The YouTube Dance Icon You'd Least Expect

John Griffith/ YouTube

For John Griffith, dance has long been a way of quickly bridging cultural divides.

"Every time someone new comes on my crew, I ask them if they can dance. If they say yes, I ask them where they are from and how they dance out there and then I say 'show it to me,' and then I try to do it back at them," he said. "Their response is always like, 'Oh my god, there's a big fat white hairy cowboy who is busting a move!' "

Griffith's knack for picking up dance skills is on full display in a new viral video which has nearly a million hits on YouTube, and already aired on Good Morning America and the Today Show.

The clip starts with two young California Conservation Corps members, Antwon McCoy and Leonard Patton breaking it down for the camera. About thirty seconds into their dancing, their boss Griffith, a 42-year old large man with a beard and a ranger hat, drops into the video from stage left and busts a few moves that he picked up from his co-workers.

The minute-long clip went viral for a few reasons. First, because to the surprise of many, Griffith is a really really good dancer. But, also because the mutual love and respect between Griffith and his Corps members is hard to miss.

Griffith says both his dance skills and his "cultural competency" didn't develop overnight and that both are integral to his work. A long-time nature lover, Griffith actually grew up in California's Bay Area, where he was exposed to people from many different backgrounds.

"I'm from a very diverse, multicultural neighborhood, so I became culturally competent as a child. I learned to beatbox, to rap and to breakdance as a kid," Griffith told ABC/Univision. He also speaks quite a bit of Spanish, and still works with many young Latinos in his work around the state of California.

Griffith maintains that incorporating a diverse range of communities into environmental causes is crucial to the success of his organization's movement.

"It's going to take everybody to save nature, and everybody, from every background should feel welcome in their state or national parks," he said. "I want the faces in the conservation movement to look like all of the United States."

In Griffith's view, the two corps members featured in the viral video are perfect examples of the value of programs like the one for which he works. McCoy and Patton, who worked with Griffith for more than a year on salmon habitat restoration and building trails in California state parks, left Oakland and and Los Angeles respectively because "there weren't a lot of opportunities in their communities," according to Griffith.

He says the 24-hour California Conservation Corps program is helping both young men get their high school diploma, while also providing them with work and teaching them about the environment and how to save it.

Griffith has also recently authored a book with a similar aim of getting young minority kids interested in environmental issues. The book, Totem Magic, is part of the small but blossoming "eco-fantasy" genre, and features a young Hispanic protagonist named Enrique Salazar.

All the proceeds of Griffith's book go to environmental charities, and he hopes his newfound YouTube stardom will help him promote it. (Check out his book here and his other favorite initiatives Outdoor Afro and Pacha's Pajamas. )

The now internet-famous video was almost never released to the masses, Griffith says, because he was initially embarassed.

"No one needs to see a fat cowboy dancing," Griffith recalled telling his Corps members. "But then they insisted and said 'You know what, we want our Mom's to see that' so I said okay. It was so sponatneous, I was kind of embarassed by it, who would've thought it would become this big," he said.

Now that the video is out there, Griffith is very excited by all of the positive feedback from people who have written him to say that it made them happy. While many media outlets have reached out to Griffith, he has yet to been contacted by Ellen -- a show he says he'd love to be on.

"Oh, Ellen, if Ellen calls me, oh my, we are going to daaaaaaaaaance," he said.

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