On the eve of International Women’s Day.
A dull, windy, wintery saturday afternoon. Meandering about the hood. Pulled between a mood of sullenness and anticipation.
My wife and I are drawn to the RedDress exhibit on Alberta Ave, Edmonton, a community project constructed in honour of the over 1200 missing or murdered First Nations women.
It is a mandala walk with a denuded teepee positioned in the centre. Spiralling out around the teepee are a few dozen red skirts, tenaciously tethered to skeletons of delimbed Christmas trees. Nailed to the lifeless stumps are poems written by family members and friends in remembrance of their loved ones lost to violence and racism.
The display is a confliction of images and feelings. Spatially it feels empty, but as one walks through and reads the stories, the eulogies, one’s heart and mind quickly overflow. The red of the dresses splashes like blood on the white snow. Embodied spirits flesh out the empty cloth shells flailing spiritedly.
The movement, the swaying, the intimate tears shed for loves lost seem to evoke the spirit of dance. The lady in red is dancing with me, cheek to cheek There's nobody here, it's just you and me It's where I want to be But I hardly know this beauty by my side. (Chris de Burgh) This feels somewhat perverse or macabre to envision dancing in this polyester sepulchre.
Perhaps not. What I have learned from dancing tango suggests that every moment and movement opens a doorway to healing. I have learned that there are ways that men and women can relate that do not involve power struggles, dominance and submission; that intimacy is not an invitation to take advantage of another; that vulnerability is not an opportunity for rape and violence; that a man and woman can co-create something that is pleasurable and nurturing without someone getting hurt in the process.
I grew up with my own red dress stories. No, I am not aboriginal and no, no one died in my family circle from violence, although there was a close call or two. But I live with the residue, some of it cultural, some of it familial, of racism and misogyny, women disrespected, regarded as sexual objects, discarded, and of my own complicity in this muddle. All of which has left me with a haunting compulsion to unravel the string of story lines that are knotted in my psyche. Dance is one of the mediums through which I accomplish this.
As I reverse my walk out of this mandala, from the fire pit in the teepee to the outer fringes of the red dress spiral, I have a lyrical skip in my step. I absorb into my body the stories of loss and grief and tragedy. I act out a vision for society in which men do not equate intimacy with violence and women are not forced to sell themselves to survive.
I notice a young woman, aboriginal, walking past on the street. A jacked-up F250 pulls up alongside, music blaring out the open window, almost drowning out the rumbling of the muffler. A man jumps out and approaches her. They argue, presumable over some business transactions. He pushes. She acquiesces, climbs inside the truck and they drive off.
Perhaps someone, someday will be hanging a red dress in her memory. In the meantime, she moves on to dance to someone else's tune while I am left to sway with the spirits.