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RebELLEs Give Oppression the Boot

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Issue: 70 Section: Arts Geography: Atlantic Fredericton Topics: gender, dance

July 22, 2010

RebELLEs Give Oppression the Boot

New Brunswick gumbooters troupe give feminist education a kick

by Marie-Christine Allard

FREDERICTON—There are many uses for rubber boots. The obvious ones are to keep your feet dry when it rains or to keep them clean while doing yard work. Some people use them as flower pots. But the Fredericton-based NB RebELLEs are using their boots to challenge capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and all other oppression that plagues our society. They are feminist; they are synchronized; and—oppressors beware!—they will call you out to the catchy rhythm of stomping and boot-slapping.

The NB RebELLEs. photo by ukuleleharmonica

As any of the gumbooting RebELLEs would explain, gumbooting as a dance is only a fraction of what they do.

“If you wanted a sterile description of gumbooting, it is stomping, slapping and clapping; but it is so much more than those mechanics. The richness comes from the symbolic value of its history, and its use as a tool of communication and resistance,” stated Carolyn*, one of the troupe’s gumbooters.

Gumbooting started in the mines of South Africa when slaves were given rubber boots because it was cheaper than draining water out of the mines. The slaves, working in the dark, were forbidden to talk to each other. In defiance of the slave-owners they developed a language by stomping and slapping their boots. The practice evolved out of the mines, and is now used in a spirit of celebration. The RebELLEs have appropriated the medium—originally a resistance to oppression, now an art form—to further the feminist struggle.

The NB RebELLEs were born out of the national "Waves of Resistance" Pan-Canadian Young Feminist Gathering in Montreal in 2008. They weave parts of the gathering's manifesto between bursts of percussive dance to make a stance on issues of oppression, such as the historical and ongoing colonial policies Canada embraces.

Rise against colonialism!
Down with governments that use force and intimidation to impose conformity, limit choice and reinforce the status quo.
We resist the discrimination against Muslims and Middle Eastern people, and all forms of racial profiling.
We stand in solidarity with families and communities of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
All over Canada, stolen native land continues to be developed illegally and for profit while the government fails to uphold treaty rights.

The RebELLEs' performances outline their vision of communities committed to eradicating violence, building solidarity and developing institutions that promote justice, peace and equality.

These are big ideas, but by using the dance as a vehicle for their message, they are able to reach a wide audience.

“Gumbooting is so accessible and draws people in. We’ve been at events where everyone seemed hostile and we weren’t even sure if they were going to clap,” said Carolyn. “But we've had people come to us at the end and tell us that they had never thought of these issues. We once had a man tell us: ‘I can’t believe you managed to slip in such a feminist message.' We’re making people aware that there is still a women's movement and [women] are still not equal.”

“[The gumboot troupe] is a visible part of the feminist movement, and blatant visibility is often lacking,” said Keri, another RebELLE gumbooter.

The NB RebELLEs do not preach to the converted, nor do they soften their message to avoid offending the audience. They performed at two ”Women in Business” conferences on International Women's Day this year. Many of the women in attendance worked in a corporate environment.

“Capitalism hurts women,” said the RebELLEs during the performance. “Pay inequity, insufficient parental leave, unacceptable childcare, unaffordable childcare, double standards, sexual harassment, glass ceiling, sweatshops. Rise against capitalism!”

“We felt that it was important to speak specifically about how capitalism hurts women, so we adapted our message for it. That was the only time that I’ve actually noticed people walking out of our performance,” said Keri, laughing. “It was antithetical to their conference and provocative, but we wanted to show up and challenge people, their assumptions, and the way they exist in the world.”

Keri explained that most performances have been well received. “I’ve had an intergenerational spectrum of people come to me and tell me, ‘That was amazing!’ I even had a lady ask, ‘Can I gumboot with my cane?’"

Keri reflected on a RebELLEs performance at a memorial vigil in Miramichi for the victims of the Montreal Massacre. "Right before we took the stage, some of the troupe met a survivor of domestic abuse who had just recently started talking openly about her experience. During our performance, there is a part when I talk about feminism and give our definition of it while the rest of the gumbooters stand with their fists in the air. At that point, the woman was sitting in the audience and she raised her fist with us, which then prompted the majority of the crowd to do the same. It was such a powerful moment."

*The gumbooters requested that only their first names be used in this article.

The RebELLEs are recruiting in the fall! Check out their blog for the full manifesto and more information.

Marie-Christine Allard is a member of the New Brunswick Media Co-op. An original version of this story was published by the New Brunswick Media Co-op.

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