Me and Amber are in the backroom of Le Cagibi, moving tables. We've got a couple of hours before the Slowdance starts, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. We know that we're going to turn the backroom - full of charm to begin with - into some kind of prom-like paradise, but when we first get there, with random people hanging out at a couple of tables, tables which are crowding our future dancefloor, it certainly doesn't feel like it.
The great thing about Amber is that she's a pragmatist, yet lets herself imagine possibilities. To be in the event-organizing game, you have to be equal parts dreamer and person who can get things done – that is, roots and wings. And so while I'm a little overwhelmed, and still trying to figure out what we have to do first, she just starts dragging tables and stacking them in the back bathroom. Finally, I pull out the disco ball I bought for the event and peer up at this bar that sticks out of the central pillar, strategizing just how exactly I'm going to put it up, get the lights spinning and reflecting to their maximum impact.
The next hour is a a sweaty one. Amber sets up tables near the entrance archway so people will see it at once when they come in. I put up crepe paper above it so it hangs down and people have to walk through it.
"That's great!" Amber says, when she sees me doing it. "It should hang down like a waterfall!" So I hang several more streamers. There's something shabby and almost post-prom about it, which I like. I think the French even have a word for it – déshabillé, I think.
Once the disco ball is up and turning, things already feel more festive. When I'm up on the ladder, I ask Amber how it looks. Before I got a disco ball, I never knew that there were different ways to light it. But if you hit it with the spotlight near the top, your ceiling is going to have all these rotating stars. And if you hit it low, the lights will dance all over the floor and your audience. We decide to go for something where it mostly hits the floor and the wall.
"It'll make the people sparkle," I comment, coming down from the ladder.
Then Amber shows me a trick regarding the crepe paper.
"I like making it twist," she says, rotating the pink roll. The line corkscrews from the center pillar to the walls and it's gorgeous. There's something so iconic about twisted crepe paper. I kick myself because a couple of streamers that I put up didn't twist.
"Argh!" I argh. "The ones I put up look awful. I should've made them twist too!"
"No, they're fine," Amber tries to console me, but I get the ladder and re-do them so they twist too. And actually, it wasn't very hard. Sometimes things get huge in your mind when they're actually really easy to fix. All I had to do was un-tape them from the wall, give it a bunch of turns, and stick it back.
Finally the room is dressed. We've got bunches of balloons everywhere, the greeting table is set up with a gold tablecloth, our place by the stage is dotted with candles and all ready for us, and the backroom is prettier than we've ever seen it. All that's left is the soundcheck, and we've gotta wait for the sound guy to do that.
"Go change," Amber urges. "I'll wait for the dude."
My friend Catherine lives literally, a minute's walk from the venue, and she's agreed to let me change at her place.
"Do you want some wine?" she asks me, while I plug in the curling iron and start pulling out my bra, corset, fake tits and fake hips.
"No thanks," I tell her. "I'll be drinking plenty later on."
Turning a boy's body into a girl's is a complicated feat but over the years I've gotten pretty good at it. Even so, it's a lot of work, and it takes an annoyingly long time. But I want to look good in the dress I bought the night before. It's this strapless seafoam green number. It's classy, but kind of flashy, and, in the wrong context, it might border on the outrageous. But it's perfect for Slowdance night.
Finally, I'm done, after putting a final corkscrew into those bits of hair I've left to dangle on either side of my face while the rest gets pulled back and up. I've never figured out what those things are called. Hairdressers probably know.
Catherine tells me she's coming by later, as I head on back out into the snow.
When I get back to Le Cagibi, some of our resident dancers are already there sporting the gold sashes Amber sewed together to designate them as such. There's already a couple of people I don't know sitting on the couch, the disco ball lights splash on them every once in a while.
I ask Amber how it's going and she tells me that it's pretty early yet. We decide to start at 9:30 instead of 9PM promptly, like we'd planned, even though we've got 40 songs to get through. I decide to go get a beer and warm up.
By the stage, I hang out with Angelina and Lisa, who are both resident dancers. Amber and I'd decided to have resident dancers because sometimes people are shy. I mean, I was shy most of high school. And while in the intervening years, I've gotten less so, I'm still shy when I don't know anyone. And so we thought that resident dancers, wearing something as loud and as faintly ridiculous as a shiny gold lamé sash, ready to dance with pretty much anyone, would be a wonderful way to break the ice and to gently coax wallflowers away from the wall and to bloom under the nurturing light of the disco ball.
Finally it's time to start. Me and Amber are both nervous. We're both a little apprehensive walking up to the stage, but we understand that we have to start, otherwise the thing would end at 2AM.
Montréal's a difficult city. It's understood here that things start an hour after when they say they will. In Toronto, where my brother lives, the leeway time is more a half an hour. I couldn't even imagine what it would be in Paris.
I mean, if we didn't have a playlist, we'd have waited until the place had more of a crowd, but we decided to just start. Sometimes that's all you can do.
"Hello?" I say into the microphone. I don't hear myself but that might just be because I have a low voice. I back away from it while Amber fiddles with the mixer board.
"Hello? Hello?" she says into it, and this time the whole room turns to look at us. Amber thanks everyone for coming and delineates a couple of things regarding the resident dancers and the little place near the back – the dance-card signing center where we've set up candles and pencils so that people can prepare, in advance, whom they're going to dance with for a particular song. Then I push the clickwheel on my iPod, and we're off.
For the first song, no one dances.
