Man in pink suspenders dancing

Photography by Genevieve Caron

Donté Colley: how emoji and pirouettes are a recipe for kindness

The influencer’s hit Instagram videos have helped spread kindness online. Here, he reflects on his work

Every day, I go through my DMs and comments on Instagram, and it can be a pretty intense experience. “This saved me,” is something I get a lot. Or “I was really feeling like not wanting to be here anymore, but I came across your page today and it lifted me up.”

My name is Donté Colley, and I’m 22 years old. When I’m not working as a part-time sales associate at Aritzia or studying digital communications at Humber College, I’m at home in Scarborough, where I live with my mom and stepdad, creating Instagram dance videos intended to encourage people when they need a boost.

Where I get my inspiration

What I do seems to make people feel good. I dance to whatever music I’m feeling that day, whether that’s an 80s TV show theme, hip hop, Whitney Houston or elevator music. Then, in editing, I superimpose words of positivity and emojis onto my movements—think a mix of spins and jumps with messages like “You complete this planet” and “You haven’t come this far only to come this far,” with exploding hearts, hammers, stars, glitter showers and giant trophies for good measure. I really just go with the flow because you never know what kind of magic can pop out of anywhere.

Man looking out the window

What my process is like

Much of the creative process for my emoji dance videos just happens in the moment. I don’t plan any of the messaging and I pick a song right before I start dancing—then I hit record. Later I’ll play around with graphics and words in editing, making all the elements work together in fun and unexpected ways.

Learning is a continuous process

I have very little formal dance training, because when I tried taking classes as a kid, I was the only Black dude in the studio. It felt like a segregated space where the girls stood as far away from me as possible. After a few times being isolated like that, I felt overwhelmed and left the class for good. But even though I quit dance lessons, I didn’t ever stop dancing.

Thanks to technology, I was able to keep learning. I’d go on YouTube a lot, and search things like “how to do a pirouette” or “how to jeté.” (We had dial-up Internet at the time, and it was the slowest thing ever!) I love hip hop, jazz and ballet, but also all different kinds of movement that don’t really fit into a genre. I watched a lot of cartoons and anime when I was younger, and I’d mimic how the characters would transform and spin. I loved Sailor Moon, and I’d tell myself “You need to learn how to do 10 pirouettes in a row,” because that’s what would happen in the show.

While the bullying I experienced in dance class felt terrible at the time, one positive thing that came out of it was that I was able to teach myself exactly what I wanted to learn—I never really wanted my dance style to be cookie-cutter. While I don’t have that much technique, I love being able to move spontaneously. Dance brings me joy, and it has helped me get through a lot in my life, so I’m glad I can now use it to help other people.

Person in pink dancing

How my videos blew up

To my surprise, over the past two years, some celebs like Jada Pinkett Smith, Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Jones reposted some of my videos on their Instagram feeds. That brought a lot of attention to my page.

I collaborated with Ariana Grande and Victoria Monet on their “Monopoly” music video, too, and I’ve done interviews with media outlets like the New York Times, Forbes, Bully Magazine and TIME, and on talk shows, like Busy Tonight and Good Morning America. I never started making the videos to be found. I wanted to put a smile on not only my face but on others’ as well.

Breaking down barriers encourages sharing

I guess there’s something about what I do that really resonates with teens, and I think that’s why so many of them reach out to me directly when they’re having a hard time. That’s the nature of social media—you can connect with anyone, and that breaks down the barriers between us.

I try and reach as many people as possible through my videos and social posts. I care a lot about youth mental health, because I know first-hand what it feels like to struggle with difficult feelings when you’re a kid or teen. I was badly bullied when I was six or seven. Then I lost my dad when I was eight and my grandpa not long after that. Four years ago, when I was in my last year of high school, I lost my sister to suicide.

How I care for myself—and help others do the same

Grieving the loved ones I’ve lost is continuously challenging. To help calm my mind, I do things like spending time at the waterfront, listening to music and podcasts, and meditating. I also use thrifting, and playing around with colour and patterns for the outfits I put together, as another tool for my mental health. And when it gets cold and dark in the winter—which really affects me—I make sure to get away for a dose of sunshine. All of that helps, but what I’ve also come to realize is that we are all going to face grief, depression or other painful feelings at some point in our lives. It’s scary, but as well as finding coping strategies, you need to allow yourself to live through it. A big part of that is making sure you have a circle of support.

Person sitting on a chair in front of a camera

Making the Internet a realer place

The platform I use most now, Instagram, has long been a place where people curate their lives and just show their highlight reel of good times. That can be a problem when you’re a teen struggling with your mental health—you’re scrolling through your feed feeling like everyone else has it all together. I try to counter that by talking in some of my captions about my own challenges. On #BellLetsTalk day, I shared about missing my sister, feeling broken when I wake up each morning and still feeling guilty I couldn’t save her. I find the more I open up, the more people feel comfortable to share what they’re going through.

I think it’s important, when young people talk about their problems, not to say you completely understand what they’re feeling—because you don’t. We all see the world through different lenses. What you can do is listen and let them know you support them.

Person sitting on a chair looking away from the camera

Fostering positive community

This past year or so, I’m seeing a shift on social media that I think is positive: More people are showing some vulnerability and expressing more complicated feelings and more of the full picture of who they are. The message I want to get through to young people is: Just stay true to you because there’s no one who can do what you do or be you.

Being honest on social media helps us connect on a more authentic level and lets us know we’re not alone. We all need people to share things with. After I started to share more about mental health in my posts, I discovered the support of a whole community of people I don’t even know. My generation grew up online, and that’s where many of us hang out and find our people.

My followers feel like family now, and I plan to give back more down the line and create a multimedia platform that will help support and really engage youth who don’t know where to turn. I’d love to see something like that blossom from what I’ve been doing in my videos. Each time I’m giving of myself and sharing something I’ve made, I feel that if I can impact at least one person, that’s all that really matters.

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