Hamilton's 'dancing guy' has too much joy to hold inside

Jed Lifeson, Hamilton's iconic "dancing guy," has always been moved by music.
Jed Lifeson (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Jed Lifeson, Hamilton's iconic "dancing guy," has always been moved by music.

Growing up in Serbia, he adored his mother, a singer who often grabbed her guitar and played on the street. He first learned English through popular songs, so when he moved to Canada at 14, he knew phrases such as "get off of my cloud."

And he is one of the world's first Rush fans — his cousin, Alex Lifeson, is the band's guitarist.

Music still moves Lifeson — literally. From the time he leaves his apartment in the morning until the time he returns at night, he dances.

He dances through downtown, shuffling along the sidewalk to the music as other pedestrians watch. He dances from shop to shop, where he pops his head in to say hi to people. He doesn't mind if people stop and stare, or more rarely, dance along. He's danced for 10 years, half of them in Hamilton.

"He's an interesting guy who adds a certain kind of animation to the street," said Mayor Bob Bratina.

Some people are unnerved by Lifeson, Bratina said. But others think of him as a sort of cultural ambassador for the city.

Over the years, the "Dancing Guy" has become ubiquitous part of Hamilton's downtown. He's been featured in documentaries and articles. There are a handful of Facebook pages dedicated to him. The most notable is "The guy that walks up Main Street dancing to his MP3 player," which has more than 8,000 likes. People pose for photos with Lifeson and post them to the page.

It's a surreal evolution for Lifeson, a born-again Christian and drifter of sorts who began dancing 10 years ago because he was overwhelmed by too much happiness.

Motivated by his mother's illness

Lifeson was born 58 years ago as Nenad Zivojinovich. When he moved to Toronto as a teen, his cousin Alex took him to his friend Geddy Lee's place so he could hear their new band. Over the next few years, Jed took in every music show he could, whether it be Rush, Santana or Janis Joplin. Santana is a favourite — he's seen Carlos Santana 17 times.

Lifeson worked many jobs throughout his adulthood in Toronto. He was a truck driver, a karate instructor, and a bouncer at several bars. In 2003, he was living with his mother in a rough area of downtown. He returned home one day to see her on the couch, catatonic and unmoving, "like a corpse," he recalled.

The ambulance took her to the hospital. Lifeson got on his knees and prayed. "I said 'Don't take her now. Please. Any other time,'" he said. "I've got to say goodbye to her."

It turned out to be a diabetic coma, from which she emerged 17 days later. Lifeson was so happy that he burst out of the hospital, screaming and dancing.

"I didn't see the traffic," he said. "I didn't see the people. I didn't even have the music but I was dancing, jumping, just celebrating.

'I didn't know how to handle the happiness'

"A day or two later, I couldn't sleep, I was so excited. I didn't know how to handle that happiness. I had to bring it out."

He didn't intend to make dancing a long-term habit. But every day, he wanted to do it again. The first week, Toronto police regularly stopped him, sometimes four cruisers at a time. Was he drunk? they asked. Was he high? Eventually, they got used to him.

That's what happened when he moved to Hamilton five years ago too. He moved here to take a roofing job, which soon disappeared. Unemployed, he went on Ontario Works and relied on local soup kitchens and food banks to live.

The days were dark, he said.

"For the first time in my life, I thought of suicide for some reason. I was worried and scared. But I just kept dancing."

'I thought you were nuts'

When Lifeson meets people now, they often confess that they thought he had a mental illness because he never stopped dancing. "People say 'no disrespect, not to put you down, but I thought you were nuts. But you're OK.'"

His image has changed now, he said. Instead of just being "Dancing Guy," he'd like to be referred to as "the voice crying out in the city" because he wants to send a message of free spiritedness.

He's also changed his music methods. Rather than wearing headphones, he is carrying a small speaker with him so other people can hear the music too. One day soon, he'd like to dance across Canada.

Dancing, he said, is "meditation."

"I notice, for example, that I don't get angry anymore," he said. "It's incredible. And I don't know where it went. That's curious. I don't remember when I actually stopped getting angry, but no one can press my buttons anymore. I just stick my ear phones in and two minutes later, it's forgotten."