Healing as Performative Practice: How Gesture Leads To Shared Sisterhood

Healing as Performative Practice: How Gesture Leads To Shared Sisterhood



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.