How the tsars started a Mexican wave

The Mexican wave: seemingly bound up with the world of modern sports and television, my work as a travel historian has recently brought me face to face with a much older instance of this clever bit of mass coordination.

Souffreau, stadium audience, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

Bram Souffreau, a stadium audience (photographed in 2007). Wikimedia Commons.

The past few weeks of UEFA competition have seen the Mexican wave do its round of the stadiums again. This year, the UEFA even turned the wave into a symbol for respectful football. Such spectacles of human coordination always do nicely on a TV screen. It seems indeed that you need the technology, the crowds, and the entertainment focus of modern televised sports for the wave to work at all. And so, according to popular lore (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary), human waves started to be observed at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Others have seen the phenomenon slightly earlier, in North-American college football, but this does not alter the story much. However, no one, to my knowledge, has as yet dug up the much deeper, much older history of the Mexican Wave.

That history goes back at least to the early nineteenth century, and I recently caught a glimpse of it in the most unlikely of places: in a manuscript that I was examining in the stables of a quiet country house which used to belong to one of the wealthiest and most reclusive aristocrats of the Low Countries.

 Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst

Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst, Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam (oil on canvas, 1829)

Her name was Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam. She preferred spending time on her estate, eschewed most forms of social entertainment except music, and died long before the invention of association football and newsreels. So how did she come to write about the Mexican wave?

It happened on a journey in 1825, though not to Mexico. Marie Cornélie accompanied a Dutch princely delegation on a state visit to the tsars’ court in Saint Petersburg. In Russia, she was shown around several charitable institutions funded by the tsarina, where the pupils demonstrated their skill and industry. One such visit ended in an enormous, colonnaded hall where all the pupils had gathered to present themselves:

at our approach, the double doors swung open and the young persons, arranged by class, the little ones in front, from both sides of the hall dropped a curtsy together, like ears swaying in a field of wheat. it was not without some awkwardness that I returned this greeting, aware of all the eyes that were fixed on us at that moment.

Evidently, the visual pleasure of this coordinated wave movement, performed by human beings, was already realized one and a half century before the 1986 waves that we normally read about. But equally evident are the differences that distinguish the Russian wave as seen by Marie Cornélie in 1825, from the Mexican waves seen in stadiums today.

In the first place, the context of her Russian wave was not sports, but education. Secondly, the milieu in which it took place was not a broadly popular one, but consisted of aristocratic ladies.

Yet most importantly, the wave Marie Cornélie was treated to, was not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. It had been carefully orchestrated by the teachers of the educational institution she was visiting. It aimed to show the school’s success in raising well-behaved, disciplined young ladies.

In that sense, the wave was akin to a military parade, although it wore a more friendly and welcoming face. This welcoming face played a role in a second aim we can expect the institution’s directors to have had: to persuade their wealthy visitors to leave a donation. We could therefore call this wave of 1825 a ‘pr wave’, or a charity wave.

That brings us back to the UEFA, and their request to share waves on twitter for their Respect Campaign. So far, this request has mostly attracted rehearsed bits of action. But, seeing that the wave may be older than we thought, has it not changed for the better by abolishing the separation between audience and spectacle that made Marie Cornélie feel awkward two centuries years ago?

Is what makes it so wonderful today not the very fact that it springs from a spontaneous decision by spectators to make themselves part of the spectacle, by bursting forth from a ‘curtsied’ position into full-body swing?

The original diaries, in French, of Marie Cornélie’s journey are property of A. Graf Solms Sonnenwalde. A Dutch-language edition has been prepared by Aafke Brunt as Marie Cornélie. Dagboek van haar reis naar het hof van Sint-Petersburg 1824-1825 (Amsterdam, 2003).

An earlier version of this post appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters.

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