Between working at a concert hall and spending free time trying to get people to do silly things in public, I've learned that Toronto is afraid to dance. It can dance, it just won't. And when it does, it feels guilty. We provide ourselves space to enjoy ourselves, then hire people to stop us. For six years, the Reclaim the Streets phenomenon has attempted, for one day, to wedge itself between our inhibitions like a bike courier between SUVs. The procession of traffic has been nudged aside for a more organic flow until the party disappears, leaving the slightest change, a buzz in the air just a little different than before.
But pushing back the tide of boredom can be difficult when you don't really have the right of way, and this year's party came at an interesting time, as Chief Buzzkill himself best explained.
"A problem is now arising," writes Julian Fantino in a report to the September 18 meeting of the police services board, "where portions of the public believe that Dundas Square is a public space." They're the portions who also believe we need to breathe, to engage in non-television-related conversation and who keep going on about things called "trees." Most frightening are their attempts to get us to dance. What do they think we are, French? We're Torontonians. We're miserable, thank you very much.
The chief elaborates on the problem, reminding us that "anti-war demonstrators in the first quarter of 2003 utilized the square as a meeting point without proper authorization." Authorization? Finding yourself in Dundas Square is as easy as tripping and falling. There's a wall being built, but it's in our minds.
Scaling that wall was the aim of this year's RTS, which gathered at the suspiciously pleasant Cloud Gardens at Yonge and Temperance. The party was small at first, and the presence of a mere two officers almost seemed like an insult. Soon enough, the month's Critical Mass bike ride arrived to much fanfare, like the grinning friend who always brings the hookah. As the crowd swelled, kids started some sort of contest involving jumping and hula hoops that made absolutely no sense, and the gathering constables tensed at the realization that people were going to start following their imaginations.
People walked onto the street in small clumps, allowing officers the little outbursts they generally don't try when groups move as a cohesive whole. We made our way by sidewalk, hemmed in and visited by three random arrests. Numerous officers heroically threw themselves on one man as if he were holding a hand grenade after he touched the flank of a police horse. The arrests seemed to be aimed at demoralizing people, but in true cop fashion they just made everyone all the more eager to dance upon arrival at Dundas Square.
Eventually, officers grew uncomfortable seeing us use our hips, and unplugged the music. It was promptly turned back on, and the ensuing farce encapsulated the whole night - an epic battle between police and Michael Jackson. Ten officers were needed to subdue the pernicious bass line of Billie Jean.
Participants reminded them that all we had gathered for was a party. "Have a party at home," quipped one constable. Well, I would, Officer, but my couches aren't zoned for this type of thing. You know how it is.
Now, it's easy to make jokes about cops. Fun, too. But the threat of unlicensed dancing should not be underestimated. Studies have shown that dancing can lead to a marked decrease in mindless consumption. Most worrisome is the joy of motion, allowing us to shimmy around the insecurities needed for the smooth operation of any illusory and compartmentalized landscape.
Non-uniformed people watched, equally wary, with the suspicious fascination of stray cats, as people moved their bodies through space. Some looked genuinely concerned, as if we might be having seizures. But most seemed hungry, beggars pressing their tongues against the window of a four-star restaurant. Attempts were made to invite them in, but they couldn't see that there was no glass.
As a former non-dancer, I understand where people are coming from: you don't want to make a fool of yourself. But here's a secret: the sexiest dancers haven't a bloody clue what they're doing. They're making it up as they go along. It's the same process any true public space will go through, assuming we let it.
Dundas Square is still contested. There's a void of legislation. There's no weight of tradition and habit, the true legislators in urban space. It's not illegal to smile at people on the subway, but how often does it happen?
This isn't lost on those who have vested interests - and judging from the number of times the square comes up in the police services board minutes, this includes police.
They benefit from a public unaware of its rights and fooled into a false idea of what public space means. The police turned off the music at 9:45 pm - noise curfew is 11 pm. They didn't see lawbreakers, they saw us ahead of them in the race to the heart of the square.
"You're lucky we're letting you use public space this long," said one officer. I think it best to just let that one speak for itself, but I will say that he's lucky we keep coming back.
Despite all that happened, at the end of the day there were still kids with hula hoops outside 52 Division waiting to applaud the emerging arrestees and ensuring that no one made the fatal mistake of taking it all completely seriously.
The police just don't get it - this isn't going away. And if it did, a part of them would go with it.