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The legend of 'Dancing Kevin,' the shirtless, gyrating Blue Jackets fan

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Kevin Schroeder got his job dancing at Columbus Blue Jackets games more or less by accident. He's kept it by refusing to turn down, ever. That and some strategic shirtlessness.

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

It's strange, maybe, that this was the first place my mind went upon watching the video, but I imagined Kevin Schroeder conferring, maybe even rehearsing, with the man who was wearing the full-body bear costume. Nothing too complicated, just "I will grind on you at this point in the song, get real low at this other point," that sort of thing.

Dancing Kevin assured me that this is not how it happened.

You've seen the video, and so you've seen Schroeder. He is almost instantly shirtless, and there is a message exhorting the Columbus Blue Jackets written on his pale and pendulous belly. He is dancing, and dancing extremely hard at that, and then Schroeder is pouring not one but two tall boys of Labatt's Blue not so much into as onto his mouth. And after that -- it does not make sense, but remember that this is happening on the Jumbotron at a NHL game, and so it sort of does -- Schroeder is dancing with and then very quickly dancing all up on the man in the bear costume.

This roughly times up with the moment when the bass drops in DJ Snake's "Turn Down For What," and it is the sort of thing that -- just given the sudden physical intimacy between beefy gyrating shirtless man and the man wearing a bear costume on behalf of Labatt beer -- seems like it must've been worked out in advance. But there was no blocking or strategizing with the man in the bear costume, Schroeder told me.

To the extent he remembers any of it, that is. Schroeder -- who works a day job with 17th Star Distributing, a craft beer distributor in Columbus, Ohio, dabbles in stand-up comedy and is best known on the internet and at Blue Jackets games as Dancing Kevin -- does not generally remember what happens in the moments when he starts dancing in front of tens of thousands of people.

"First off, I'm totally terrified," Schroeder told me. "Absolutely and totally terrified. I get up, I start swaying back and forth, and then I black out and just start flailing around. I don't really see anything, everything's blurry. I must hear the song, I guess, because I dance to it. But I don't comprehend it."

This is how dancing is supposed to work, mostly, and it is more or less how it has worked for Schroeder at Blue Jackets games for over a decade. It is planned, and it is part of the game, right up until the moment when it's not. This is when it gets weird, and when it gets good.

"I used to do a lot of nipple-rubbing, which I was told not to do anymore. Which, I completely understand."

After a moment, Schroeder goes back to clarify a point regarding what he does and doesn't think about while dancing, shirtless, in front of thousands of strangers.

"I used to do a lot of nipple-rubbing, which I was told not to do anymore. Which, I completely understand. I think they're totally right. But I have to make a conscious effort not to do that. That's about the only thing I'm thinking about."

★★★

What Dancing Kevin does at Blue Jackets games is not a new thing, really. Something has to go on the Jumbotron during commercial breaks and lulls in the action. Teams long ago figured out that putting someone on a gigantic screen, at the bull's eye of thousands of points of peer pressure, is enough to get otherwise reasonable civilians to hit the Shmoney Dance harder than would seem possible, or to kiss the person next to them, or do whatever other request is spelled out in big, bright letters on the screen.

Sometimes this is done better than others. You never notice that Todd Rundgren's "Bang On A Drum All Day" is actually 22 minutes long until you see the fans at a Professional Bull Riding event attempt to dance for that song's entire duration. But this sort of thing is, at this point, done more or less everywhere.

And for as long as teams have put people on those gigantic screens, people have understood the rules of getting on the Jumbotron. At a meaningless Sunday afternoon Blue Jackets game -- he recalls that there "really wasn't anyone at the arena that day" -- Schroeder leveraged this knowledge.

"There was a guy standing on the Zamboni with a camera getting pictures of people dancing," he says. "And my girlfriend really, really wanted to be on the Jumbotron. And by the third period, I said, 'Do you really want to get on?' and she said yeah and I said, 'fat guy dancing, that'll get you on.'"

