If You Can, Dance: The Winter 2010 Ceremonies That The World Wasn’t Watching – Amber Dawn

If You Can, Dance was originally commissioned by SubTerrain Magazine for “The Regret Issue (a post-Olympic Reflection)” or issue # 57. I hadn’t written a stageplay since my undergrad—a BFA in Creative Writing—and I wasn’t keen on meekly revisiting this multifarious genre. However, the more attempts I made to respond to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the more I felt like an inadequate narrator. Who was I to speak solo on such a mondo pile of bullsh*t? I could not begin to tackle winter 2010 a piece of non-fiction. It was the best I could do to recall some of the many “sound bites” and images I had witnessed. Those sound bites became a stageplay—one that I hope captures a glimpse resistance movement with the guts and dignity it so deserves.

Characters

Amber Dawn
Sybil Liberty
Bill Blitz
Wayward Bro
Jael Time
Steve of Destruction
Sara
miko
Elder
Sally
Lynn

Prologue 

Amber Dawn: “If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.” Emma Goldman. June 27, 1869 to May 14, 1940. Writer, feminist and self-proclaimed anarchist. I am also a writer. A feminist, most certainly. And, while I have never felt that the particular appellation of anarchist befits me, I have stood naked in front of the art gallery steps. I have torn a sleeve from my blouse and used it to dress an open wound. I was there when one hundred lesbians seized the food court at Pacific Centre Mall in an anti-homophobia kiss-in demonstration. I have kissed pavement while a police officer handcuffed me and another felt down my pants for an alleged weapon. (No one read me my rights. No weapons were found.) I ate pepper spray, along with a thousand or so other protesters, at the APEC summit. I saw riot tanks rush London on Financial Fools Day. Once, I sat in a cake at a party where the mayor was in attendance. Many times, I’ve held the hands of strangers, chanting, “The people united will never be defeated.” My humble acts of revolution are growing more humble with age. I speak softly and I carry a small stick: my pen. During the winter of 2010, I tried to do Emma Goldman proud by dancing. I danced at the parties and ceremonies that the so-called world wasn’t watching. It is unlikely that the world will ever watch this party. So for the majority of you who have missed it, I offer this dramatization of a small sampling of the conversations, thoughts, song, dances and ceremonies of my community of Olympic resisters. Details have been altered and, apart from the character of myself, Amber Dawn, names have been changed. Identities deserve protecting; yes, there are very real consequences attached to organized resistance. And ultimately, I believe people should be in charge of telling their own stories. This is mine.


Act One

(Sybil and Bill are seated on a dark stage. The glow of two illuminated travel mirrors light their faces. Sybil is applying make-up, while Bill fixes a false moustache above her lip.)

Sybil: (to audience) There are two ways to find out about this party, word-of-mouth or Facebook. And according to Facebook, there will be one hundred and fifteen people attending, and another sixty-eight who might attend.

Bill: Plus, another forty or fifty will show up after the bars close, because their friends mass texted the tip that we sell bootlegged beer for two bucks. Let’s remember to give What-to-Do-if-the-Cops-Come-Knocking instruction sheets to the door volunteers. And tell them not to let anyone stand outside smoking. And no one leaves with drinks in their hands. There’s what, four thousand extra cops in the city? I walked past two Navy patrol vessels in the harbour on my way here. Now would be the worst possible time for a raid. (to audience) Olympic security has put out several warnings to anyone planning a quote-unquote “disruption.” According to VANOC, I shouldn’t even be wearing this t-shirt. (BILL stands to show her shirt with an image of frowning faces in the centre of each of the five Olympic rings.)

Sybil: So you’re saying that two hundred some-odd queers gathered in an unlicensed warehouse-turned-theatre venue plastered with anti-Olympic posters would be considered a disruption? But our foremamas and papas didn’t have the luxury of safe assembly. Think Stonewall. Same police raid shit happened here. Nov 23, 1974, the year I was born, Vancouver queers held their very first protest on the steps of VPD headquarters to demand a stop to police harassment at gay bars and bathhouses.

Bill: 1974? How old does that make you?

Sybil: Quiet, you whippersnapper. You were born in the eighties, therefore I must school you. (to audience) I’m trying to school all of you. This is how it’s always been for us. We pool our humble resources together to create these tiny spaces, knowing that any minute they might be taken away. I’ve been involved with the rise and fall of three underground radical queer spaces and squat housing co-ops. It’s worth it to find yourself, no matter how briefly, in a world that is all right. Or at least our kind of “right.” Our kind of “right” is reflected in our mandate. We are a…

Sybil and Bill: …community-driven, collectively-managed, volunteer-run, not-for-profit, anti-capitalist, queer, gender radical, sex-positive art and activist space that strives for inclusively, accessibility, continually raising our voices and shamelessly shaking our hot asses.

