Julie Peters talks with Indigenous dance artist Olivia C. Davies about dance as a healing practice.
OLIVIA C. DAVIES is a contemporary Indigenous dancer and choreographer, the artistic director of O.Dela Arts, and one of my oldest friends. She and I were besties back in grade eight, when we used to sit in her kitchen and talk about boys. Back then, I didn’t know what a heavy load she was carrying.
Since that time, dance has been a major tool for helping her to heal, grow, and evolve as an Indigenous woman.
I asked her to tell me her story.
Like many Indigenous Canadians and Native Americans, Olivia was cut off from her culture before birth. She is part European (Welsh, Finnish, Scottish, French) and part Indigenous (Anishinaabe), but her matrilineal great-grandparents and grandparents’ family self-identified as French-Canadian in order to avoid stigma and maintain the privilege of the perceived whiteness of their skin. In that family, Indigenous heritage was never discussed, let alone celebrated. At age eight, she was adopted by her godmother into a Franco-Ontarian family where her indigenous ties felt lost.
Olivia spent many years with a lot of unprocessed, partly unconscious rage at having been disconnected from her ancestral traditions from such a young age. Dance is a tool she uses to bring herself back to connection to spirit, and her way of connecting to a kinship with others like her who didn’t grow up with their cultures but are contributing to a global community of Indigenous artists who nurture a reclamation of Indigenous heritage through traditional and contemporary practice.
Of course, Olivia isn’t the only one who had to grow up not really knowing who she was. Over generations, the Canadian and U.S. governments separated Indigenous people from their culture, community, and families in order to assimilate them to white Western ways. In both countries, prohibitions were placed on religious ceremonies, gathering in groups, traditional dance, and basically any other way of passing on knowledge to the next generation. This isn’t only in the distant past: In Canada, the ban on traditional dance was lifted in 1951. In the U.S., the American Indian Religious Freedom Act made sacred dances legal again in 1978.
For decades, Indigenous children were sent away to residential schools, institutions intended to essentially transform Indigenous children into white Christians. We now know that these schools were rife with abuse, and that they have left a legacy of trauma, addiction, and pain in both of our countries. The last residential school in Canada didn’t close until 1996.
In her book Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing, Suzanne Methot explains how this cultural trauma manifested itself in her body as inflammation, digestive disorders, and chronic pain. Methot writes, “The disease felt in Indigenous communities is the physical manifestation of intergenerational trauma and the metaphysical inheritance of the pain of colonial history.” Old pain experienced by the ancestors can live on full blown in the body of an individual living today.
Trauma that is held in the body must also be released through the body. For Olivia, dance is the number one way she works through her emo- tions. She explains, “A simple gesture like placing a hand on the face might spark an emotion of caring, of feeling held, for example. That might provide a space for bringing up feelings. Dance can unblock those emotions that we haven’t been feeling.”
When she is teaching dance to her students, sometimes she will lead them to “shake out the shapes we don’t need” so that it becomes possible to come to that quiet place where they can be connected to spirit. Making the shapes of anger, rage, grief, or sadness allows these emotions to be felt and to move through the body so that they can be let go. Studies in healing trauma have also shown that one of the most powerful ways to heal trauma is to allow the body to move in whichever way that it feels the urge to when a traumatic memory is coming up—to let the hands ball into fists, to punch, to run, to stretch to freedom. Letting the body move through its natural urges helps release stuck trauma and teaches the nervous system that we are in the present and that the trauma is in the past.
Olivia’s healing came about partly through her journey to sobriety. She had received some mainstream treatment, but there was always a piece missing. One day, she walked into an Indigenous health center. It honored ceremony, which included elements like smudging—a practice of cleansing the spirit by burning sage. “In this setting,” she explained, “I was meeting with an Elder who had walked his own journey of healing, and was now making himself available to help others who need healing. As soon as that smudge hit my eyes, I started sobbing. I had to shed all those walls I had built.”
For Olivia, dance is itself a kind of ceremony. “My spirit soars when I’m dancing,” she told me, “whether that’s on stage or by myself at home or slow dancing with my lover.I feel at home when I’m dancing, and home means being connected to spirit.” I’ve seen Olivia dance many times, and I often feel like she is revealing some sort of secret while she is dancing, like the audience is being transported into a place that is full of rage and beauty, humor and playfulness. I’ve always felt that she was asking more of me as a witness than other performers. Turns out, she was.
For Olivia, dance is a kind of ritual in which the witness plays a vital part. No one is off the hook: “In our traditions,” Olivia says, “a witness is not only present in the ceremony, but may also need to be called upon to remind the person of what the ceremony meant after it’s over.” The audience is not silently judging; it is part of the dance.
The last time I attended Olivia’s annual festival, a dancer named Maura Garcia began her piece by explaining her theme: “When I am dancing, my ancestors are dancing.” She talked about how all the ancestors are in the room with us, and when we dance, laugh, and play, they join us. She invited members of the audience to share about a person they loved in their lives, to imitate their laugh or sigh, and taught us all to make those sounds together at intervals during her piece. We were not separated from the dancer, but rather became a part of the ceremony. We became witnesses, and, in turn, were also witnessed. Everyone in the room became a part of the transformation.
Rupert Ross is a white man who spent many years trying to understand the worldview of the Indigenous people he worked with during his career as a crown attorney. In his book Indigenous Healing, he explains:
I remember being told at an aboriginal justice conference that Western and aboriginal scientists might approach the study of a plant in very different ways. The Western scientist, we were told, would probably focus primarily on understanding and naming all the parts and properties of the plant; figuring out its root, stem, and leaf patterns; examining how it takes in water, sunlight, and nutrients; determining how it reproduces and its life expectancy; and so forth. The aboriginal scientist, by contrast, would likely focus on understand- ing what role the plant plays in the meadow. She would examine how it holds soil when the rains come; what plants flourish close to it; what birds, animals, and insects are attracted to it; how it is useful to them; what kinds of conditions it needs to remain healthy—that sort of thing.
The Indigenous perspective is all about relationship. It’s a worldview that is captured by the common phrase “all my relations.” That phrase is a reminder that we are all— every human being, every rock and tree—connected. From this perspective, a dance performance can’t just be about the dancer; it must be about the relationship between the dancer and the witnesses, the witnesses and each other.
Olivia’s work with her Matriarchs Uprising Indigenous dance festival is all about the collective. She is bringing together Indigenous women to celebrate and elevate them, to help them help each other. For her, the dance festival is a platform for “creating narratives that transform the individual and the witness of the individual in the moment.”
Part of the Indigenous healing worldview includes a responsibility to that collective: that whatever work we do for ourselves in this world, we must give back to the web of connections and relationships that we live within. One person’s healing necessarily helps others heal as well. We all have the capacity to heal—but we must do it together.