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 even use them as flower pots. But the Fredericton based NB RebELLEs have found a new use: challenging capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and all other types of oppression that plague our society. They are feminist; they are synchronized; and they call out oppressors to the catchy rhythm of stomping and boot slapping.
As any of the Gumbooting RebELLEs would explain, the physical form of gumbooting as a dance is only a fraction of the whole 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, a gumbooter in the troupe.
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 were working in the dark and were forbidden to talk to each other, so they developed a type of language by stomping and slapping their boots in defiance of the slave-owners. The practice has evolved out of the mines, and is now used as an art form in a spirit of celebration. As a practice that came from oppressed peoples, the RebELLEs feel that it is an appropriate medium to further the feminist struggle.
As their own form of resistance, the NB RebELLEs gumbooters weave parts of their manifesto into their performances, stating their opposition on issues of colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism while sharing their ideas for a better world. By using the dance as a vehicle for their message, they are able to reach a much wider 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. 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 we are still not equal,” explained Carolyn.
“It is a visible part of the feminist movement, and blatant visibility is often lacking,” added Keri, another member of the troupe.
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 which was attended by many women working in a corporate environment.
“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,” laughed Keri. “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.”
As Keri explains, most performances were 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 one of the most powerful moments for her, at a vigil in Miramichi to remember 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 fist 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.”
Interested in joining the Gumbooters? They will be recruiting in the fall! Check out their blog for more information at gumbooters.blogspot.com. They can be reached at gumbooters at gmail.com.
Check out a performance at the Fredericton Delta: