Healing as Performative Practice: How Gesture Leads To Shared Sisterhood



written by Jillian Groening

There are many ways to break
to crumble.
eroding like damp sand
water pushing the grains further and further apart.
a gaping mouth opening to expose the muck beneath the beach,
wanting to be fed
to grow larger
to expand
gobbling up taking in
consuming the land
with a voracious

there are many ways to fall to bits.

There is a creek running through the land where my partner grew up
splitting right down the middle of what would otherwise be a perfectly good field.
It acts as a division of ground between his dad’s land and their neighbours.
I say his dad’s land
(as though land can be owned as such)
because it is dad’s land
not his mother’s
after his dad passes on it will become his brother’s responsibility
not his sister’s.
my dad often farmed the land of a woman who lived in Germany
she was older
and owned lots of land.
I always imagined we would have gotten along
that older woman and I.

The earth where my partner grew up is finicky
it is light and gritty and requires frequent irrigation.
It’s good for planting juniper bushes
and potatoes
and that’s about it.
Roots have difficulty taking hold in this kind of earth
as they have to reach very far down
in order to sip the water.
The fields here have poor fertility as nutrients are easily washed away
through the particles of earth.

This is a far cry from the soil that I have gathered beneath my fingernails
where the mud is thick like clay and the land floods frequently.
Every spring
washing away the tiny stick tombstones you made for dead kittens
and crushed butterflies,
rusting your swing set
scattering white plastic fertilizer pails across the prairies
like some absurd flower girl
begrudgingly walking down the aisle at her babysitter’s wedding
plunking the remnants of
artificial growth
on the driveways of farmers
who just need their crops to grow.

When my partner was young, this creek was thin
a sliver
that he and his friends could hop across
in order to get to the beach by the reserve.

Every year
the creek grew from dainty scar
to wide gash
to engorged pit
swallowing the spindly sandy soil trees
and eating up land
the father’s land
not the mother’s.

Last summer
(or was it two summers ago)
my partner and I went camping on the land,
pitched a tent where he used to do his chores
mow the lawn
feed the chickens.
We brought along my sister and her partner
for more voices around the bonfire
and to keep away the eerie country silence
creeping down the road
hiding by the gate.

In the morning we went to go find the beach by the reserve.
we started walking
wearing denim and rubber boots to avoid the ticks
waving on the tall blades of grass
waiting to hitch a ride.

We crawled
into the crevasse
where the creek was
the cavity that used to be so small.

My sister and her partner started to bicker.
We were all victims of a gnawing hangover,
the one that starts right behind your eyes and sits at the very top of your belly
makes you want to vomit at the very thought of eating
or opening your eyelids
to the sun.

We trudged through the crater in the earth
grabbing onto the gnarled roots
of trees that had fallen sideways
the rug pulled out from under them.
With each step we took
dry earth fell deeper into the chasm
sprinkling down the sides
dusting our shoulders
and finding its way into our socks.

Our legs became heavy
after the water bottles were polished off
the bickering lulled
to the hum of cicadas
and pissed off silence.

My partner clambered through the wreckage
of turned over shrubs and beaver dams
at how the earth was changing
how the erosion had eaten the land
had chewed at the memory of his childhood
was devouring us.

The following winter
(or was it last winter)
my sister and her partner broke up
the caustic
pissed off silence
had swelled
had disintegrated
had melted the desire
to help with dishes
to come home early from the bar
to forgive.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we all break
we fall to pieces
like the grains pouring
from what should have been a field
basking in sun
the sun that was too hot
too dry
keeling over into the ravine
in search of water
of cool
of healing.

We break because of a weight
a weight that we all carry.

It lives in how we sit on the bus
how we walk down the street at night
keys in our hand
our muscles prepared to cross the street
shift over

This weight casts purple shadows
over the words leaving our mouths
pinching the syllables between the bones of our teeth
until we feel we have said our part
done what we can do
but it remains
a dust cloud
looming over our rickety house frame
of exposed nerves and hair and guts.