Sybil: Like all of our parties, tonight is a fundraiser. Our Facebook invite reads like this:

(The lights come up to reveal a modest cabaret theatre furnished with mismatched tables, chairs and equipment. Sybil and Bill are in costume: Sybil in a cowgirl outfit and Bill dressed as a circus ringmaster. Volunteers arrive and begin lighting candles, setting up the bar, etc. The other drag kings arrive in masculine caricatured costumes, i.e. a construction worker circa 1980s.)

Friday, December eighteenth. Five King Circus! A night of Drag Kings and Direct Action. Step right up and oppose the homophobic, sexist, elitist, impoverishing and gentrifying Games. Performances by Bill Blitz (points at Bill), Wayward Bro, Jael Time, Steve of Destruction and Sybil Liberty. That’s me. Five to fifty dollars, sliding scale. No one turned away for lack of funds. All money raised goes to the Olympic Resistance Network. Location… the venue. Welcome to “the venue.” One thousand square feet of damp concrete nestled under the Clark Street Bridge.

Bill: Our goal is to raise five thousand bucks between admission and bar sales.

Steve: That could pay for someone’s bail, if one of us gets arrested while protesting.

Wayward: One person’s bail verses shelter for twenty-eight. For five grand we could sponsor twenty-eight red tents. They’re setting up a tent village in Oppenheimer Park. Oppenheimer Park or across from the Woodward Building. We are the only developed nation without a national housing strategy, you know? Nearly three thousand homeless in Vancouver.

Jael: And we need to photocopy and distribute these Surviving the Circus resource guides by the Community Olympic Watch. (flipping through COW’s booklet) It’s filled with tips for interacting with the cops, how to handle tear gas, activist aftercare…

Bill: So much work to be done. So much to do, indeed, and so much to see. (Bill walks into a spotlight. Her voice switches to a circus-barker dialect) Come one, come all to the Five King Circus. A delirious, delightful, delicious display of drag and direct action. There is so much to see, it might be more than your minds can comprehend. Then again, you’re a thoughtful crowd, aren’t you my friends? You were keen and kind enough to donate to the Olympic Resistance Network at the door. For more eye-opening information about tonight’s fundraiser recipient, visit resist dot c-a. That’s r-e-s-i-s-t dot c-a. But I know the real reason why you are here. Put your hand up if you came here to see naked ladies. I’m thrilled to introduce the hardest working naked lady in town. And believe me, it’s hard work being an activist by day, a showgirl by night and putting up with us drag kings in the dressing room. She is the Ginger to our Freds. The Ella to our Fellas. Put your hands together for the one and only Sybil Liberty.

(The spotlight widens. A Spaghetti Western theme song titled Gold by Francesco De Masi plays. The opening lyrics: “There is gold, hidden gold. All men desire, but few men ever find.” sybil saunters across the stage carrying a canteen and a steel gold pan. Through a series of provocative bends and swats she mimics panning for gold in an imaginary riverbed. She fans herself in the implied heat with her cowboy hat. She pours water from her canteen down her body. She strips to a pair of shimmy shorts and sequined nipple pasties. At last, she discovers a gold nugget the size of a baseball. As she holds the nugget in her hands, she realizes that the gold is dripping like paint. Frantically, she rubs the dissolving nugget over her bare skin, streaking herself with gold. The nugget’s core is red, and in her frenzy, Sybil coats herself in theatrical blood. Horrified, she falls to the floor in anguish. Behind her a slide is projected on the white wall. It reads, “The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of the 1850s led to the colonization of British Columbia and the displacement, rape and murder of thousands of Nlaka’pamux first people. What atrocities will the 2010 rush for gold bring? No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”) 

 

Act Two

(The scene is the intersection of Main and Hastings during the Women’s Memorial March. Drumming, singing and the VOICE OF THE SPEAKER can be heard throughout Act Two. Characters move in and out of the action. Conversations overlap. Sara weaves through the audience handing out red carnations.)

Sara: Nineteen years ago a woman was murdered. Just a few blocks from where we are right now.

(Amber Dawn stands in a long line of women holding a long decorative fabric banner. She lifts one hand from the banner to wave.)

