Power embodied: Survivors heal through dance

Power embodied: Survivors heal through dance

On Dec. 21, the longest night of 2017, 50 people gathered at the Al Green Theatre in Toronto. The buzz was palpable as participants waited for Re-Humanize’s event, Dance Up a Movement to start.

Marlee Liss works to combat rape culture and sexualized violence. She wrote a book called Re-Humanize and started a movement by the same name.

It seemed fitting that we close out 2017 with a fundraising event to help End Rape on Campus. Sexual assault came to the fore of public discourse in the fall of 2017. What is shocking to some is the subject's persistence. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is “The Silence Breakers” — people who have spoken out publicly about their experiences of being sexually assaulted.

Tarana Burke founded the me too. Movement in 2006. As a youth worker, Tarana struggled to help young survivors of colour feel less alone. Then she found the words, "me too".

In 2016, actor Alyssa Milano started a public awareness campaign with the hashtag, #MeToo on Twitter. Posted by a white actress with greater visibility, Milano’s tweet went viral. Survivors everywhere began to share their stories and to show the public, on a grand scale, the sheer prevalence of sexual assault.

Dance Up a Movement did not focus on sharing stories around sexual assault.  Instead it created a safer space for people to rediscover themselves and their bodies in a world that is often violent towards us.

“Rather than focusing on the perpetrators, let’s focus on ourselves and reclaim the space we deserve." - Marlee Liss

Dance Up a Movement helps participants reclaim their bodies in a society where objectification, sexual assault and gender-based violence are rampant. Dance seems like a strange medium to do this work, as an art form that is often associated with objectification and perfection of movement for audiences.

Image seen here and cover image by Brittney Guimond  @brittguimond  

Image seen here and cover image by Brittney Guimond @brittguimond 

At its roots, dance is a way to express and communicate feelings. It allows people to connect with themselves and their communities.

Tamina-Pollack Paris, founder of Intuitive Feels and a professional dancer since she was nine years old, understands this intimately. Tamina started her organization Intuitive Feels to “go past the surface level of dance and external experiences and explore the spiritual side”.

Tamina asked us to wiggle our toes and connect with our bodies by exploring every joint. Then she invited us to connect with our bodies and the bodies of those around us.

We learned how to support one another through dance, and let others support us — even complete strangers. Through Tamina’s exercises, what started as a group of strangers became a community of people.

She notes the significance of a physical practice.

“Empowerment and support is easy to talk about, but to feel it on a physical plane is a special experience”.

I was lucky to feel just that.

Reba Campbell, also known as Dancing Wildfire and founder of Badass Body Love movement, continued the night by encouraging participants to love our bodies while we dance. Reba asked participants to consider that the bodies we inhabit are “magical adventure suits that we are born in” and that it is incredibly important to “love them and claim them”. This, however, often feels difficult in a world where, for many of us, our bodies are assaulted on a regular basis.

I had the opportunity to ask Reba what it is about dance specifically that can potentially help us love our bodies despite the negative experiences we may experience through them.

“There is this idea that has been given to me that all of our issues also lie in our tissues. The trauma stays within our body spaces. So movement and dance and reclaiming the playfulness, the freedom, the power allows us to move those emotional spaces and move the trauma so that there is a different way of engaging with it.

"Dance is, for me, the number one way that I move any of my emotional stuff. Whether it is that I’m really sad that my cat is sick and in the hospital, or that I’m really sad that a guy decided to pin me against the wall and say something really stupid and really harmful and really hurtful, I’m able to take those experiences and move them so they no longer feel sticky.

"We’ve been engaging with dance for thousands of years. This is the way we healed. That we created community. That we came together. That we celebrated. So turning harm into ‘I’m going to celebrate me and that I’m still alive. I’m still here. I’m still moving. I’m still breathing. I’m still playing. I’m still alive!’ allows us to connect with the joy and the absolute ecstasy of that .”

Click below to hear my entire interview with Reba Campbell.

The night ended with a pumped-up dance workshop by the Army of Sass. Meghan Norah and Sorina Matheson facilitated the workshop, assisted by Kalie Woodcock. 

The facilitators encouraged participants to “let it loose.” They stressed that it was a “judgment-free zone”.

Facilitators asked us to strut, move our hips and shake our butts in an effort to reclaim our bodies.

Meghan said the workshop is about “taking ownership of your own body. You’re allowed to feel sensual and sexy in your own body and being sexy is not for someone else, it’s about you.”

I was hesitant at the beginning. But eventually I learned how to strut down the theatre floor. It made me feel sexy in a way that I have never felt before.

I felt lucky to witness others in the same boat.

"It's very empowering and humbling to see a group of people take back their bodies and understand what they can do with their bodies — what they’re allowed to do," Sorina said.

Kalie echoed my thoughts on the subject: of us really knew what to expect that night.

Dance Up a Movement allowed participants to celebrate being alive, being here, surviving everything that 2017 has thrown at us.

So here’s to 2018.

Here’s to raising funds for organizations like End Rape on Campus.

Here’s to supporting the book and movement Re-Humanize to eradicate sexualized and gender-based violence.

And here’s to reclaiming our bodies and voices, in a world that still tells us to do anything but.

Natasha is a teacher living and working just outside of Toronto. As an immigrant to Canada at the ripe age of three, Natasha straddles various linguistic and cultural identities which inform her feminist and queer perspectives. Don't ask her where she's from though... she wears plaid far too often, toques even in summer and speaks half decent French. She's Canadian as far as she's concerned. She also really likes tea.