Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Queer Slowdance: better than prom

'People are holding on to each other and belting out the ballads'

Queer Slowdance Night lands in Toronto and Ottawa this fall. Credit: courtesy of Sherwin Tjia

“Slowdancing with someone is a very particular way for people to get to know each other,” says Sherwin Sullivan Tjia, poet, artist and creator of Slowdance, a popular Montreal event. “When you dance with someone, you’re touching them and smelling them and getting a sense of who they are.”

Tjia will bring a special queer women’s version of Slowdance Night to Ottawa on Nov 26. Toronto’s first Queer Slowdance hits the Dovercourt House on Dec 4.

“The only avenues we’re given to slowdance with people is in junior high, which is a very unsafe environment to express anything outside the mainstream, and weddings, another completely heteronormative environment,” Tjia says. “It breaks my heart because slowdancing is one of the nicest ways to get to know people I can think of.”

Tjia’s slowly becoming known in Toronto’s hipster circles for his kooky events: Strip Spelling Bee and Crowd Karaoke. He’s been running Slowdances in Montreal for a few years and decided to experiment with specifically queer dances at the request of fans.

“There was this girl [at a recent Slowdance] who was fending off advances from men all night, and she came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to dance with them — I want to dance with the queer girls.’ It’s tough when it’s not a specifically queer event.”

Guests are encouraged to ask anyone to dance and are even given a formal dance card listing all the songs that will be played that night, so they can book songs with each other well in advance. For those too shy to ask someone to dance, “designated dancers” are stationed at the event, whose job is “to hunt out the wallflowers and turn them into perennials.”

“We want people to feel safe and secure, so the rules of engagement are that you can ask anyone to dance, but anyone can say no without having to explain why. Even if you’ve been dancing with someone, if at any time you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, you can break it off. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules will be kicked out,” Tjia explains. “Fortunately, we’ve never had to fuck anyone up.”

If it all sounds overwhelmingly formal and dry, Tjia says his spin on slowdancing is all about having fun.

“For the most part, it’s a hilarious night. When we play rock ballads, people are holding on to each other and belting out the ballads,” he says. “And a funny thing happens once you’ve danced with a couple people. You start looking around and thinking, ‘Who else can I dance with?’ and all the people you may have been intimidated by at a bar, you figure, ‘What the hell, it’s only a dance. It lasts three, four minutes tops.’”

“On one level, Slowdance Night is speed dating in disguise,” Tjia says. “I’m reluctant to express that too heavily, because I don’t want people to come to Slowdance Night with too much pressure.”

Tjia says most guests find the slowdance formula frees them up to be more adventurous.

“In a bar, you don’t even ask someone to dance — you just dance beside them. There’s an implied message in that. At Slowdance Night, because everyone is dancing with everyone else, you’re not implying that you’re going to go home with them because you’re dancing with them,” he says.

“What I do at Slowdance Night is offer people a very precise gap to jump,” he says. “The entire night is very structured. I think on some level people really like to do what they’re told to do, especially if what they’re told to do is what they’d really like to do.”

That’s perhaps the biggest appeal, and the common theme, of all Tjia’s events.

“They make people do things they’re semi-uncomfortable with, they’re participative, and people come and do something that they’ve likely found embarrassment from in the past — slowdancing, stripping, spelling bees, singing,” Tjia explains. “Hopefully the event will redeem that embarrassment.

“I think on some level, I’m trying to redeem my own disastrous high school life.”

Ottawa Queer Women’s Slowdance is Fri, Nov 26. Doors open at 10pm. Shanghai Restaurant, 651 Somerset St W (at Bronson Ave). $8, includes your dance card.

Toronto Queer Slowdance is Sat, Dec 4. Doors open at 9:30pm. Dovercourt House, 805 Dovercourt Rd (1 block north of Bloor St). $10, includes your dance card.