When the late-night host Conan O’Brien welcomed Dick Van Dyke to the couch of his TBS television show last week, they started talking dance. A flash-mob dance, in this case, one that happened a few days earlier in honor of Van Dyke’s 90th birthday.
They shared a laugh as O’Brien called Van Dyke “the pope of chimney sweeps.” That was a reference to the actor’s position perched atop a balcony at the Grove, a Southern California shopping center, as he watched some 75 of his fans dance in his honor. Most were dressed as his “Chim Chim Cheree”-singing character Bert from the Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” and they were dancing to Van Dyke’s most famous songs.
As cameras caught the action for a video that would soon go viral (it’s nearing 2 million views), the dancers were led by a pair of sisters from Lancaster. Dena and Jenna Spellman – known in L.A. dance circles as the Spellman Sisters – were the choreographers of this Dec. 12 tribute.
“They were dropped from heaven,” said Van Dyke’s wife, Arlene Silver. “I was so grateful for them.”
Silver had been long planning a series of events to celebrate her husband’s 90th. In his book, “Keep Moving (and Other Tips and Truths About Aging),” Van Dyke makes clear that he’s not a fan of birthday celebrations for himself. But, he writes, “I had given the okay to my wife to organize a big party” for number 90.
Most of the celebration happened Dec. 13 at Disneyland, where four generations of Van Dykes gathered for a parade and other events in his honor. But the thing Silver hoped to do that Disneyland wouldn’t allow was a flash mob dance with some of her husband’s most celebrated songs. And while she was open to doing it somewhere other than Disneyland and on a different day, the choreographer who originally agreed to run the dance had to drop out.
Just as it was looking like the flash mob was going to fizzle, Silver saw a Facebook post in November on the event page she created for her husband’s celebration.
It was from Jenna Spellman. With Dena, she was hoping to organize a flash mob.
Neither Dena, 31, nor Jenna, 27, knew a flash mob idea had already been floated. Nor did they know the Van Dykes personally. But they had the credibility to make the offer: Since moving to L.A. seven years ago, they have made a successful living on- and off-camera by choreographing and dancing in commercials, bowl games and an array of television shows.
Silver took them up on it, and the sisters got to work. Within a day, they recorded and posted a 20-minute tutorial video for the dance, which was open to any fan who could attend.
The sisters, whose similar dark hair and large eyes often have them mistaken for twins, had unknowingly been preparing for this volunteer gig for years. Growing up in Lancaster and honing their choreography skills under the tutelage of their dance teacher, Barb Denny, they’d long been channeling Van Dyke’s moves.
“Mary Poppins is one of my favorite all-time movies,” Dena said. “ ‘Step In Time’ alone is so inspiring. We used to watch it over and over and copy the moves.”
“I love to incorporate comedy and athleticism into my choreography,” added Jenna. “That is Dick Van Dyke. His comical flair. He’s so tall and lanky and his movement is so powerful. I really have tried to bring that into my choreography.”
As they led their dancers through the medley of songs, the Spellmans could clearly see Van Dyke watching from the balcony above, wrapped in a red blanket on a windy, 50-some-degree day.
“He was smiling the entire time,” Jenna said. “It’s so contagious. I couldn’t stop smiling. And then he was singing. It was one of the most surreal experiences in my life.”
Indeed, at the end of the flash mob, Van Dyke joined the dance crew to sing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Though he’s not a trained dancer or singer, Van Dyke has his own a cappella quartet, the Vantastix, and is known is break out in dance while grocery shopping. (“You do this move with your leg that took off,” O’Brien said to Van Dyke while showing a clip of the actor dancing in a store. “They call it the ‘stanky leg.’ ”)
In a brief email interview with The News after the flash mob, Van Dyke was asked about the source of his seemingly unwavering optimism. You see it in the bright dance moves of his characters, his smile while singing with the flash mob, and in the pages of his book, which proclaims “life does get better the longer you live it.”
“I think you’re born optimistic,” Van Dyke said. “Singing and dancing help you with your mood. There’s no way you can sing or dance and not have a smile on your face.”
There’s no way you can dance FOR Van Dyke and not have that smile, either.
“It was just amazing,” Dena Spellman said. “He actually told us that we really captured the essence of the movie and that he loved it. That made our lifetime.”