Over in a flash (mob): 'Formal Freeze' at the Maine Mall in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — If you were shopping at the Maine Mall on Saturday and happened to be walking through the center court near The Gap, Starbucks, and The Sports Authority at 3 p.m., you would have seen about 30 people, mostly teenagers, wearing fancy dresses and suits, standing completely motionless for exactly five minutes.

A small crowd gathered with their cellphones raised to photograph the scene. They whispered to each other is it a prom fashion event? An art project? Theater?

“It’s the Southern Maine Flash Mob,” said a security guard.

At 3:05, the human mannequins relaxed and walked away to a round of applause from their audience.

“That’s the least amount of work I’ve ever had to do for applause,” said Dan Burgess, 25, who heard about the event on Facebook and added that he’d definitely do it again.

Flash mobs started in 2003 in New York City with Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s. Wasik defines flash mobs as “gatherings of people somewhere in physical space that last for 10 minutes or less and are brought together via text message, e-mail (and social networks). Then everyone disperses and leaves no trace.”

Variations on the theme were adopted in cities around the world. Inspired by other flash mob antics and events put together by a group called Improv Everywhere, former comedian and keyboard player, Nick Salve, 25, of Saco, started the local chapter in 2009.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing at first,” Salve said. “There isn’t a Flash Mob for Dummies handbook.”

His advice: plan something that’s easy, something everyone can do and something that doesn’t require a rehearsal. He pointed out that Maine has limited location options for aspiring flash mob organizers.

“We don’t have a subway system. We don’t have many big places where the majority of our population goes through,” he said. The Maine Mall, Monument Square in Portland and Old Orchard Beach are the places so far that you might witness a flash mob experience. Another goal of the group is to organize more hangouts after events, so that friendships can develop outside of Facebook.

Flash mobs rely on Facebook and cellphones for quick communication, but Salve said that the idea of doing something en masse that’s a playful social experiment has been happening forever. When he was in college, Salve got a few of his buddies to stand around on a road at his college campus and point up at the sky. Quickly, he says, other students started to mimic the gag and pointed, too.

“Every time someone beeps their horn, I beep mine. Just to see if I can get a chain reaction going,” Salve said.

Salve adheres to the official flash mob definition by developing happenings that only last about five minutes, without a political or charitable agenda, and he won’t do anything expensive or illegal.

“I try to make it clear to people that getting police attention doesn’t mean you’re going to get arrested,” he said.

Salve said his group hasn’t had troubles with the law or businesses. L.L. Bean found out about the giant conga line he orchestrated last March in Freeport before it happened.

“They sent me an e-mail that simply said, ‘Don’t break anything, don’t steal anything, have a good time,” Salve said.

The “Formal Freeze” at the mall was Salve’s seventh endeavor with the group. The first was something he calls “Hannaford Peas:” Mobbers were instructed to go to Hannaford at a specific time and purchase a can of peas in hopes of getting a confused look from the cashier. “Then, I donated the peas to a soup kitchen,” he said. “That was the only time there was a charity component.”

Salve said he has received many angry e-mails from people asking him why he doesn’t gather people together to do something “good” or “useful.” “I really want it to be about pure fun for everyone involved,” he said, “whether you’re in the mob or an observer.”

The mob experience isn’t meant to be a secret. Anyone can read about upcoming events on the group’s Facebook page, where Salve posts the time, location and directions. For last week’s event, he wrote, “We will synchronize our cellphones and become human mannequins along the mall hallways for five minutes. It’s going to be formal. Break out that old prom dress, tux, or suit. (Don’t spend a ton of money.) Have fun! Make a scene! Afterwards, we’re all goin’ to Chuck E. Cheese’s for pizza.”

Among other comments asking for clarification on time and location, one commenter said, “What is the purpose/significance of this event? Does a freeze stand for something? Or is this just a practice of how people can come together …?”

“Neither,” Salve replied. “It just looks really cool.”

Sidebar Elements

While photographers capture the moment last Saturday, Patricia Ewig and Ian Bouffard, left in black, and Alexandra Davisand Teddy Blaisdell participate in the Formal Freeze with the Southern Maine Flash Mob at the Maine Mall in South Portland.Devon Kierstead, 21, and Emily Morang, 19, freeze for five minutes at the Maine Mall on Saturday as part of the Formal Freeze put on by the Southern Maine Flash Mobs group.