It did. And when Schroeder playfully pushed his girlfriend away and danced even harder during his moment on the Jumbotron, the crowd erupted. Later in the period, the Blue Jackets replayed the footage, to something like the same response. The most important thing to know about this particular performance is that it happened in 2002.

The other thing to know is that, for some time, it kept happening without Schroeder -- who at the time lived in Manitou Springs, Colo. -- even knowing about it. "People from home kept asking me, 'are you in town, are you at the game?' And I was just like, 'um, no.'" One day, at a Subway in his Colorado town, a family struck up a conversation with Schroeder after noticing his Blue Jackets hat.

They talked about the team, until the moment that the father figured out why Schroeder seemed so familiar. "You're the guy from the JumboTron," he said.

Schroeder did not strictly know that he was the guy from the Jumbotron, but quickly figured out that the Blue Jackets had been re-running his improvised dance routine for some time. He emailed an address on the team's home page and offered to reprise the performance whenever the team would have him; he worked for an airline, then, and the Ohio native was back in Columbus fairly often.

Schroeder says he was surprised when he heard back. The team would be happy to have him whenever he was in town, he was told. The Blue Jackets brought Schroeder out for the team's opener after the 2004 lockout, and he decided to add a new dimension to his performance.

"I told my girlfriend, 'paint CBJ on my belly. Also, I'm going to be taking my shirt off.' She was like, 'whatever, okay.'"

★★★

It is easier now that Schroeder has moved back to Ohio -- "I moved back last spring," he says, "after we beat Nashville" -- just in terms of logistics. He no longer has to rush from the airport to Nationwide Arena; the job of writing messages on his belly is no longer the sole duty of his friend Alex Wong, who was also generally his ride from the airport. ("The poor guy," Schroeder says.)

A rotating crew of Schroeder's friends does the honors, now, with Schroeder serving as a sort of art director. "If a player's doing well -- I think about this for like a week, by the way -- I'll give him some belly love. Or I'll have some sort of message there. Usually my back I save for jabs at the other team. That's 'crack love,' because unfortunately my crack shows."

Schroeder has, over the years, made a sort of cottage industry out of his shirtless, shimmying, shameless self. Someone made him a Facebook fan page; he's busy with work, but is fairly active on Twitter and Instagram.

"Eventually," he says, "sponsors [at Blue Jackets games] started asking, like, 'hey, can the fat guy be there?'" Jay Leno used footage of Schroeder dancing as punchlines in two different bits; once he was Rush Limbaugh, and in another he was Chris Christie. He was noticed further and appeared in television ads in Omaha and Detroit and Edmonton and Halifax.

"They mostly paint their logo on my belly, set up a green screen, and I just dance in front of it," he says. In an ad for a Milwaukee classic rock station that was modeled on the video for Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love," Schroeder played both Palmer and every member of his backing band. He especially likes that one.

This is not something that is going to make Schroeder rich, or afford him much more than the goofy sort of fame that it already has. It is not, and you do not need me to tell you this, high art. It's a large man, who happens to be very good at dancing, doing his darnedest to keep his hands off his own nipples during the couple of minutes that he spends being watched by thousands of strangers. He is unique in how he does this, but there are people like Schroeder in other arenas and stadiums, and other sports.

All true enough, but none of that takes away from what Dancing Kevin does, or how he does it. Most work is pretty insignificant at bottom, and investing even a small portion of our emotional well-being in the ups and downs of a team of athletic strangers is not really the smartest decision, either. In both cases, we redeem and elevate what are mostly silly pursuits by what we bring to them; whatever nobility or importance there is in most of the work we do or the things we care about is stuff we carry there ourselves.

Of course, this is mostly just what it is. A man danced with another man in a bear costume, and he'll do some similar dance at some other home game; people laughed and cheered, and they'll do it again whenever he does it next. There is no reason to be too serious about something so silly; Schroeder himself isn't. But there's no sense in pretending that it doesn't mean anything, either.