The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

This is the story of how Robot Dance Party came to be—how it was born, how it went through "robot puberty," and how it became the unwitting sex symbol of Dolores Park.


Six years ago at Burning Man, Chris Hirst had a transcendental experience.

Through two small holes in a cardboard-covered milk crate, he peered out at hundreds of grooving eccentrics. Criss-crossed straps dug into into his shoulders like piano wire; 50 pounds of plywood pressed violently on his collarbones. But none of this bothered him: he had just sparked an extemporaneous dance revolution. Inside his home-made, speaker-equipped robot suit, he shuffle-stepped with the mechanical precision of a Singaporean pop singer.

And when “Zoot Suit Riot” died down into David Bowie’s “As the World Falls Down,” the crowd grew quiet and began to slow dance. Swaying slowly to the tune beneath a full desert moon, the robot silently shed tears of joy.

The robot would have quite a journey in the coming years: he’d become a San Francisco staple, a Dolores Park icon, and a reigning symbol of the uninhibited human spirit. But first, he had to be built.

Birth and Early Robothood

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Early schematic for the first robot

From its inception, the robot was a collaboration of minds. Chris and his friend Enzo were overwhelmed by huge clubs and music venues, and began toying with the idea of creating intimate, impromptu dance parties. Though “not a good dancer by any stretch of the imagination,” Chris was piqued by the free-spirited nature of movement. Plus, he played a lot of Dance Dance Revolution—that had to count for something.

The duo’s first thought was to fashion a system of mini speakers into a business suit; this proved impractical, as the equipment was too heavy for pant legs to support. They realized they’d need some sort of frame to house the speakers.

Then, Chris says, “the idea kind of just materialized—a robot!” Enter the first roadblock: he knew absolutely nothing about wires, electronics, or how to construct anything in general.

In the garage of his parents’ Morgan Hill home, Chris spent the summer of 2007 planning out schematics and constructing robot 1.0. The result was rudimentary at best: thick plywood, nailed into the shape of a rectangular box, 12-pound speakers, a “horrendous” internal support system. For the bot’s head, Chris mounted a milk crate and covered it with silver-sprayed poster board; for the legs, flexible metal ducting. It was, by all accounts, a piece of crap—in Chris’s estimation, “an absolutely terrible design.”

An early, rudimentary version of Robot Dance Party

At this stage, the robot was still strictly for Burning Man purposes. Despite its shortcomings, Chris says robot 1.0 served its intended purpose: “he provided the music, and danced worse than you’d ever hope to. He set a nice, low bar that even closet dance enthusiasts could surpass.”

But the positive feedback Chris received only fueled him to improve the bot; he spent the following year enlisting the help of his friend Scott, who had a deeper knowledge of electronics, amps, and “assorted fake-robot-building skills.” Together, the two upgraded the sound output with more sufficient speakers, rewired the amps, and added a lead acid motorcycle battery to power the rig. They returned to Burning Man to great fanfare, but several serious problems needed to be addressed.

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Robot 3.0 doing the "lean" at Burning Man

Enter roadblock number two: the suit was unbearably heavy. Not just this, but it proved logistically difficult for Chris to move around in: “it was like dancing in a tank.” In preparation for the Maker Faire, he began gearing up for a final version of the robot — one that would be lighter, louder, and “much more danceable.”

What resulted was robot 3.0—“Robot Dance Party”—the version we know and love today. The bot’s unwieldy plywood frame was replaced by fiberglass; 12-pound speakers were swapped for 8-ounce speakers; the painful support system was upgraded to a pair of guitar straps and a belt-like mechanism that could be “slipped on like a shirt.”

Clamp-like hands were added, and the arms and legs were swapped for plastic AC ducting coated in mylar (the same material used to make space suits). Chris’ 50-year-old neighbor, Dennis, even chipped in a few cooling fans for especially intense dance-offs.

Chris—“the kind of guy who buys the first pair of shoes [he tries] on"—used measured simplicity in designing his alter-ego. He made it leaner, cleaner and meaner.

All said and done, the bot’s weight was cut to 25 pounds—and he looked a hell of a lot better. Having gone through “robot puberty,” the once-homely bot had matured into a suave silver fox. It was time for him to seek out greener pastures.

Dolores Park and the Loss of Innocence

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Until Dolores Park, the robot had mainly existed for the family-friendly amusement of small children, and for innocuous hippies rolling on molly. When Chris decided to debut the bot in San Francisco, things got physical. Though Chris deliberately made the robot androgenous and emotionally vague (it sports a permanent half-smirk), he says many park patrons have sexualized it:

“Girls love to come up and grind on the robot. I don’t really understand it. It’s definitely something that doesn’t happen at Maker Faire.”

Though Chris has received an array of advice from his Dolores Park fans—“you should glue a giant rubber schlong on the robot, bro!”—he considers most of it in violation of the true spirit and purpose of his creation: to bring wholesome, random enjoyment into people’s everyday lives, one dance at a time.

