We all have opportunities which crop up in our lives. Some of them are obviously big deals with large potential ramifications for our lives, a significant promotion or option to travel or the chance to spend your life with someone who sparks your soul. Others seem incidental, a choice to visit a friend or chance sample a new TV show or musical artist.
Most of the time it’s almost impossible to see where exactly an opportunity might lead us or the impact it could potentially have but the only way we can ever find out is by saying ‘yes’ to them. This is the story of how one rather easy and seemingly small ‘yes’ led to, among other things, a featured TEDx talk with over 675K views.
Back in 2007 and colleague and I were asked by one of his friends if we could help out with a local theater festival event he was trying to arrange, a small LGBTQ festival with singers, theatrical monologues, spoken word, and drag performers. About a month or so out from the festival weekend he lost one of his participating acts and wondered if we might be able to throw together a little bit of dancing to fill the suddenly empty performance slot.
I should note that my colleague, Trevor, and I had been friends for several years at this point having met through the ballroom organization we both taught for and already had a habit of dancing together and taking turns tossing each other around at wrap parties, dance seminars, and any other events where there was music and opportunity .
When Johnny asked us to participate in his festival we were happy to help a friend, support local theater work, and also figured it could give us a chance to explore using ballroom as a method of narrative storytelling. So we said ‘yes’. We choreographed a rumba depicting to men checking each other out in a bar, used a little bit of improvised salsa just to warm up with and had a fun time performing both nights of the festival. That was the first and ultimately catalytic ‘yes’, though we had no idea at the time.
One of the people in attendance both nights of the festival was Lisa, a local play write and dramaturg. While she thought the rumba was interesting it was the salsa which struck a powerful chord for her. During the salsa we played around as we always did, taking turns leading and following switching back and forth as we danced so neither one of us was stuck leading all the time. What was just play and warming up for us struck her as a depiction of a truly mutual partnership. Balanced, equal, negotiated, without any sense of hierarchy or cost of self.
After the last performance Lisa asked if she could buy us a coffee some time as she had a few questions she wanted to ask us about our dance. Trevor knew her through theater circles and we were curious to hear what was intriguing her so we said ‘yes’. Why not share a coffee with a local theater expert specializing in developing play writes and new work? Another ‘yes’ which seemed small.
She came prepared with a voice recorder and questions. Was it different dancing with another man versus a female partner? If so how? What was it like teaching a partnering art form? Each question wound up leading to a dozen more. One coffee became several as well as lunches and dinners and the poor woman wound up with well over a dozen hours of recorded ramblings of two professional dance teachers talking about their form, the teaching of it, the theories, the history, and our feelings about the traditional gender role trappings embedded within it.
Lisa eventually confessed that our depiction of a truly even partnership free of traditional gender roles had resonated with her not as merely an engaging dance but as the potential raw materials for a play which could use physicality to speak about incredibly important and socially necessary things. She asked if we would be interested in teaming up with her to try and create that play. We said ‘yes’.
What followed was an eight year adventure starting from our ramblings and the inherently theatrical language of dance, men’s center of gravity being in the cages of their ribs and women’s being the bowl of their hips, to a fully narrative one hour play called ‘First Dance’ about a man trying to figure out how to build a first dance for his upcoming wedding to his husband. We went through three completely different versions before we got to a result we were proud of.
The first version was overly autobiographical, using our own names and filled with personal stories and emotional perspectives. It was powerful, and scary, to be that vulnerable putting so much of ourselves onto the stage like that and it made for compelling energy, which the audiences definitely felt, but was ultimately limiting in terms of effective storytelling. It’s a little difficult to objectively edit your own personal memories and experiences.
The second version went a bit more abstract taking place entirely inside the head of Trevor’s character as he got ready the morning of his wedding. It began with him shaving in the mirror which morphed into an ominous dance with me as his fears taking control of his straight razor.
It then shifted through various scenes of me representing everything from his childhood friend to his first lover to his father to his dance teacher. Striking but it felt one sided lacking the original spark of mutual and balanced partnership which had inspired it all in the first place.
The final version returned to a two character narrative about a man trying to figure out a first dance for his wedding only to re-encounter a childhood friend setting off a not only a storm of forgotten and suppressed memories but also stirring up old emotions and challenging them both to seek that fluid balance and freedom from a singular mode of interacting with the world. The piece ended up being about one third text and two thirds pure movement, playing to our strengths as dancers and physical performers, and able to impact people in the ways we had hoped. Bringing people into shared and familiar spaces they can relate to then letting them experience how profoundly ‘otherness’ and difference can impact those spaces.
Coming back out after the performances to either do talk-backs or simply meet the audience is almost always filled with tears and hugs and people unable to find their words. Even a tear filled hug from my three hundred pound German karate sensei saying he was seeing and understanding things in ways he never had before. No greater reward for a theater creator than to see your work shift people’s hearts and minds right in front of you.
