Napoleon Dynamite’s dance and the cool confidence I saw in sixth grade
After recently re-watching “Napoleon Dynamite,” I was reminded of my favorite scene, and really, the movie’s pivotal and most important scene: Napoleon’s stellar dance routine on behalf of his friend Pedro, who was running for class president.
The dance, a combination of disco, break dance, and early hip-hop to the song “Canned Heat,” was a triumph. It came seemingly out of nowhere, pulled off with style and confidence in front of the entire skeptical school. It plays comedically, with Napoleon never quite aware of how good he is. Meanwhile, the dance by Pedro’s opponent, Summer Wheatley, done along with a handful of other girls, is unimaginative and predictable, what you’d expect from average high-schoolers.
Within the plot of the movie, the dance had a few purposes. Of them: It rejected the idea that socially awkward kids are incapable of coolness (after all, coolness is derived largely from confidence), and it gave his doubtful classmates a non-contrived way to love him, if only in that moment. Napoleon wins over his classmates – and the movie’s audience – (a) because he’s a shockingly good dancer and (b) he defies our expectations of what a kid of his social status is capable of.
Watching this scene took me back to sixth grade and the annual talent show at my Littleton elementary school. Stacked mostly with sixth-graders, the talent show was generally a mix of hastily produced and scantily rehearsed dance routines by the popular kids, and cringe-worthy efforts on band instruments by the not-so-popular kids. My contribution: An uninspiring lip-sync routine done with a friend to Run-D.M.C.’s theme song for “Ghostbusters II.”
All of it was forgettable, except for one act: Andy Weigel and Jennifer Donahoe’s performance of the children’s song, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket.”
The gist of skit, sung in a back-and-forth dialogue between Henry and Liza, is this: Henry has a hole in his bucket, which Liza tells him to fix. But to fix the bucket Henry needs a straw, then an ax to cut the straw, then a sharpening stone to sharpen the ax to cut the straw, then water to wet the stone to sharpen the ax to cut the straw, then a bucket to fetch the water to wet the stone to sharpen the ax to cut the straw. And before you know it, we’re back to where we were: Henry’s got a hole in his bucket.
Sandwiched between MTV and “In Living Color” knockoff acts, I remember Andy and Jennifer coming out wearing overalls and down-home country grins. “Whaaaat is THIS?” I recall thinking.
The skit, while not technically difficult, was executed with confidence, precision and, most surprisingly, earnestness with nary a hint of irony. Thinking of it now, the performance seems refreshing in this day of self-awareness, sarcasm, and snark. They’d made themselves vulnerable – amazing for sixth-graders.
Looking back on my school years, Andy Weigel remains fascinating to me, someone I went all the way from kindergarten through high school with. In elementary school, I always recall Andy being the smart kid, good-natured but never outwardly concerned with the pursuit of cool or popularity (though once, during a sixth-grade unit on street drugs, the teacher asked the class if anyone knew the term for the tool used to hold a short joint. Andy raised his hand and said with assertive confidence, “Roach clip!”). He was always a bit plump, incredibly pale and seemed to lack self-awareness, or maybe he simply just didn’t care. He opted for singing over sports and wore sweat pants every day because comfort meant more than fashion.
Like in “Napoleon Dynamite,” I recall the initial skepticism in the elementary school gym to be palpable. But by the end, Andy and Jennifer had won us over, and we rewarded them with an eruption of applause.
Yeah, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket,” was hokey, kitschy and dorky. But Andy and Jennifer were gutsy, and the rehearsal time they put in was clear on stage. Looking back, that’s what we were applauding, their courage and self-assuredness. Their confidence made them cool.
Though I remember being friendly with Andy, different interests, social circles, and all the regrettable trappings of school would prevent us from ever being good friends. Knowing what I know now, my guess is that Andy was probably always the most interesting kid in school, if not the smartest. And knowing who I’ve become after high school, I bet Andy would be pretty cool to talk to in the same way that I’d love to see a sequel to “Napoleon Dynamite.”