Amber Dawn: Hi, Miko. You found me.

Miko: The crowd goes back a couple blocks at least.

Amber Dawn: I’ve never seen so many people at the march. I was expecting the opposite. That the Olympics would keep people away.

Voice of the Speaker: Every year on Valentines Day, I come to the Missing and Murdered Women’s Memorial March to mourn and remember our sisters by listening to their family members, by walking the street of the Downtown Eastside. Dozens of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and thousands of Aboriginal women across Canada are missing…

Elder: (to Miko) Take the end of that banner. Don’t let it drag on the ground. Hold it up.

Sara: (motions to the banner) Elise Jones. Jean Mary. Laura Mau. These are our names. The names of the missing and murdered women. See how each panel has been decorated by family and friends. Here is a medicine wheel made out of felt. Here is a row of embroidered hearts. A baby’s handprint in pink paint.

Miko: How long is it?

Amber Dawn: I’m not sure. Long. The banner starts way over there. (points into audience) And this is only one of five memorial banners.

Sara: The names stretch from Calgary to Edmonton to Toronto to Montreal, clear across to Bear River, Nova Scotia. Today this banner is carried in six different cities. It takes a many people to carry it.

Voice of the Speaker: We’d like to welcome everybody here this afternoon. We are standing in front of the Vancouver Police Station. It is very symbolic that we stand here. This is where the injustice towards the murdered and missing women began…

(Sally and Lynn approach wearing Legal Observer T-shirts.)

Amber Dawn: Sally. I didn’t know you were a legal observer.

Sally: This is Lynn, my observer buddy.

Amber Dawn: How have you been holding up? You know, acting as a neutral observer in the midst of all the demonstrations?

Lynn: Normally, I’m not what you’d call a neutral person. I totally have a hot head. I’d cruise around the Olympic Pavilion kicking anyone with red mittens in the nuts all day long if I could get away with it.

Sally: Oh me too.

Lynn: Right. But when the Assistance to Shelter Act passed last Fall I thought, it’s really happening. The province has officially given the police the green light to remove people from the street…

Sally: Detain them. Cart them off to shelters. What shelters? During a shelter shortage? They didn’t say what kind of shelter or where these shelters would be.

Lynn: Yes. Which made me worry that the homeless would essentially be jailed for being homeless.

Miko: The Olympics have history of using force to move the poor and dissenting people out of site. In China, even potential protesters were detained by police. In Atlanta, nine thousand homeless people were arrested in the months leading up to the Games.

Lynn: True. Hi. Uhm. Hi, I’m Lynn.

Miko: Miko.

Lynn: Pleasure. So I decided to volunteer as a Legal Observer. You know, act as eyes and ears on the streets. Document and report anything I can.

Sally: It’s more useful than kicking ball sacs in frustration. Plus, our volunteer training, full of dykes. Some cute ones too.

Miko: What else is new? We always top up the volunteer pool.

Lynn: Miko, we know each other, don’t we? We met at the venue.

Sally: (to Amber Dawn) Leave it to Lynn to pick up at the march.

(sara enters the stage, hands out red carnations. Amber Dawn searches her pocket for change.)

Sara: Keep it. Keep it, lady. For Valentines Day.

Amber Dawn: Thank you.

Sara: Do you remember me?

Amber Dawn: I do. It’s good to see you, Sara.

Sara: Whoa. My name ain’t even on this banner and you remember it.

Voice of the Speaker: …a nation is not conquered until the hearts of women are on the

ground. Then it is lost. This is how I feel everyday when I see elders using the shelters.

Or seeing the young women being turned away from the shelters because there is not

enough room for them…

Elder: Follow the drummers. We’re moving to Powell Street. (Elder sings the Women’s Warrior song. The crowd sings together. Their footsteps move to the drum’s beat.)

Sara: It’s the Women’s Warrior Song. You sing it pretty good.

Amber Dawn: (embarrassed) I don’t even know what the words mean.

Sara: They’re not something you can find out on your own. You can’t go opening a newspaper, eh. Go on the computer. There’s the words. Written right here. In English. Nope. The song has to be given to you. By an elder. But, hey, I can tell you what it’s about. It’s about ladies being so strong. So strong they can take anything. (Sara sings loudly, and dances. The crowd seems to intently sing and dance with her.)

Amber Dawn: (to audience) I know this woman. She sleeps at the overnight emergency shelter for women on Cordova Street. I used to work the graveyard shift there. I lasted no longer than six months before I caught a relentless chest infection that my doctor could not diagnose.

