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Dancing Through Grief: A Tribute to Finding Joy in Movement

Photo by TC, courtesy of Guillette

Healing through movement has proven to be a powerful salve for pain, trauma and even disease. In an effort to explore her own grief, dancer and writer Suzanne Guillette created a piece titled Moving, for You: A Tribute to Empathy. The project, which initially honored a collection of other people's written personal stories of grief and loss, evolved into a short film of Guillette's improvisational movement. As one story contributor Lindsay McKinnon described it, "Suzie is 'singing over bones' and allowing those painful places to live and breathe, dance and be free."

Here is Guillette's journey that discovers and celebrates empathy and joy through dance.


Years ago, a minister I met told me a touching story about his daughter's response to September 11: She cried for three days straight. I had an instant, visceral understanding that this girl, who lived on the other side of the world and had no personal connection to the events of that day, who had cried for those of us who couldn't. My ensuing revelation was that there was no "right" way to do grief. I'd previously believed that there were unwritten rules about what was appropriate and what wasn't when grieving a pain that wasn't "personal." I'd many times convinced myself that I didn't have a right to mourn. But pain is pain. And that minister's daughter had opened her empathic channel to feel. Her reaction served as a reminder to me: We are never alone in our grief.

Martha Graham once said, "The body says what words cannot." I wanted to share the wisdom that the minister had shared with me, and I realized that to do so, I needed to use my body, to dance through grief. I had thought plenty about grief and loss, but thinking is not feeling. And when we cut ourselves off from our feelings, pain gets trapped in the body, causing suffering and disconnection. The body must then also be the instrument for release.

In September 2016, I collected 30 stories of sorrow loss, and trauma from strangers and friends—stories of tragic deaths, of old and heavy burdens, of life-changing diagnoses, of devastating divorces and of struggles with mental health. In the studio, I read the stories one by one, set an intention of healing and then moved through the pain as the camera rolled. Instead of working from choreography, I focused on the feelings that came up and let myself be danced. To represent the contributors' stories, the voiceover includes excerpts from some of the stories. Each story contributor is a collaborator on the project. One anonymous contributor wrote that she hoped together we could create something healing that would be cathartic for others, in ways we can't know or imagine, creating a ripple effect of healing.

In May 2017, the project stalled: I had the original footage, but hadn't found the right editor to finish it. At the same time, my cousin and dear friend Karen, a powerhouse in every way, was actively dying from Stage IV cancer. In those months and the months following her death, Moving, for You crossed my mind a lot. The project came from the idea that we are never alone in our grief, but after Karen's passing, there were days I couldn't summon the energy to get off my couch or pick up the phone, never mind finish the project. I was isolating myself.

Luckily, in August 2017, I stumbled across the site of a talented filmmaker Austin Wideman, who agreed to collaborate on the film and suggested he reshoot it from scratch. So in November 2017, we went back to the same studio with the same intention of moving through the pain at the heart of these stories. The shoot was markedly different this time around, though. My grief over Karen's death, still raw, allowed me to connect more deeply with the feelings and humanity the stories conveyed. I realized I couldn't have finished the project before. Given my recent loss, I understood more deeply how to lean into grief, and how to find healing in its universality.

Below, watch Guillette and click here to read the other essays and tributes.


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