Describing his dance style, David Bernal punctuates each sentence with an arm wave or a pop of an isolated joint as he sits on a high barstool at the Iron Press in Anaheim. The Santa Ana native effortlessly flows between seated vignettes of much larger styles, including "liquid mantis" and "psychedelic alien," which he began to develop as a student at Saddleback High School. In Tuesday's post-lunch-rush crowd, not too many people notice, but in the Internet's infancy, these styles made him a star.
David Elsewhere, as he's known online, is part of the first wave of Internet celebrities borne not of YouTube and jump cuts, but of discussion forums, word of mouth and eBaum's World.
You may have seen him perform in a video called "Kolla2001" (or "insane robot dance" or "Mike Song + David Elsewhere"), which features a then-21-year-old Bernal dancing in the 2001 edition of the Kollaboration talent show. It's a classic, with a view count of more than 200 million split over hundreds of copies. In it, he wears a long-sleeved T-shirt and khakis, which contrast with the baggy clothes of the other dancers. He first swings his arms in a kitschy rhythmic pattern, lulling the audience into a state of security. And then his entire body melts, and the crowd erupts.
"I remember thinking, seeing everyone dance before me, 'Man, this crowd is an awesome crowd,'" Bernal says. "Before I went on, I was already hyped because there was so much positive energy there."
But with the performance over and payment in hand, Bernal, who had by that point spent years as a street performer at the Irvine Spectrum and auditioning for gigs ranging from small local talent shows to Cirque du Soleil, forgot about that night–until a year later, when Kollaboration uploaded the video to help promote their next show.
"Somebody emailed me and said, 'Check this clip; you're on this clip,'" Bernal says. The emails kept coming, first props and praise from other dancers, then commercial offers: 7-Eleven, Heineken, Volkswagen, Apple (Bernal's in the iPod silhouette commercials, his performance having inspired the series). There were a few parts in movies, including You Got Served and Alice In Wonderland. He traveled to Japan, South America and Europe to perform. Cirque du Soleil, who strung him along for a few years, offered him a part, which he turned down.
"That was pretty satisfying," he says, laughing.
And then in 2009, he was approached by Michael Jackson to help the entertainer prepare for his concert series. "At first, when I started dancing with him, I wasn't sure what he wanted to do because he'd let me do whatever, and he would videotape me the whole time," Bernal says. "The moment I walked in, he would videotape me, and he'd videotaped our whole session. And I would say something, and he'd grab the camera–which was already recording–and be like, 'Say that one more time.'" (Jackson died before the series could start.)
Now 35, Bernal acknowledges his dancing days may soon be over. But his lasting influence can be seen in the comments section of any of the videos he's featured in.
"Thank you, David Elsewhere," reads one. "Thank you for giving me the thought 'I want to try this.'"
"Dude. David was, like, the reason a lot of people started dancing. Because of that robot video, I started dancing," reads another.
"That same vid inspired me five years ago," reads a third.
"Yeah, that's pretty much what happened," Bernal says. "That's my dance career in a nutshell."