By Jen Webb
At a bar in High Park, nine men and nine women stared into each other’s eyes. For two minutes, each person gazed at a complete stranger without exchanging any words. When time was up with one partner, they switched to the next.
What was happening wasn’t the world’s largest staring contest. It was the newest dating service in Toronto — eye gazing parties. The population of Greater Toronto is nearly five million, yet so many people complain it’s hard to meet someone.
Liv Judd, an events manager for fastlife.ca, a speed-dating service in Toronto, says that the number of unattached people in the city is growing because people are waiting longer to get married. On top of that, dating is hard because people in Toronto are not very approachable. Eye gazing parties give singles the opportunity to meet each other.
The only catch is, they must be willing to try something a little weird. A diverse group of singles from many different backgrounds gather for this party. Most are in their late 20s to early 30s.
Occupations range from successful business people to poor students. No one admits to being there to find the love of their life, they all claim to be curious about the process. Heather Playford, 21, a third-year fashion communications student at Ryerson, wasn’t sure what to expect. Before the eye gazing started she listened to the host, Fernando Lopez, as he gave out instructions and advised that people look into one eye to avoid going cross eyed. He added that eye gazing wasn’t a staring contest, blinking is allowed.
He put on some soft music and said to begin. Right away, people were giggling and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Playford looked across the table and candle light at a lawyer who tilted his head back and forth and squinted his eyes for the whole two minutes. Playford grew more insecure as she wondered what he was thinking.
She wanted to look away, but it was against the eye gazing rules. Instead she looked at one eye like she was told and tucked her hair behind her ears — something she tends to do when she’s nervous.
She began sipping her rum and coke more frequently as another man attempted to make her laugh by performing an eyebrow dance where he moved each dark, bushy brow up and down.
Feeling things were a little intense as Lopez had warned, she looked forward to the mid-point break where she would be able to look wherever she wanted. “It’s funny because all you have to do is look at someone, but you do wonder if you have the good gazing skills,” said Playford.
In the break between partners, one woman had her eyes closed and was taking in deep breaths like she was meditating. The most recent eye gazing party in Toronto was held in a small place called the Latinada Tapas Bar and Gallery on Bloor Street West. Tables draped with white tablecloths were lined up on either side of the room.
In the middle of each table, small white candles in purple holders set the mood for some serious eye gazing. Eye gazing parties started in New York City in 2005. Michael Ellsberg, a salsa dancing instructor, found that meeting people at bars was boring and repetitive. He was tired of talking about the same things over and over again.
Ellsberg observed how much better his dancing students performed if they had established good eye contact. He wanted to be able to jump-start this connection with complete strangers, so he began hosting the parties. Eye gazing parties have a different approach than other dating trends such as speed-dating, Lavalife, and dating chat lines.
It’s more intimate than speed-dating, where people make small talk for five minutes, and it’s less intimate than cuddle parties, where strangers in pyjamas hug and participate in spooning chains. Lopez, a relationship coach and a friend of Ellsberg’s, liked the idea of eye gazing parties and decided to introduce them to Toronto.
“My aim is simply for people to have fun and experience something different,” says Lopez. “Having eye contact gets relationships to a level beyond words. Words can be limited.” Marc Halter, 33, a U.S. Marine insurance broker, moved to Toronto from Montreal in July. He finds that Torontonians aren’t as friendly as people from his old hometown.
“People in Toronto look at the ground or the street, where as in Montreal you face each other,” says Halter. “Several times (in Montreal) I’ve asked women out for coffee on the sidewalk. They perceive it as normal.”
Curious if Torontonians were capable of eye contact, he decided to join a friend at the party. “The people I met were interesting and open-minded, which is very rare for Torontonians,” says Halter.
He had such a good experience that he’s thinking of starting eye gazing parties in Montreal. Elizabeth Ridgely, a lecturer on couple and family therapy at the University of Toronto, believes that eye contact is very important to relationships. But that it doesn’t mean it’s the key to success when meeting other singles for the first time.
“You’re only projecting what you’re thinking,” says Ridgely. “A person may think there is a connection, but they’re only seeing what they want to see.” For her part, Playford felt uncomfortable the whole time and doesn’t think she’ll be back for another round. “I can’t see into anyone’s soul through their eyes and I know that,” says Playford.
“But, it’s a change from getting set up by Aunt Pam.”