At a Google conference in Rhodes, Matthew d’Ancona finds himself part of a bid to break the world record for Zorba dancing — and to relive one of the greatest scenes in cinema
‘Teach me to dance. Will you?’ Few scenes in cinema have the emotional poignancy and magic of the last moments of Zorba the Greek (1964), as Basil, the young English writer played by Alan Bates, seeks his final lesson in life from Anthony Quinn’s majestic peasant-magus, on the Cretan shore. All around them are broken dreams, and the air hangs heavy with the prospect of their parting: but nothing can repress their joy as that familiar theme, ‘Sirtaki’, by Mikis Theodorakis — slow and stately to begin, but accelerating quickly — transports Zorba and his beloved apprentice to a place of unbreakable friendship.
I can remember vividly when my parents first introduced me to this movie, and the Kazantzakis novel upon which it is based, and I have loved both ever since. Quinn’s Zorba is one of the great, most affecting screen performances, and he delivers the Greek’s famous aphorisms with a perfectly judged mixture of affection and scorn. ‘What kind of a man are you?’ he asks the repressed, bookish Basil as they sail to the island. ‘Don’t you even like dolphins?’
Life, he tells him, ‘is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.’ He has ‘enough fight in me to devour the world. So I fight! Well, do we? Or do we let the mountain win?’ Basil, Zorba says, has ‘got everything except one thing: madness. A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.’ It is a story about the sensualist’s education of the intellectual and the refusal of a true man to age gracefully, or to accept that he cannot live for a thousand years. Zorba dances, he explains, to escape grief as well as to celebrate life. ‘When a man is full what can he do?’ he asks Basil. ‘Burst!’
We all need to get in touch with our inner Zorba from time to time, and I did so in the unexpected setting of a Google conference in Rhodes, on a balmy Aegean night. I was there to chair sessions on the future of the web, but the organisers had planned something rather unusual for the second evening. The massed Googlers (with me along for the ride) were challenged to break the world record for simultaneous Zorba dancing, which had been set in Melbourne in July 2004 and stood at 1,280. Why, you might ask. As Zorba says: ‘Will no man ever do something without a “why”? For the hell of it!’ What better reason?
To the spirit of Zorba was added the spirit of McWhirter. Something about the human condition drives us to break records, the more obscure, and in some cases absurd, the better. As any devotee of Roy Castle and Record Breakers knows, dedication’s what you need (‘If you want to be the best,/ If you want to beat the rest,/ Oh-oh, dedication’s what you need’, etc). Michael Phelps needed it. Usain Bolt needed it. So did Mohammed Rashid, the 67-year-old Turk with the world’s longest moustache (1.6m). So did the 451 people who dressed as Smurfs at Warwick University in 2007 (a Croatian bid to break the record failed earlier this year). So did Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut who, in July 2007, beat the world competitive eating record held by Takeru ‘Tsunami’ Kobayashi, by consuming 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. And so, now, did I.
As anyone who has encountered Google knows, dedication comes naturally to its employees, as well as a healthy sense of fun. So around the margins of this international conference were groups of alpha-class engineers and salesmen rehearsing studiously for the big night in their blue Google T-shirts.
I sat in the conference hall with one of the organisers watching the clip of Bates and Quinn do their stuff on YouTube. It looked rather difficult. The rhythm changed unexpectedly from 4/4 to 2/2. What was that you were supposed to do with your right leg? And all the leg crossing and uncrossing struck me as best left to the experts. But there was no backing down now. As Zorba says: ‘Why did God give us hands? To grab!’ And feet, of course, to dance. Even if, as in my case, they are both left feet.
I almost didn’t make it. By the time I got to the Kallipateira sports complex, just by Zefiros beach, the party was well under way. Hundreds of Googlers had already linked their arms around the floodlit track and were being put through their paces by dancers in national dress on podia. I joined a group of voluble German and Austrians who looked like they knew what they were doing.
At which point, a booming voice over the PA system reminded us that we would be filmed and scrutinised by the Guinness Book of World Records. This was serious. Jumping around aimlessly in line would not pass muster. A few bad apples — or olives, in this case — could spoil the whole barrel. Two last rehearsals. I didn’t want to let the side down. Was I getting any better? Still closer to Alan Bates the pupil than Anthony Quinn the master, I feared, and sometimes stepping forward boldly with the wrong leg entirely. The increasingly precise Germans demonstrated Zorba durch Technik but were polite enough not to kick out this British interloper.
Then it was time for the real deal. A final warning and then the first inimitable notes of the Theodorakis melody filled the stadium. Step, step, and off we went. More than 1,500 people doing the Zorba dance, speeding up, speeding up until the music became a dizzy aural blur. And just for a minute, I must admit, it was bloody wonderful, so much more than a stunt. We were all back on that Cretan shore in black and white, celebrating nothing in particular with complete conviction. Something about the ritual and the primitivism of the dance.
Who would have thought it? The global company that defines high-tech modernity staging a gathering so ancestral and so visceral in its inspiration, in sight of the wine-dark sea. Google meets The Golden Bough. Maybe that’s part of the point about the web: it joins people together like a great global dance.
And then it was over and the record had indeed fallen: 1,672 people officially counted as participating in the Zorba dance, each rewarded with a medal. The Germans offered high fives. The crowd dispersed slowly towards the mediaeval Old Town and its lovely tavernas. The stars sparkled in the night, smiling at the throng below and the pride of those who, like the old peasant, dare to dance ‘for the hell of it’.