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'Dancing Man' Sean O'Brien reflects on remarkable year after body-shaming ordeal

Sean O'Brien faced online body-shamers earlier this year, but his ordeal took him on a remarkable journey with support from people across the world.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Back in February, British man Sean O’Brien, 48, faced online body-shaming after photos of him dancing were posted on the website 4chan. After his story went viral, Cassandra Fairbanks — along with Hope Leigh Rollins, Elyse Berger, Katy Dolle and many others — launched an effort to find O’Brien, whom they nicknamed “Dancing Man,” and organize a big dance party for him.

O’Brien opens up about his remarkable year as part of “2015 Voices,” a special series of essays and interviews with newsmakers behind some of TODAY’s biggest moments of the year.

Sean O'Brien, aka "Dancing Man"
Sean O'Brien dancing with television personality Whitney

It still sounds unreal when I try to explain to friends what has happened in my life over the past nine months. And, in truth, I keep pinching myself to make sure that I really am not dreaming.

Since the day someone thought it was a good idea to body-shame me via the 4Chan website with the words, “I Saw This Specimen,” my life has turned into one spectacular journey. Along the way I have experienced some truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and had the good fortune and pleasure to meet many inspirational people.

I will forever be thankful to the people who had the courage to say enough is enough, and decided to take a stand against such posts by reaching out to me and suggesting we hold a dance party.

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My story went viral in March. Within 24 hours I had signed up on social media and made contact with the girls in Los Angeles. Two months of the most intense planning followed, with several kind offers coming from many different individuals and organizations to support the party effort.

In May, I flew to New York, where I finally had the chance to meet some of the people responsible for this “campaign,” and we got to talk face to face. There was an instant connection between us, and it all seemed so natural, it was uncanny.

After giving my first ever interview on the TODAY show on May 22, I was subsequently surprised by then getting to dance with the fabulous Meghan Trainor in Rockefeller Plaza.

Then it was off to Los Angeles to attend the dance festivities. Once there, it was a whirlwind tour, meeting Tatyana Ali, who was to host the party; Monica Lewinsky, who was to speak at the party; and TV personality Whitney Way Thore, who wanted to include the occasion on her season finale of “My Big Fat Fabulous Life.” Everyone was so welcoming and warm, it was not hard to feel at ease.

I then had several interviews to attend with press from across the U.S., Japan, Germany and the U.K. I was, and still am, amazed at how far the story reached and how much it must have resonated with people from all walks of life.

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As this had become bigger than any of us had ever dreamed, the Dance Free Movement was created and founded by Hope Leigh. This presented a forum where anyone who felt they had been bullied, victimized or just had a story to tell could talk freely, openly and in their own words.

The whole experience did not really sink in until the time came to enter the venue, when I was met by paparazzi and a queue of more than 200 people outside. The party itself was amazing, and it was all topped off by a $30,000 donation to our nominated charities from a new social media app called Gudly. I also learned on stage that I would get to throw the first pitch at the L.A. Dodgers’ baseball game the next day and appear on the Dancecam (in my new DancingMan Dodgers shirt). It was suddenly hard not to feel a little proud that I was a part of this amazing evening.

Sean O'Brien hugs DJ Tropicool
Sean O'Brien hugs DJ Tropicool, who opened for Moby at the dance

The surprises didn’t end there though. I was also taken to a taco lunch by Dita Von Teese, who picked me up in her 1950 vintage Cadillac and drove me to the restaurant where we chatted as though we were old friends, and 12 of us then had the most fantastic private tour of the L.A. Coliseum ending with a private picnic in the end zone.

I thought that once the party had occurred, the media attention would die down, but upon my return to the U.K., the momentum continued with television appearances and radio interviews. We always discussed the important issues of online bullying and the charities that we now support — Kidscape, the Diana Award, Cybersmile, Pacer and I Am That Girl.

During all of this, I continually get asked the same three questions: What was the highlight? What’s next? And what would you say to anyone who finds themselves bullied? I always try to answer all in the same way. The first real highlight was meeting the people who had the courage to initially send out the message of support and whom I can now truly call my friends. I have since been back to the U.S. twice to visit all the people concerned.

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The second is that whilst there is still some support for the Dancing Man, I will use the profile to try to raise more funds for the charities that I have already mentioned. When this dies down, I will use plain old Sean O’Brien to do the same.

That all starts with me coming completely out of my comfort zone to run three 10K runs next year in Liverpool, London and Los Angeles.

And the third is to just focus on how the people close to you value you, and to try not to put too much emphasis on the words, comments or actions of people who play such a limited part in your life. As easy as that is to say, we should also be aware that there are many great organizations that exist just for this reason and are there to support you.

Always remember: Bighearted people far outweigh the small-minded every day of the week.

I have often wondered who the original posters were or what their motives were for doing what they did, but I always end up just hoping that they are as content in their lives as I am in mine.

Indeed, as a result of these images, my life has only improved, and for this, quite ironically, I am thankful.