It straddles our shoulders
presses on our bra straps
discomfort is a bitch.

This weight
(this bitch of a weight)
propels our hands
to speak when sound can’t
escape out throats.
It informs us how to purse our lips and shift our weight from foot to foot.

we hate these mannerisms
we resent the fact that it reminds us of someone else
someone we are not.

we relish in the memory
the fleeting glimpses of past selves
past friends
past loves
ghosts that live on
in subconscious movement
we can wrap our arms around these memories
that come out to say hello
in the most mundane of moments.

these memories exist because we want them there.
We have plucked them from our history
and tended to them
perhaps with care
rolling the details around in our mouths
like a jawbreaker
trying to keep them alive.

Sometimes these memories bleed onto others
melding into a crusty
Things we’d rather forget
throw laundry over

these wisps of recall live within us.
We are the container.
A vessel filled with our history
the history of our mothers
our grandmothers
generations of bodies that have lived and breathed and now take up space
in the soft skin behind our knees
in the tension between jaw and earlobe.

The weight is memory
and the memory helps us move
it is the support
or impetus
that precedes movement.

We develop learned habits with this memory
recollect steps
from watching those before us.

In dance
this muscle memory is used to remember choreography
develop technique.
Without allowing for time
movement can appear shallow
skimming across the surface of the stage with the blissed-out grace of ignorance.
It is mid-translation
stuck frozen in the air
words you wish you could retract
swallow back into your throat

Muscle memory allows you to become a character
a different you
past selves/present selves
transform into another being
time and distance
allowing the lines between the authentic and the instructed to blur.
Muscle memory is something we grapple with
we tuck our pelvis
push out our sternum
hyper extend our elbows
yada yada yada


The weight can become unbearable
pushing down harder when we are asked to smile
when our words are manipulated
chewed up
or completely disregarded
when our experiences are discounted
shoved under the bed
when we are silenced.

We are good at dealing with these setbacks
we have done it before and we will do it again
we will clear our throats
and roll up our sleeves.

the weight clogs our brain
makes it difficult to fathom aspects of our own reality
we paddle through it’s thickness
attempt to navigate the reeds and the muck.

As much as we push against it
swim against it’s current
the memory propels us forward
wraps its fingers around our wrists and lifts.

The weight is accumulated history
that we drag our bodies through
but it also supports
it's palms secured under our warm armpits.

Our flesh is a palimpsest
layers of the past
swimming liquid beneath our skin
layers of soil
roots reaching down

This history slips out of us sometimes
like how a shell on your windowsill
spills out grains of white sand
years after it has left the water

the curtain lifts in a dark theatre and a beam of golden light breaks through
we open our mouth
press our palms
and out it spills.

We hold it tightly
and yet it leaves us.

No matter what study you read
all researchers agree that physical cues make up the majority of communication
raising our eyebrows
flailing our arms
how we speak with others has more to do with our physical bodies than our words.

Brenda McLean
together with Ali Robson
has been working towards developing a system
with which to analyze
and teach gesture.

Gestures are something that we use every
damn day
when asked to generate on the spot
or to abstract
or interpret
our impulses get marred
and we struggle to find clear pathways.

Their research has opened up a dialogue to discuss these everyday motions
to put into words that which we inherently do
and try not to overanalyze
lest we turn into numb

similar to how Labanotation
took movement patterns
and expressed them through abstract forms
line drawings of figures in space
to articulate movement qualities
so as to teach his students
and archive his work

Brenda and Ali
break down what it means to express
using Michael Chekhov’s list of archetypal gestures
and make it possible to discuss
to have shared language
to teach
they are drawing a roadmap
to assist others with the intention and interpretation of movement.

Watching Ali move from literal motion
to abstract
to interpretive
one could witness the drift
from external
to internal focus
the molten flow of communication
with moments of literal action
feeding the observer with just enough
information to understand and explore Ali’s journey.