Not only did we get to experience and learn from the amazing process of creating that kind of work, and to be proud of the final product, but we also got to tour it all across the Province. Small communities, prestigious theaters, universities, and even one city in which we sold out the venue to about 150% capacity over the course of the run. They just kept adding more seats each night and we kept selling those out as well.
The pinnacle of our touring, thus far, was the chance to take the piece to Albania. A friend of Trevor’s he had met through social salsa dancing circles was originally from Albania and had a former colleague who ran an annual international dance and theater festival there. She had told him about our piece and through her he asked if we would be interested in bringing First Dance over to his festival. We said ‘yes’, arranging an eight hour layover in Rome on the way there which gave us enough time to leave the airport and do a tour of the city between flights.
It was an incredible experience being able to take that kind of work to a part of the world not known for being the most open minded and having it extremely well received and to meet dancers and performers from Italy and Greece.
We performed in a beautiful, if neglected, old theater with a lighting grid so outdated you actually had to hand crank up a charge in order to change the lighting cue. I kid you not. You couldn’t hear it in the audience but we could hear it on stage, ‘zzzuzzzzzuuuzzzz’ just before each light cue changed.
We also got to perform in a Shakespearian style ‘in the round’ theater seemingly plucked from an Elizabethan history book.
About a year later a friend and former student of Trevor’s asked if she could pitch to the two of us and our approach to fluid role partner dancing to TEDx Montreal, for which she was working as a content curator. We said ‘yes’ and while she championed the pitch through all three rounds of consideration we went back to all our notes and theoretical conversations about balanced and free partnering from our years spent building First Dance and came up with the term ‘Liquid Lead’. TEDx Montreal said ‘yes’ and we filmed our talk alongside neuro-linguists, anti-viral scientists, and educational theorists.
We were a bit of an unusual prospect for them because there were two of us talking and in lieu of slides we danced as part of our presentation, they actually had to pull the signature red dot up off the stage for us so we wouldn’t trip over it or mark it up. Even without the narrative story of the play the concept and the movement still led to tears and people wanting hugs saying they hadn’t expected a TEDx event to carry such an emotional punch. There was even an intern from the TED.com head office in New York who spent the rest of the day hanging with us because she found us intriguing.
Seeing the video of the talk go live was very cool. The production quality of the Montreal event is top shelf and as the view counter started clicking up the idea of thousands of people seeing our work was both trippy and humbling. And the vast majority of the comments posted were really rather lovely.
About six months later we found out that intern had gone back to New York and continued to rave about the talk to her colleagues and supervisors. In a somewhat clandestine Skype call, wherein we were sworn to secrecy, we were informed that TED.com was going to pick up the talk and feature it as a ‘talk of the day’ something they only did with two hundred or so out of the thousands and thousands of TEDx talks which get filmed each year.
A little tweaking in the editing of the video and tightening up of the licensing for the music we used and there we were, featured on TED.com. Clark, our contact and number one fan, arranged to have it featured on a Friday so it would then be left in the featured spot for the whole weekend. The director of TEDx Montreal happened to be in New York for a TED conference when the video was set to be featured so we got a rather surreal selfie of her sitting there as they pressed the button and the video went live.
Thousands of people seeing the talk became hundreds of thousands with even more truly lovely comments posted, and not nearly as much trolling as we might have expected when it reached TED’s open Youtube feed. We got emails from all over the world, one of the first was entitled ‘Speechless in Singapore’, and we started getting requests to present the talk from all sorts of organizations, festivals, and institutions.
Whenever possible we say ‘yes’ which has led to presenting the talk and running workshops in high schools, dance conventions, a women’s correctional facility, and even a ‘last minute’ invite one January to appear as part of a feminist festival in Dublin Ireland six weeks later where we performed in a very fabulous pub slash drag club called ‘The George’ which is literally labeled on Google Maps as ‘long standing gay pub & club’.
We continue to get emails, comments, messages, and requests from all over North American and beyond. We continue to present the talk and run workshops in all sorts of places and contexts in connection with all manner of people and organisations from theatrical to corrections to Planned Parenthood. We’ve been interviewed by CBC radio and done TV segments for CTV. We still consider ourselves ‘activists by accident’. We certainly didn’t set out on any kind of mission to shake up societal thinking and perceptions of gender roles and singularized identity. All we did was say ‘yes’ to what was, for all intents and purposes, a throw away little bit of dancing to help out a friend.
Obviously there was the seed of an idea and the capacity do something with it but the most important parts of the whole journey have been the result of saying ‘yes’. It’s a principle we endorse every time we present the talk, especially to kids. Say ‘yes’ no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. You never know where it might lead you.