A “social playground” launches in Kingfield

Credit: Photo by Scarlet Frames Photography

At Kingfield’s new “social playground,” strangers talk about inner peace, offer personal compliments and hug — for 30 seconds at a time.

The HOP is designed to forge real connections between people, using rotating artists in residence and games to break the ice.

“Sadly in this day and age, people just walk by and don’t make eye contact,” said Dane Esethu, founder of The HOP. “We’re creating healthy, boundary-pushing space for social stimulation.”

Most events take place at the Center for Performing Arts at 38th & Pleasant, which was constructed in 1913 as a convent. It was converted to an arts center in 1995 and is now home to the Kingfield community garden and offers everything from Middle Eastern dance and tai chi to harp classes and music therapy sessions.

“The intersection between the center and The HOP is a nice one,” said Jackie Hayes, owner of the Center for Performing Arts. “We’re also interested in supporting and developing people.”

On a recent Monday night, the center buzzed with activity. Chair massage, reiki and “sound healing” took place in the basement. Butter Bakery donated coffee and treats. The walls were covered with pieces for sale by artist Chris Bowman, who taught Japanese Enso painting upstairs. (Three high school girls painted for three hours, only leaving because they had to make curfew.) The group Solfireshamans led a meditation based in Mayan tradition. People broke into small groups to answer questions like: “What does it mean to have a graceful heart?” and “How can inner peace lead to world peace?”

“We’re constantly never talking about surface-level things,” Esethu said.

Participants lined up into two long rows and chatted with the person across from them before shifting to the next in line. They were instructed to make eye contact for 30 seconds, and then pay each other a compliment. They were also instructed to hug for 30 seconds, positioned heart to heart, breathing in unison. (Surprisingly less awkward than it sounds.)

While the group hugged, Esethu reminded them that the person they were hugging may have had a horrible day.

“I had a horrible day,” one of the young men in line said immediately.

The event raised more than $500 to help fund an artist’s In Vitro Fertilization procedure, which is now underway as a result.

At the end of the evening, Esethu told the group he thought everyone was meant to be there — perhaps they made a new friend, they would leave smiling, or they would simply hold the door for someone as a result of the positive energy. He compared it to tossing a rock into the lake.

“You only see the initial ripple, but you never see the ripple on the other side of the lake,” he said.

Esethu’s day job involves work at Inspyre, a program he founded that uses science to foster emotional intelligence in children. For example, he gives a presentation about the anatomy of an octopus. Part of an octopus’s brain is located in its throat — so be like an octopus, he says, and think before you speak. An octopus has three hearts — so it takes three kids to give as much love as an octopus, he says. A new children’s CD by Inspyre teaches the lessons in musical form.

Esethu teaches in local schools and venues like the Science Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He also teaches swing dance lessons on Tuesdays at the Center for Performing Arts.

Esethu was very close to leaving Minneapolis. He had a job offer in South Africa — he previously took courses in peace studies at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University — and sold off all the belongings from his Whittier apartment. But taking the advice of a neighbor, he decided to stay in Minneapolis, and found himself landing a new Kingfield apartment instead.

“It’s my dharma to carry, to keep bringing people together,” he said.

Esethu’s social group started at his own home, where he’d bring 30-40 people together for intellectual gatherings.

Esethu is a board member of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, and KFNA is partnering with The HOP on a new venture called communaLAB. The partnership throws creative events that “intertwine personal and community relationships in interesting and artistic ways.” In March, communaLAB is planning an event focused on Hispanic and Native American cultures. And on March 22 from 2-5 p.m., communaLAB is planning a Kingfield family dance party at the Center for Performing Arts. The DJ’d dance party is targeted for kids ages 2-12, with a suggested $5 donation per family.

Since the launch of The HOP last December, Esethu’s heard gratitude from people suffering from social anxieties. Another participant called it the “ultimate way to date.” Esethu thinks it’s an ideal way to make a business connection, make a friend, or meet a person to marry.

“Whatever they need it for,” he said.