Striving to put sand in the pockets
of a fleeting movement
to weigh it down with meaning and intention
calibrating it on a shifting scale
Brenda and Ali boil down what it means to communicate physically

finding ways to capture the flutter of a finger
the jut of an elbow
to trace it and label it and pin it to the page

“like nailing jello to the wall”

the stuttering
familiar movements
the push of an open palm
the gathering of air
combing the manipulations
of these simple
pedestrian movements
allowed for
“a portal into the universe of the performer”
as mentor Grant Guy expressed.

The viewer is allowed in to this world by these familiar anchors
small weights dropped down into the bottom of the well
presenting an opportunity for the audience to grasp the rope
pull them up
reveal a sliver of light
lead them.

The study of gesture summoned learned behaviour patterns
analyzing what we are born knowing versus what has been taught
or passed down through observation

diaper-bottomed infants do not need to be told how to walk
or reach
or shrug
we take those precarious first steps knowing
despite the shakiness and the weakness
how to put one foot in front of the other.

This is different than the gesture
of bearing weight.
When asked to illustrate this action
who is pregnant
instinctively brought her hands to her hips
in a motion that implied
domestic exhaustion
women’s work
the female experience

ask a man to interpret this same instruction
bearing weight
and he will most likely bring his hands to his head
expressing frustration
a hurting brain
over a hurting body.

Gesture also implies a sense of memory
each gesture is something we have seen before
taken in
worked through our body
added our own comforts or flairs
we inherit gestures from our parents
our friends
soaking in this bubbling
conversation between bodies

before acting out a gesture we feel it
we internalize it
we allow our memory to support the movement
the memory is the impulse for the movement
we feel it
and our bones follow.

Gesture is an imprint of our memories
an expression of our memories
communication between our past and present selves.

For Kristy Janvier
gesture and intention
run parallel to commonalities among individuals
to connectedness
and wholeness
to the body holding memory
and memory travelling down the bloodline.

Working with Emily Barker
Lise McMillan
and Rayanna Seymour
Kristy seemed to find herself drawn to the fact that even though the group of artists came from
various backgrounds
they all had shared experiences
as Kristy puts it
even though they all came from different side of the mountain
they had arrived at the summit together.

Water is of interest to Kristy
how we can exert energy onto water
how water can conduct energy
bodily fluids
the water within our shell
the water that is moved by our bones
by our memory

water pathways
rivers as roads
leading people home
guiding those who are lost
the life force that enables communities to grow
the blood veins beneath the earth’s surface.

Harkening back to a certain Dr. Masaru Emoto
the Japanese researcher
who administered various energies
onto collections of water.
He would write these affirmations onto the jars of water
and when frozen
the water would form crystals.
Dr. Emoto found the shape of these crystals
to be a reflection of the affirmations written on the jars.

Water with positive affirmations froze into intricate
symmetrical shapes
while the water burdened by negativity clustered
into asymmetrical
tumour-like forms

with this study in mind
Kristy collected water samples from the red river
a river that at one time had been the highway
for people in the community
where families would swim and paddle their canoes
build homes near
had turned into the source of news tragedies
bodies discovered on the muddy shores
bodies of women

bodies of indigenous women

wishing to heal this water
heal the past
heal communities
and those in pain
and rayanna
speak to the water.

During one of the first brutally cold days of winter
the group of us
and i
were tucked away in a studio in the exchange

the room was being warmed by heat fans
scattered around the space.
Every once in a while the power of the fans
would cause the breaker to blow
cloaking us in cold
reminding us of the city we were in.

As the energy
the light
Rayanna came down the hallway in her traditional jingle dress.
The jingles glowed rose gold
in the warm light of the heater.

She began to dance.
Her moccassin-clad feet
hitting the hard wood floor
with each down beat
the jingles moved to their own rhythm
a call and response
they were the light
in contrast to the steady rumbling of a thunderstorm.

