The random dancing fool
It’s fall 2002 and a few students are milling around at the front of the lecture hall. Some first-year English class has just finished – Introduction to Reading or The Victorian Age: Does It Really Matter? – and we’re waiting to ask the professor about essay topics or to showcase our perception outside of the pressures of a group setting. I forget almost every detail of the situation now, except that this curly-haired blond guy wearing a “Free Winona” T-shirt made a joke about Sliders. Well, specifically about Jerry O’Connell. I laughed, and we quickly became friends.
All of that is an introduction to explain my bias here: Phil Villeneuve is an old friend. We used to eat chicken wings together every week and I once saw him do a heart-rending version of “I Just Called To Say I Love You” at the a dingy pub’s karaoke night for absolutely the wrong crowd. Then we drifted apart, as people do – though our drifting was mostly geographical. He moved to Toronto and I stayed in Ottawa. We kept in touch, had breakfast if we found ourselves in the same city at the same time, but have lived our separate lives except for the casual run-in.
So it was especially exciting when the Internet brought me “Phil Dances in the Eaton Centre.” The video came to me through Facebook or Twitter or both, and I had a feeling, before seeing the clip, that it could only be that Phil. It was.
The premise is simple: a guy with earbuds dances around to music that only he can hear and no one around him seems to quite know how to handle him. He dances in very public places – the subway in Toronto, the beach, a grocery store, a park – and he records these semi-spontaneous shows. Then he mixes the sound (that, remember, only he can hear) with the video to make his experience ours. He uploads them to YouTube, shares them, and voila: 50,000 views. He’s found his way onto the CBC’s Steven and Chris and The Marilyn Dennis Show. On the former, he was credited as “Random Dancing Fool.”
I needed Phil to explain how all this had happened.
Drew Gough: Phil, why are you dancing all the time? I don’t like to dance – even when I’m drunk or getting married, or both (fact!), but you do it places where there are hundreds of people who aren’t dancing and who can’t even hear the music. What gives?
Phil Villeneuve: I love dancing! It just happens to me way too often that the right song will come on through my headphones and I just want to let everything go and dance, you know? It happens to a lot of people, but many don’t act on it. I just act on it in places where people think they should behave. In the mall, the grocery store, on the subway. People are so quiet and aware of anyone acting out of the ordinary, so I like to shake things up and show people that life isn’t so serious! Your ride to work isn’t that horrible. Buying fruit can be fun! Just think differently about the usual places you go and things start to brighten up.
On another level I do it to be able to dance and work with amazing people. I’ve worked with Arts for Children and Youth, the Ill Nana DiverCity dance company, The Baby Girls, some of my favourite drag queens in the city, and a good friend who is a professional pole dancer.
DG: Where did this come from? I mean, where did you get the idea to take your dancing public?
PV: It all stems from one Christmas, many years ago, when I was broke. I couldn’t afford to buy anyone anything, so I made a movie about myself on my lunch breaks and after work. One of the segments of this (obviously) epic film was me dancing in a park to Beyonce, just for fun. I later put that video up on YouTube for fun and things took off from there!
DG: Where was the first place you shot a video? And when?
PV: The first video we shot was for this “Phil – The Movie” and it was at St. James Park on King St. East, one cold November day. Seriously, it was very cold. But it quickly warmed up thanks to my ridiculous moves and great fear of doing this kind of thing in public. It only got easier with every video.
DG: How do you choose new places to go? I don’t get the sense this is entirely spontaneous.
PV: It is spontaneous in the way that I’ll often be somewhere in the city with my music playing, a song will come on and the venue just screams for some dancing! But yeah, more often than most I choose a place where people are behaving themselves for no reason other than they think they have to. We plan a bit (myself and three people to help with the camera and my flying clothes), then just show up and film the videos in one shot. I’m the only person who can hear the music.
DG: You’re starting to get famous, right? Steven and Chris is a broadcast nationally, and they credited you as “Random Dancing Fool.” How did that feel?
PV: Famous! Well now that I’m featured on Thought Out Loud, yes, yes: I guess I am famous. But yes, things have gotten a little out of control. I love it. These videos really started blowing up after Robyn tweeted the Eaton Centre video herself. (I got to meet her later on!) Then The Scissor Sisters tweeted the grocery store video. (Got to meet them too!) Finally Kylie tweeted the subway video (Got to meet her in the flesh as well!) and it was a done deal. Ke$ha also got in touch with me through her label because she was a fan and we made a video down at The Kool Haus. I have also been on the Australian version of Breakfast Television via satellite! (Strange, right?) People now recognize me around the city sometimes and I’ve been lucky enough to be on The Marilyn Denis show as well as Steve and Chris! Internet fame! Being on national TV has been fun! The “random dancing fool” was kind of a mix up as they realized minutes before the show that they had no idea what to call me. But I didn’t mind: it’s pretty much what I am.
DG: Some of your videos have more than 70,000 views, which is fairly substanial. How does word travel about these things? Do you get fanmail? If so, what’s the weirdest bit of correspondence you’ve had?
PV: Isn’t that crazy? I think it’s just a quick happy moment to brighten a shitty day and people like passing it on. People have been so friendly and expressive. Fanmail comes in the form of YouTube comments I guess and there are a lot of them. Most of them are very nice – just people letting me know the video made them laugh or want to dance themselves. The weirdest bits have been marriage proposals, random messages from countries whose language I don’t understand, and one guy calling me gay. Um, of course I’m gay!
People have also reached out though, told me the videos give them confidence and some saying it’s just nice to see something happy happening in Toronto.