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Grinnell alum becomes youtube dance sensation

Leave it to a Grinnellian to have her entire bridal party dance down the aisle to Chris Brown’s “Forever” on her wedding day and become propelled into Internet stardom when the video is viewed by millions around the world. When Jill Peterson ‘03 and Kevin Heinz uploaded this quirky and fun performance onto YouTube, they only expected their family and friends to watch it. Imagine their surprise when the numbers continued to shoot up and before they knew it, they were flown to New York to be on “The Today Show!” At that point it was official—the dancing duo were the newest Internet celebrities.

Three months and over 26 million views later, Peterson, who is currently attending graduate school in Irvine, California, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to the good ol’ S&B about adjusting to a new life of fame, the charity the Minnesota-based couple has been promoting on their website and another cool dance extravaganza she did her senior year at Grinnell. Looks like it all started here in the cornfields!

Anika Manzoor: Who came up with the idea to do the dance and why?

Jill Peterson: I think it was my idea initially but Kevin jumped on board pretty quickly. It was actually one of the first things we decided after we got engaged. And I’ve been dancing most of my life. I did, actually, a lot of dance and choreography at Grinnell. And so I knew it was something I wanted to do because it was sort of like you’re putting on a show for your family and friends and it’s a celebration for your love and that you’re coming together and I thought it would be a fun way to do it. And a lot of my friends were dancers and I knew that they would go for it. Two of them were in dance troupe with me at Grinnell—the first two women that came down the aisle.

Manzoor: Why the song “Forever” by Chris Brown?

Peterson: We chose that song right when we got engaged—so about a year before we did the wedding—and, I mean, I love the song—I thought the lyrics were perfect. I knew it wouldn’t offend anyone. And then when the incident happened between him and Rihanna we were going to push the song, but it sort of happened at the last minute and we didn’t figure it out, so it’s ironic now. [laughs] We figured [it was still a good song].

Manzoor: How much was choreography and how much was improvisation? Did you do any extensive rehearsal?

Peterson: We didn’t. We actually had a one-hour rehearsal the Thursday before the wedding and we ran through it once on Friday at the real rehearsal. So most of it was improv’d or on the fly. People sort of had general ideas of what they were supposed to do and we had a woman at the door cuing people when they were supposed to go in [laughs]. But other than that, a lot of people were making it up as they went.

Manzoor: How many people knew about the plan beforehand and how did they feel about it?

Peterson: Our parents found out the Friday before that we were doing it and our pastor—who is a relative of ours—I told her we were doing it and it was okay with her. But other than that no one really knew. They were really supportive, they thought it was a fun idea. I mean, they know us pretty well, so… [laughs]

Manzoor: Of those who weren’t expecting it, who had the best reaction? How did the older folks react to it?

Peterson: It was amazing. Actually, it was something I was a little bit concerned about—if anyone was going to be offended or think it was too non-traditional. But really nobody was. Everybody was completely enthusiastic and we had people in their, you know, 80s coming up and saying, “If we had done our wedding 50 years later, we would have done something like that.” And on the way out of the church, Kevin’s grandmother and my grandmother both danced on the way out, which was just so cute.

Manzoor: What do you think happened to make it so popular?

Peterson: You know it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and…it was astounding what happened. I mean, we put it up thinking our friends would look at it and maybe forward it to a few friends and we wanted the family to see it who couldn’t make the wedding. And I didn’t know something was going to happen. I didn’t even know what the definition of a “viral video” was! [laughs] And it went like wildfire. I mean, it happened barely within about three days after we posted it, it was so quick. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was a slow news week or if there’s something about the video that’s just pure joy and happiness that people seem to really grab onto. Or if it was just sort of rough times and people wanted something positive and happy. And I think also it was because it spread around the entire world so quickly and it got really big in Europe and Asia. I think it was because dance is really an international language, that it was able to go worldwide. But yeah, it’s totally bizarre to me, I don’t know!

Manzoor: How did you react when it became of viral status?

Peterson: We were sort of checking on it every day to see, because we saw it spreading to people really fast. And then when it wasn’t even a million hits was when “The Today Show” called Kevin and was like, “Do you guys want to come on ‘The Today Show’ in New York City?” And we were just like, “What are you talking about?!” I mean we thought… we were laughing—we thought it was so crazy and we were calling all our friends. I mean, it was really nuts. And then we started getting tons of media calls, I would say, on days three and four.

Manzoor: How does it feel being internet celebs? What is the best and worst thing?

Peterson: I mean…it’s fun. I would say the best thing was that we had gotten this website where people can donate to the Sheila Wellstone foundation for domestic violence. And also we put an e-mail address up there so people can shoot us an e-mail if they want to. And after this morning I think we’ve gotten around four thousand e-mails. And they’re amazing. And they’re from people all over the world that tell you these stories about their lives or what this video has done for them or how often they watch it. And that has just been really touching and amazing, just reading all these stories from people.

The worst part was probably that it happened right before Kevin was starting law school and I was going take my comprehensive exam for my Ph.D. [laughs] So the timing was not great!

Manzoor: Were you passionate about this cause [domestic violence prevention] before deciding to spread the word about the foundation?

Peterson: I mean, I study violence, specifically mental illness and violence, but also general violence prevention and intervention. So it was a really important issue to me. And after we sort of shot Chris Brown’s song up in the charts—I don’t know how high it got, like 4 or 5 or something—we’ve started being really uncomfortable with it, especially with everything that had been going on. And we thought it was a really nice opportunity—with all these people feeling all this positive emotion and reaching out to us—to just ask people to be able to raise money for a cause. And we picked the Sheila Wellstone Institute for Domestic Violence Prevention because of the domestic violence connection, because it was local and also because they did sort of bigger policy-level work on a national level. And yeah, the response has been amazing for that too. I haven’t actually heard from them in a few weeks but the last I heard I think we had raised around $20,000 or so. I think to be able to direct all the attention we were getting towards something like that and deflect it from ourselves a little bit—it felt good for us to do that.

Manzoor: The video was uploaded onto YouTube around July. Is the response to it as overwhelming as it was before?

Peterson: No, it’s calmed down a lot. Before it was like we were [getting contacted] every couple of minutes from different people, and it’s definitely calmer now. Although it’s shockingly still going on [laughs]. I didn’t think it would be! We’re still getting phone calls from people who want interviews and things like that.

Manzoor: How many times were you asked to re-enact the dance?

Peterson: I have had professors and things ask me to dance into the room or dance out of the room [laughs] but a formal request for the full thing was pretty rare.

Manzoor: What is your fondest memory of Grinnell?

Peterson: Oh my gosh! That is tough. Well, in terms of dance, my senior year, Barbi [Rodriguez ’03] and I—Barbi who was in the piece—put together an independent study that was like dance in the form of social movement. And for that class we got to choreograph an antiwar dance—it was right when the Iraq War broke out our senior year. And so we had 40 Grinnellians who learned the dance to protest the war and we went and performed it on the state capitol in Des Moines and in Iowa City in the mall and we performed it in the park in Grinnell and it was just an amazing experience. And it was one of those “only at Grinnell” experiences, you know? [laughs] Very Grinnell. Like, you tell other people about that and they’re like, “And you got credit for that?” It was amazing.

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