Calgary's men in heels dance crew are dressed to kill
A sleek black limo has just arrived in front of the Cowboys Casino in downtown Calgary. The driver, dressed to the nines, dances around the side of the vehicle. In one swift motion, he grips the handle and pulls the passenger door open with a click.
The first heel hits the pavement. Six-inch heels with a two-inch platform, black leather shimmering under the streetlights; laces tied as tight as Ada Lovelace's corset.
A few inches up, a rock of a calf pushes against black high wasted tights, begging to be released from its stretchy prison. The icy chill of the mountain-born wind lightly ruffles the top of tightly permed hair sitting perfectly in place.
These heels belong to the dancing feet of Raymond Jordan Johnson-Brown, 24, also known as RJ, the choreographer of Calgary's Snap Boys, the men in heels dance crew. RJ is waiting in anticipation of his show at The Plaza in Kensington in October of last year.
"When I created the Snap Boys, and decided to do it here, my whole purpose was to really challenge every social norm possible," RJ said during an interview in his living room. "And in a way that was exploring masculine and feminine, so when you watch our performances, the movement can be feminine at times but then very masculine at times."
A few years ago, RJ was working on a theology degree at Ambrose University. He had big dreams of becoming a Christian youth pastor. His friends and family supported his dream because they shared the same Christian perspectives and values. After coming out as gay, RJ made the decision to leave the church lifestyle. Leaving his church community meant leaving his theology degree behind, but in doing so, he shed anxiety and embarked on a road of self-discovery and acceptance.
RJ is joined by Snap Boy members Greisha Fathoullin, Harold Vasquez, Kurt Down, and Joël Adrien for Late Night At The Plaza, a weekly talk show featuring talented artists, musicians, dancers and more hosted by Logan Cameron and Kyle Lovstrom.
The crew stands huddled together outside, in anticipation of their show.
Hula-hoop dancers swing their hips in colourful circles outside the theatre as people slowly trickle in to watch the donation-only Plaza Theatre showing. The foyer of The Plaza is lavishly decorated with green, pink, and yellow streamers hanging from the ceiling. A large tin ice bucket is set in the center of the room filled with Village Brewery bottles of delicious local brew.
The energy is pulsing as people file in. The room becomes hot, everyone is standing shoulder to shoulder, the roar of laughter and conversation pushing against every wall. The Snap Boys, as well as other performers disappear into the theatre to warm up.
The crowd screamed and cheered as the Snap Boys took stage, clapping along to the song New York by Angel Haze. RJ's permed topknot bounced furiously as his heels coordinated with the rest of his group. The thudding of heels tapping in unison can be heard loudly over the music; the concoction of sound sends the crowd reeling.
Each dancer is wearing assorted combinations of black articles of clothing. The words, "I'm running, I'm running through the jungle, running like a slave through the underground tunnel," bellows as shadows of flaying arms and legs are projected on to the red theatre curtains behind them.
RJ was inspired to buy his first pair of heels after attending a coed hip-hop class in Toronto lead by dancer, HOLLYWOOD. Finding size 13 men's heels proved to be difficult, but he eventually stumbled across a pair of baby kitten heels that fit him perfectly in a Payless Shoes store.
RJ also danced with a women's empowerment group called Army of Sass, with a class taught by the talented dancer, Jojo Zolina. RJ pitched the idea of an all men, heels crew to Zolina and he agreed to start the crew. The original name that RJ thought of for the troupe was Working Girls, but Zolina thought it was cliché. In the end, Zolina's name Snap Boys stuck.
The Snap Boys officially started in fall 2013 in Toronto. So far, response to the crew has been overwhelmingly positive and they have been booked more and more frequently. However, RJ had a hard time booking The Snap Boys in the beginning. After sending numerous emails to event companies, "harassing" managers and co-ordinators, he eventually landed two gigs. The crew then had a promo video and photo-shoot made from these two performances, which they then used as a selling tool to book further gigs, and it worked.
It's no secret that Calgary's queer community is not as vibrant as other cities; Calgary does not have a "Gaybourhood" like Vancouver or Montreal, and RJ feels that many Calgary queers may not feel 100 per cent comfortable in their own skin.
"There are a lot of held back people in Calgary, people who like their safety net and want to remain in it. And it took me having to leave the city and come back to really see that and understand it," RJ said.
RJ's living room is cute. It has a desk sitting below a wide window. He has a wall covered in chalkboard paint with his dance class schedule scribbled on it. He has just finished making gluten-free muffins and is lighting a sparkler from a package that he bought for his crew to use in their performance later that night.
RJ says he has two personas: the first one, "R," is Ryan, a laid-back guy who enjoys watching Netflix alone and ordering pizza. And then there's "J" for Jake; a studly man who oozes confidence and gets what he wants. Jake is RJ's stage persona because when he dances, Jake's confident attitude always makes it on stage.
At The Plaza, RJ's black button-up shirt is left open as he spins, dips, and stomps; his face looks confident, sometimes dawning a smirk. The crowd continues to scream and holler as the other boys back up, allowing RJ to be front and center, working the crowd.
When talking about the weird looks he receives from people, he said, "That's when you're making change in someone, you have to be uncomfortable in order to grow in life. So that's what I like; we can offer that and do that for people, so that they can begin to be more accepting of something different than what they know."
The members of the Snap Boys come from all walks of life. Greisha Fathoullin and RJ performed in the Young Canadians together when they were in high school. RJ spotted Joël Adrien tearing up the dance floor at The Twisted Element, Calgary's gay bar. Kurt Down and RJ met at a dance workshop, and Harold Vasquez was discovered through a former Snap Boys member.
In 2014, The Snap Boys had the opportunity to perform at the award ceremony of The Gay Rodeo. The opportunity was a great honour for the group.
Originally for the rodeo, they had prepared a rather risqué piece to wow the audience. RJ was surprised to learn that there would be children and professionals in the crowd - 10 minutes before the show. In that small window of time, the guys decided to re-work an older, less sexy piece instead of taking on their usual, confident, sensual personas. In the end though, the dancers pulled through and delivered a captivating performance.
Back at The Plaza, the music had died down, the moving and shaking commenced, and the crowd ends with one last scream.
As the five dancers stepped off stage, I didn't want their performance to end. I was having too much fun watching them; they made me feel like I could dance too but when I got home and attempted to re-work their routine – I failed miserably.
Thumbnail photo by Logan Peters
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that The Snap Boys also performed the year previously at The Gay Rodeo. Also, that Jojo Zolina led the empowerment group, Army of Sass. Zolina does in fact teach, though Carla Catherwood leads the Army of Sass program. The story has been updated.
- By LOGAN PETERS