It's like a nightmare. It's so much like junior high it's ridiculous. The disco ball lights are the only things moving in the room. I think even our resident dancers, who are tasked with hunting out wallflowers, are a little shy tonight. We're all adults, but suddenly we're all shy.
Thankfully, Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" is a short song.
Then it's the Bangles with "Eternal Flame".
My co-organizer, Amber, gets down off the stage and dances with her partner, Mike, who was tabling the door. Finally, that breaks the ice and other people start drifting onto the floor, and dancing beside them. The resident dancers start going to people, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Maybe it'll work out after all.
By "Sweet Jane", people are dancing fairly regularly. Amber tells me that people have to get warmed up, maybe get a couple of drinks in themselves first. And it works – the night needs to warm up. And eventually it does. I've even had a couple of dances.
It's pretty nice and intimate, to be dancing with someone. A lot of it is talking. It reminds me of the movies, like when you see the two stars at some dance, and they're just talking about things, and there are people in the background.
If there are people you know, it's a great way to catch up with someone, and if you don't know someone, it's nice because it's enough time to get to know the half-drawn parameters of a person, with the comfort of knowing that if you get tired of talking to them, that it's only a couple of minutes before you part. It's a little like speed-dating, only it's slow-dancing.
Suddenly we're at our first intermission, and by this time a lot of people have arrived. It really is true, that thing about how Montréal events always start an hour after they say they will. It's a little past 10 and we said we'd start at 9. All the unspoken things about a city are so important.
Amber comes up and asks me how I'm doing. I tell her that it's amazing that we're already a quarter way through. It certainly didn't feel like it. As it would turn out, the whole evening would zip by.
We put up the INTERMISSION sign on the stage and both go to get drinks.
It's a steady stream of people coming in during the night while me and Amber serve up the ballads. It's pretty beautiful. People are singing along with the songs. I see my girlfriend dancing with random people. I dance with random people. I see girls dancing with girls, boys dancing with boys, boys dancing with girls. It's a pretty special safe place we've created with this night, I think. One woman who comes is wearing this fabulous black frilly dress with huge poofy shoulder straps.
"Omigod!" I say to Amber, "She looks like she's from the eightie's!"
Another woman slips to the side of the stage when she arrives, kicks her boots off and dons this flashy pair of white pumps to go with her slit-up-to-the-hip black dress. I am touched that some people went to a lot of trouble to dress up. Some guys came in shiny shirts and ties. Another is wearing a suit jacket. Still other people of indeterminate gender are dressed in androgynous fancy outfits.
People just need an excuse, I think, to dress up.
Later on, during the next intermission, a couple of people who were there right at the beginning leave.
Thank God, I think. They didn't dance at all the whole night! They just sat on the couch!
But later I would learn that as a matter of fact, no matter how many people asked them to dance, they declined. They said that they were there for the music. Which is a mystery to me, seeing as I like to slowdance, but like my mother says, It takes all kinds to make a world.
Years ago I went to this summer burlesque event and at the afterparty, there was this DJ, I forget her name now, but all she would do was play bad songs. And if you went up to her, and requested something, she wouldn't have it. Or she would play them, but many songs later, and it wouldn't be their hit, it would be some obscure song. And then, in between the few good songs, it would be this generic dance shit. It was so infuriating. It's funny how anger inspires change. I said to my friend Catherine that night that if I ever became a DJ, that all I would do is play hits, "the most danceable songs on the planet, I would play."
And so now, in a slightly different context, I have my chance.
When me and Amber were picking the songs for the night, we had the disco ball rotating in my room as a kind of muse. We played the song, and looked up at the disco ball, and if it seemed that there was some correlation, and if we could imagine people slowdancing to it, then it was probably a go.
Of course, like any event, there are some songs that people responded to more than others. Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" had virtually everyone dancing. There was not one ass on a chair anywhere. Another favourite was Bon Jovi's "Bed of Roses". It's funny how the most overwrought, emotion-laden songs are the most fun to dance to. On second thought, actually, it makes complete sense.
We wanted to have those songs that would bring exhalations of recognition, those songs that some people might not have heard in years. But we also wanted those songs that would be completely slow-danceable to. I think we did alright.
Near the end of the evening, with only about five songs to go, I can tell that people could have danced all night, if we kept serving up the hits. It strikes me that if we had the right mix, we could have kept people dancing for probably another hour. Maybe even longer.
And then all of a sudden, it's over.
People in show business are always saying that you should leave them wanting more but I'm of a different mind-set. I think that if you're going to serve up a meal, you should serve up a full one. But the problem is that we didn't have any more songs planned. And so we finished it, and thanked everyone for coming, and people started to leave.
Remember this for next time, I tell myself, through my drunken haze, as I watch the teeming dancers from the stage. We'll have more songs next slowdance night, maybe even an Encore Set for the hardcore.
All in all, however, for our inaugeral Slowdance Night, it was a mad success.
It seemed as if the night served a need. One woman I danced with told me that in high school, she'd never been asked to dance, and so coming to the event, and being asked to dance, was very beautiful for her. Me, I was always very reticent during high school dances. And while maybe it's too much to say that putting this thing on was partly about helping me redeem my shy high school self, it's not entirely off the mark, either.
The next day, my friend Luna would call me and tell me that she danced with one girl who told her that she'd danced with more people in our one night that in all her high school years combined. Another woman Luna danced with had just gotten a divorce, and decided to make a night of it.
All this consolidated something me and Amber had been thinking about: There will be more, greater, and increasingly elaborate Slowdance Nights to come.
Please come to them!