Eye to eye, in search of a soulmate

“The eyes are the window of the soul.” For New York’s partying singles, that’s the new credo for a good time and possibly a new partner.

In a dimly-lit Manhattan bar, with soft music filling the background, 60 men and women sit in pairs gazing intently and silently into each other’s eyes for a long, quiet three minutes, before switching to the next person.

It’s the newest thing on New York’s dating scene: Eye Gazing Parties, the creation of technology-company official and salsa dance teacher Michael Ellsberg, after he tired of the tedious routine exchanges in singles parties.

“One day I went out and over the course of the evening, I had five conversations that had some combination of the questions, ‘So what do you do for a living?’, ‘Where do you live?’, and ‘Do you like New York?’” Ellsberg said.

“We’ve all had these questions 100 000 times. So I started thinking there’s got to be more interesting ways to meet people,” he said.

In the bar, the participants, casual and cool in jeans and button-down shirts, sit one-on-one, face-to-face around small tables each lit by a single candle.

The format follows speed-dating, the recent fashion for busy singles in which a man and a woman introduce themselves for an intense several minutes before the men move on to the next table, to quickly try out another possible partner.

But in eye-gazing parties, they don’t talk, at all. In a half-friendly, half-tense atmosphere, Ellsberg—who got the idea from the way salsa dancers communicate with their eyes—lays out the procedure to a group wearing nervous smiles.

You absolutely cannot speak or look at anything else but the eyes, he tells them.

“Keep a neutral facial expression.
Keep a nice, soft gaze. You might try to look at both eyes.”

“Actually it’s impossible. You have to look at one eye, then at the other. You can also try focusing on the bridge of your partner’s nose. You can gently alternate between the three.

“Also breathe,” he reminds.

As they begin, some of the eye-daters bend under their partner’s nose in concentration. Most keep their backs glued to their chairs.

Some bat long eyelashes. One moves the candle toward their partner, as if more light will reveal something inside. Yet another sucks on his beer, trying to hold concentration.

Little by little the discomfort fades, and each tries to figure out who best to start a real conversation up with after the eyes-only confrontations end and the real party starts.

Ellsberg, who doesn’t charge participants but requires them to sign up ahead on his website, www.eyegazingparties.com, says the parties draw adventurous people.

“Everyone who is going to be there is adventurous,” he said. “In fact we encourage people to have a drink or two because it’s a nervous thing.”

Many participants cheered a new way of meeting others, in a city where direct eye contact, on the streets or the subway, is a faux pas.

Normally, said researcher David Wales (41) “the first couple of dates is often like a job interview.”

The silent gazing is “more visceral”, he said. “I’m interested in the idea of forcing the hand of natural intimacy, I like to think you might be able to reach beyond the social mask people have.”

Sherri Hurwitz (35) wasn’t sure about it all. “Some people had no expression. And this guy blinked too many times, he was following the music, it was a little freaky,” she said.

“I can’t help but think it still comes down to looks,” she concluded.

“I sometimes wonder if I bored them, some looked very tired,” said Bernadette (36). “But it was interesting, there’s a lot to talk about.”

For money manager Salvatore Bonpensiero (25) eye-gazing actually takes off the pressure. “I feel comfortable, like I don’t have to be funny,” he said before moving on to the bar—where the participants could start talking. - AFP

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