If you haven’t yet heard of Donté Colley, get ready to scroll. Like most of his Gen-Z cohort, he documents much of his life on social media, posting snippets of his day to his Insta stories and selfies in his favourite ‘fits to his feed. But, unlike your average 21-year-old, he counts Leslie Jones, Halle Berry and Colin Hanks among his followers.
A self-trained dancer, Colley’s been making videos of his moves since 2015, recording them everywhere from his kitchen to the Artizia stockroom where he works. (His first posted vid was this amazing classical music twerk). Last year, he started overlaying the videos with graphics and inspirational messages, like “keep on grinding” and “there’s no one like u!” The kitschy-but-earnest feel-good videos started to amass a bigger audience around the beginning of the new year, when everyone was primed for some self-love inspo. And then Jones shared one of his videos in her Insta stories, and Colley’s following spiked, going from 20,000 to 100,000 in a week and a half, eventually plateauing at almost 600,000.
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In the depths of what feels like the greyest winter in history—and with a news cycle that seems to get more and more grim every day—it can be difficult to look on the bright side. But Colley’s videos are a reminder that there’s always a good reason to keep on keeping on, telling viewers that “you are worth it” and “here for a reason.” If his videos could be that inspiring, I had to figure that Donte Colley IRL would be pure sunshine. So, I put his positivity to the test, and we spent a chilly day in Toronto, seeking out ways to have fun even in the gloomiest month of the year.
2:50 p.m.: We’re meeting at Nathan Phillips Square in 10 minutes, and I get a text from Colley. We’ve never met, but he’s at Starbucks and wants to know if I’d also like a coffee. Exclamation marks and emojis abound in his messages, and I immediately realize that he’s deffo going to be the cheerful, super-friendly person I’ve been following on Instagram.
3:00 p.m.: He arrives, and he’s easy to spot. He’s wearing a turquoise vintage coat layered over a sunshine-yellow hoodie layered over a neon long sleeve shirt, and has a bright denim flat cap on his head. I wave him over, he gives me a big hug, and we go grab our skates.
3:10 p.m.: Neither of us has been on the ice in years, so we’re a little rusty, but we take it slow while we chat. It’s relatively mild for a February day in Toronto, but the previous week’s huge snow storm gets us talking about Colley’s recent trip to a place with much more agreeable weather.
“I was in L.A. when everything took off, and it’s definitely where I see myself taking a new step,” he says of the city he hopes to call home one day. “The sun is so healing, and I love the spontaneous experiences. I really want to try and elevate my dancing and, honestly, the opportunity is on a much larger scale than it is here.”
We’re getting tired, so we skate to the edge of the rink, and I ask him how he taught himself to dance. “I’ve never had training, but when I was young, and it sounds really weird, I was a huge fan of Sailor Moon,” he confesses. I tell him that’s not weird, because how could you not obsessed with this? “That’s how I learned to twist and turn. I definitely want to get more technical training, but at the same time I love having fun with it.”
3:30 p.m.: As we’re untying our skates, Colley brings up one of his biggest dance inspirations, Mette (you might know her from N.E.R.D’s Lemon video in which she let Rihanna shave her head), and how he was able to connect with her thanks to the wonders of the internet. “As much as it does get dark and overwhelming, it’s still such a great way to meet new people,” he says. “Social media is definitely a place where we can find ourselves comparing, but we should really avoid that. You never know what someone’s going through, and it’s so much easier to be a kind than it is to be negative. It takes so much energy to be mad.”
3:40 p.m.: We grab an Uber and head further along Queen West to one of his favourite vintage stores, Black Market. As we’re walking, we spot the new Casper store, and decide on an impromptu chill session. And since Colley’s in the business of inspiring and uplifting other people, I ask him how he does the same for himself.
“I always find myself dancing,” he says. “If I’m in a funk, I’ll just put my headphones in and try to get myself re-grounded. It’s really easy to go into a dark place, but that’s OK. You gotta accept that it’s happening, and let it out somehow. But you have to acknowledge the good things, and appreciate the things you do have. You can see, you can eat, you can talk and a lot of people don’t get that opportunity.”
4:10 p.m.: As we’re heading down into Black Market, we chat about what his plans are after he finishes his digital communications degree at Guelph Humber next year. “My dream job would be dancing for Rihanna or Beyoncé,” he says. “It’s definitely going to take a lot of work, which I’m so down to do.” That doesn’t seem like a pipe dream, though—Colley has already produced a video for Rihanna’s brand, Savage X Fenty, after they reached out to him and expressed interest in what he’s doing.
4:30 p.m.: Next, we make our way to Kensington Market for some sustenance at Bunner’s. Colley chooses a super dense cinnamon bun, and I follow suit. While we eat, he fills me in on what happened when his feed blew up thanks to all that celeb love.
“When I got to my Airbnb [in L.A.], I opened up my phone and I had a bunch of messages,” he explains. “And I was like, ‘what is going on, did I do something wrong?’ People were like, ‘this person messaged you, this person posted you,’ so I just kept doing what I was doing.” He posted another video set to the Law and Order theme music, and the followers kept on coming. But he says he doesn’t pay too much attention to the numbers. “I’m just glad that it’s reaching people in such a different way, and such a positive way, too.”
We talk about all that positive feedback, the comments thanking Colley for his energy and positive attitude, and I ask him about trolls. He says it happens, but that he doesn’t pay attention.
“What other people think of me is none of my business. Haters are gonna hate, but haters are motivators,” he says with gusto. “Love is the key to everything, and a lot of people are scared to love. I love first, before anything. When I meet you, I invest my all. You get those people who don’t really acknowledge it or appreciate it. But it’s so much easier for me to love first.”
5:00 p.m.: We make our way to the waterfront to check out the Ice Breakers installations, and as Colley strikes a pose in fron of the Insta bait, I ask him what’s in his future.
“I want to create a web series about young people and their mental health, and finding ways of dealing with what’s in your head. I think that’s where the challenge is with a lot of us, we can’t find that thing that helps,” he says. “That thing for me is dance. It’s the thing that keeps me grounded and makes me feel good and brings me joy, whatever mood I’m in.”
He gives me a big hug before we part ways, and I head back uptown towards home. I think about how I’ll be able to say, “I knew Colley when…” but I’m mostly focused on the way his energy rubbed off on me. Especially when the world seems like it’s full of hate, it was so refreshing to meet someone who cares so deeply for himself and everyone around him—but has an IDGAF attitude about the stuff that truly doesn’t matter.