Sara: (to audience) You get sick here. The Downtown Eastside’s got the highest HIV rate in the developed world. Ninety percent of us have Hepatitis C. The national rate is less than one percent, did you know? It’s like just about everyone in Canada with Hep C is living here.

Amber Dawn: Each night my shift began in the cockroach-infested kitchen, serving soup from eleven until one. The other worker on shift helped the homeless women set up their cots and blankets. And when we ran out of cots, the women slept on foam gym mats in the hallway. And when those ran out, women slept on the polished concrete floor, wherever there was floor space. We did laundry while the women slept. As many soiled clothes, right from the women’s backs, as my co-worker and I could manage, so that they’d have clean, dry clothes to wake up to.

Sara: The folks who came in 2003 and decided that Vancouver would get the Olympics, they didn’t see the Downtown Eastside, eh. Their tour bus took a wide detour.

Amber Dawn: Breakfast was always oatmeal and coffee. Everyone back on the street by eight. After the floor was mopped and the garbage taken out, I would phone the shelter hotline to see if I could find a real bed for any of the homeless women. I would say to the hotline operator, “I have a senior in a wheelchair who needs a bed.” Or, “I’m calling on behalf of an HIV positive woman who’s been homeless for almost a year.” Or, “She is a young woman, seven months pregnant, she really needs…”. This is how I know this woman. I failed to find her shelter while she was pregnant. Now she is here, marching. No baby. You don’t see many babies in the Downtown Eastside. Pregnant Native woman, yes. But not babies. The Ministry of Child and Family Development took her baby, I just know.

Sara: I was a foster kid too. And my mother was taken from her family. You can trace it right back to the residential schools. Today there are more Native kids in the child welfare system than there were in the residential school system.

Amber Dawn: I know recent funding cuts to Native health programs and inner-city daycares have already caused these statistics to rise.

Elder: I know that in a few months time, the city will renege on their promise to turn two hundred and fifty two units in the Olympic village into social housing.

Lynn: I know that a few months later, studies will show that only twelve percent of SROs – single room occupancies – are affordable to people on welfare. Just as we predicted, homelessness increases after the Games.

Amber Dawn: I know. I know. I know. What I don’t know is what to do. Write more letters to the government? Repost rabble dot c-a articles on Facebook? Organize more fundraisers. Boycott Coca-Cola? Listen to CBC the Early Edition and cry?

Sara: Look. Hey, lady. Look up. The eagles.

Miko: Two of them.

Elder: Three. There’s another one.

Sara: Look up. The eagles are here. Dancing in the sky. I knew the eagles would come. 


Epilogue

Amber Dawn: During the 2010 Winter Games we, Olympic resisters, were called Party Poopers. Our art was torn from gallery walls. Our heroes put behind bars. We were told to “get a life” when we stopped the torch from traveling down Commercial Drive. Even though that demonstration had a carnival band, furry mascots and some of the most lively protest signs I’ve ever seen, we were accused of embarrassing Vancouver when we gathered during the opening ceremonies. We believe the six billion dollar price tag that came with the games in the face of drastic cuts to education, health care and social services is an embarrassment. And still there we stood while anti-anti-Olympic protesters clustered around us with their red and white painted faces and drunken frat-boy tactics, shouting, “You say protest, we say party.” But the thing is, we did party. We brought our horns and our costumes, our songs and signs and our spirits. Not the “spirit” that’s been branded for Olympic marketing. Our human spirit. The spirit that allows us to see the suffering that surrounds us, and urges us to do something about it. This party has been going on long before the five rings were erected at YVR. It is a party that will last a lifetime, if you allow it to. When you come to this party, you will hear the elders drum. You’ll be told terrible and triumphant stories that you may not hear anywhere else but at these gatherings, these ceremonies. You will learn the words to chants and songs that will bond you closely to the people around you. You might find yourself dancing. And if you can dance in the streets, at clandestine venues or in front of courthouses or cop shops… If you can dance knowing that the so-called world will never dance with you… If you can dance with the sharp comprehension that the revolution you dream of, bless you Emma Goldman, will likely never come, but you dance anyways because sometimes dancing is all that you can do… If you can, dance.

 —

Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist based in Vancouver. She is the author of the Lambda-winning novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005). She frequently discloses and politicizes sex work, survivorhood and transgressive sexualities in her work. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Currently, she is the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.