a few basic steps that have become iconic “bobographies,” like the “people dance” (touch your far shoulder, touch your near shoulder, raise your hand above your head) and the “flamingo (touch your index and middle fingers to your thumb, raise your hand above your head).
Although these are not moves from the vernacular of the TikTok dance challenge, the philosophy is similar. “It’s about creating a dance language that is learnable and repeatable,” Coconato said.
It is also a language shaped by LGBTQ culture. “The way we perform is very inspired by the queer community and the drag community,” Lito said. Much of the group’s choreography involves elements of voguing, a style created by black and Latino queer dancers. Lip-syncing, a staple of drag shows, is factored into almost every performance.
With LGBTQ rights under attack, the Bobs began explicitly presenting their performances and videos as activism. Coconato wants to choose future Flash Bob locations strategically, he said. There are plans to hold one in Tennessee, which recently banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth and restricted drag performances, in June. He also hopes to invade rural dark red Florida, where he grew up.
“You just want to flood those areas with as much joy as possible,” he said.
Also needs more joy: the ruthless commercial dance industry. Bob’s Dance Shop initially existed largely outside of mainstream professional dance, with most of its members, mobbers, and fans coming from non-dance backgrounds. Today it is gaining traction among pros looking for a more relaxed and upbeat approach to performance.
Baker, whose credits include dancing to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and choreographing “So You Think You Can Dance,” said she felt “depressed and frustrated” with the competitiveness of professional dancing before join the Bobs. Smac, who competed on both “So You Think” and “Dancing With Myself”, described Bob’s flash workshops as “stress-free environments, which is basically unheard of for professional dancers.”
Next month, four of the five Bobs will move to New York from Los Angeles. They hope moving their base to the East Coast will help them build better relationships with the worlds of theatre, music and fashion, areas they would like to explore further. Social media may have been the band’s route to success in the pandemic era, but now the focus is on good vibes in person.
“Where we’re most excited about growing,” Coconato said, “isn’t the social platform, it’s the physical platform — the stage, the track, the gig. “
Whatever other projects the band might take on, their Flash Bobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Or rather, they go to many undisclosed places at many undisclosed times.
“That element of joyful surprise,” Coconato said, “will always be at the heart of what we do.”