For a few admirers, he’s conjured more than joy. Last year, one female fan relentlessly stalked the robot on Twitter, sharing his posts, favoriting every photo, and beckoning for a meet-up. Nearly every time he visits the park on a nice day, Chris says the robot is fondled, inappropriately touched, or molested—all of which, he admits, “come with the territory.”

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

But the robot doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself as a sex symbol, so he often spends mornings in Helen Diller Playground performing for children, before migrating into the “pastures of passion” from 2-4 PM:

“Dancing for kids is more fun than dancing for adults. I think for adults, the robot is more of a novelty; kids just completely lose themselves in the dance. They love it. They don’t hesitate to immediately join in on something spontaneous and silly. This one kid blew my mind last year with his dance moves — pure genius.”

Robot dances with kids in Helen Diller Playground, Dolores Park

Chris attributes this to the “suspension of disbelief,” or, as poet Samuel Coleridge put it: “infuse human interest and a semblance of truth” into something fantastical, and the viewer will brush over its implausibilities. Children are generally more apt to believe the robot is real, but Chris says it’s not uncommon to have full-grown adults debating whether or not there’s a human inside.

“Dude, I wish I hadn’t seen you take your head off,” one bro in his twenties told Chris last year. “I had myself...believing you were real.”

In the spirit of disbelief, the robot pays homage to other doubted characters. For December’s SantaCon, he appeared in full regalia, blasting Christmas carols:

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

In one of his most memorable performances, the robot marched down Market street during the Gay Pride Parade, sporting a new rainbow paint job:

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Robot Economics

Successful appearances in Dolores Park segued into a freelance gig for Chris; soon, private parties were recruiting the robot as a source of entertainment. Today, Robot Dance Party performs at three to five events per month. Because he adjusts his fee based on the client’s ability to pay, his returns widely vary: a Sonoma winery paid him $300 last month for a two-hour performance; at a 5k charity run, he was paid in silly string.

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Robot Dance Party entertains at a private party (and terrifies unenlightened woman to his left)

The robot even has a quasi-manager, who handles bookings and doubles as his occasional DJ. Mustafa Khan, an ex-Facebook employee (and creator of ridiculous websites), met the robot in Dolores Park and immediately saw potential. He helped the robot get off the ground, and estimates that he's booked about 30 shows in total over the past year.

While Chris doesn't always wholeheartedly agree with Mustafa's music selections (mostly highly recognizable, dance-friendly tunes like Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing"), he admits he has a "weak spot for dancing to Katy Perry." If it were up to him though, he'd prefer blasting Yo La Tengo, Pet Shop Boys, and Nine Inch Nails. His favorite song to boogie to? Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself.

Occasionally, he'll get offered corporate-sponsored gigs; treasure Island Music Festival gave the bot free tickets to make an appearance, and ferried him out. He hasn’t yet been hired for a bachelorette party, but will try anything once.

But creating a robot alter-ego isn’t cheap, and his monetary rewards are paltry in comparison to input costs. Chris estimates that, over the course of the robot’s life, he’s invested $5,000 of his own money on parts, repairs, and batteries. “Hot glue alone,” he says “has run me about $300.” In 2012, Chris, an office manager at a software company, could no longer single-handedly fund his mylar-matted automaton. So, the robot turned to Kickstarter.

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

In 30 days, the robot exceeded his goal, raising over $2,000 from 83 backers — most of whom were strangers who’d participated in his Dolores dance parties.The money has since helped him add electroluminescent wire (wires that glow in the dark), arduino hardware that syncs the robot’s lights to its music, and an improved audio interface that allows dancers to plug in their own music.

Most importantly, it has afforded new batteries, paint, and other maintenance items that keep the bot in party mode.

Dancing Into the Sunset

The Dancing Robot That Took Over San Francisco

Source: Doc Pop

When Chris Hirst was a kid, he used to take piano lessons. “Recitals were hell,” he recalls, with a chuckle. “I remember walking out onto the stage, legs shaking, heart pounding. But the moment I played that first note, this calmness overtook me—it was like zen meditation. I was invisible.”

Growing up, life wasn’t a smooth ride for Chris, and zen moments like this didn’t come easily. He suffered from epilepsy, was diagnosed as bipolar, and endured countless struggles most couldn't imagine. But today, the robot is his sactum sanctorum, his escape—his “first note.” Looking out from the solace of his bot, he sees a world full of energy, possibilities, and potential dance floors.

The robot — a reigning symbol of mindless, mechanical action—seems to conversely conjure the true essence of the human spirit. When it makes an appearance, “people shed their insecurities, and let themselves loose."

In many ways, Chris has become his robot: once reserved and self-aware, he is now liberated and at peace. Even dressed in a blue button-up shirt and khakis, “Office Chris” carries himself with the same jaunty step of Robot Dance Party. In conversation, he often refers to himself as “the robot” subconsciously.

But for all the enjoyment he's given to the community, he takes little credit and seeks no recognition. "I'm not a person," he insists, "just music personified."


This post by Zachary Crockett first appeared at Priceonomics and is republished here with permission. You can follow Zachary on Twitter here and subscribe to the Priceonomics blog by email here.