Rayanna had constructed the dress herself
stitching on each jingle
going back with a needle and thread to fix any mistakes
she might make
the dress

the dance
has become an emblem of dancing for those who cannot
the response of the jingles a far away call
an echoing catalyst.

Memory lives in each step
each movement in the dance
even how the dress is made is passed down
through families
through communities
through generations

the dress dances for those who can’t.

Focusing on the energy of the water
the process became an act of women healing women
the power of touch
of breath
of connectedness

by healing the water through osmosis
the women were doing the same with each other.

healing through dance
healing memories through movement.
by accessing the healing
power of support
and the hands of a strong community of women
and peace
were articulated
and fostered.

Jaime Black
through work with natural props and improvisation
asked the question of
why we must heal
and how we could possibly
brave on

Working with Lise McMillan
using sculptural images
the two women
inquired about our connection to natural objects
the weight
and the energy that these items hold
sticks gathered in the woods
a scratchy wool
Bay blanket
stones from lake huron.

How can we alter the energy of an item?
How can we use it to heal ourselves?
Each other?

Images of the natural body
the female body
rose to the surface of the practice
a ball of red yarn
when pulled
and manipulated by the two sets of hands
evoked intestines
blood clots
umbilical cord
a heart.

Similar to our own flesh
the items hold memory
carry the past.
It is our responsibility to release that
acknowledge the energy.

By using the props,
she is taking ownership of their use
taking ownership of the associations attached.

In one exercise
we took the broad
gathered from the large lake
that borders Ontario and Michigan
They had been sitting in Jaime’s car overnight
and they were icy
we held them in our hands
rubbed them in between our palms
attempting to warm them
we pressed the cool stones
against our warm bodies
onto sternums
thighs and bellies
creating calm

Similar to the stones taking in cold
or heat
our bodies absorb what is around us
releasing it through gesture
through movement
and dancing

Jaime and Lise would often return to images of women working
wringing the blue blanket
scrubbing the studio floor
gathering wood
task-oriented jobs that contained pedestrian
or functional

By bringing nature indoors
uniting elements of organic beginnings
with the artificial
The two women allude to a melding of two worlds
two cultures
two backgrounds
two histories.

Swaddled in the blanket
a place of security
or confinement
or carrying one another on their back
images arose of women helping women
women healing
from places of strength and togetherness

The weight
inherent in women’s lives
in all our lives
the weight that can feel so crushing
is supported by our sisterhood
the works in discussion present a matriarchy
a community evoking compiled memory
physical wisdom
women healing women
and action
action for change.

we wail
we throw our bodies against the wall
someone must be listening
someone has to be listening
who do we even want to hear us
and if they do
will they understand our language.

we break
in search of healing
crumble like sand towards the water
cool rocks on warm bodies.

we heal each other
women healing women
connected by blood and intention
we rise, together

we huddle in ceremony
create our own rituals
turning fluorescent bulb to warm sun,
sucking the energy from the windows,
the dusty snow fall.
oscillate to form new patterns,
new ways of connecting
of restoring.

And so we move

hopping in home-made jingle dresses
creaking on hardwood floors
in front of the whirr of a heat lamp

we dance for those who cannot.

we do women’s work
women's gestures
that is what we know.
we know these learned behaviours from lines of mothers
wrinkled hands wringing cloth
scrubbing wet wool
sewing thread through leather
bearing the weight of a pregnant belly

female bodies are a shelter
bearing weight
containing responsibility
holding strength

This healing as performative practice
to be healed
and to see other people being healed
is vulnerable
It suggests a tool to take into our everyday
a safeguard
a reminder
of who has your back
a reminder to be present.

Not only does your sisterhood
have their hands open
palms exposed
ready to catch you
but your body
holding history
holding memory
knows how to heal.
how to repair.
how to preserver.

We dance for those who cannot.