Dating in D.C. can be difficult; 'eye-gazing parties' seek to help singles

By Lisa Bonos
Sunday, April 18, 2010; E10

Going through the motions of dating in D.C. can often feel like being stuck in that Bill Murray flick "Groundhog Day."

"What do you do?"

"Where did you go to school?"

"Where are you from?"

Now repeat.

So what happens when you preempt that tired script of first impressions and instead ask singles to gaze into each other's eyes, not saying a word?

On a recent Saturday night, about 30 single Washingtonians, myself included, streamed into Logan Circle's Flow Yoga studio to find out.

Jeffrey Platts, a 33-year-old who works at a PR firm by day and is a DJ, yoga teacher and dating blogger on the side, organized an "eye-gazing party" as an experiment for the buttoned-up D.C. singles scene. Having read about such parties' popularity in New York and San Francisco, Platts thought Washington could use a little eye contact.

"There's a stigma that D.C. is tight," Platts says. "That may be true, but I think there's a hunger for variety."

He might be right: There was a waiting list for his first eye-gazing event, which doubled as a fundraiser for Haiti relief. (Suggested donation: $10.)

On the night of the party, a slight buzz of anxiety -- and a sense of adventure -- wafts through the room. No talking, no touching. Just two minutes of gazing. Silently thank your partner. And switch!

We settle into meditation cushions, women across from men, in an upstairs studio normally filled with deeply breathing yogis. I take a spot across from a friendly looking, clean-cut guy. Before the gazing officially begins we launch into that get-to-know-you conversation this activity is built to avoid, and wonder whether we'll be able to gaze without giggling. It turns out we can't -- such reactions are incredibly contagious.

With world music humming in the background, I try to follow Platts's instructions not to stare at my partners but to look into their eyes one at a time. One guy focuses on his breathing enough to make me more conscious of my own. One moves his head to the beat, and I start bopping in place. Another seems visibly uncomfortable; I laugh to ease the mood. In others' faces, I feel like I'm "reading" my partners' emotions, even though we're total strangers and totally silent. I see sadness and joy, intrigue and boredom, longing and tranquillity. Or is my partner just projecting what he sees in my face?

One gazer, Dave Hancock, describes the experience as "having a conversation with another person's face," a diagnosis that scientific research seems to support.

"Mirror neurons ensure that the moment someone sees an emotion expressed on your face, they will at once sense that same feeling within themselves," social neuroscientist Daniel Goleman writes in his book "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships."

Eye-gazer Kristen Walsh says the D.C. event might change her interactions: "The longer you look at someone, they get more attractive. If someone hits on me in a bar, I might look at him a bit longer now."

And that's a sentiment that Michael Ellsberg, the creator of such eye-gazing parties, strongly echoes.

"I do not believe that eye contact creates attraction," he says, but "it reveals attraction much faster than anything else."

Fed up with that soundtrack of "résumé talk" constantly looping through his dating life, Ellsberg began hosting eye-gazing parties in New York in 2005, later taking the trend to San Francisco.

These days, he's focusing on writing: His first book, "The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love, and Life," comes out this month. He's not organizing parties anymore but distributes worksheets to others, such as Platts, on how to host their own. (On May 19, Platts is hosting an eye-gazing party at Tabaq Bistro on U Street.)

Ellsberg (yes, the son of Daniel Ellsberg, source of the Pentagon Papers leak) doesn't know of any lasting love connections made through eye-gazing parties. But he says plenty of phone numbers are exchanged, and Platts reports a similar outcome from his D.C. event. Nothing groundbreaking but simply a deeper way of meeting someone for the first time.

"With all our small talk, we're often not sure how we feel about someone," Ellsberg says. Eye-gazing "gives you a very fast, visceral experience about how you feel about a person."

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