The healing nature of art at In Our Shoes event

Editor’s note: This event followed the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s eight-week series, In Our Shoes, focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series, visit

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Talking has never been how Nicole LeDuc prefers to express herself. 

Dance — the movement of her body and the stories it tells — can speak volumes, as she discovered at a young age. As a lifelong dancer and member of the local IBI Brigade dance troupe, she has performed a countless number of routines — but none so difficult as that which she showcased on Saturday.

Hers was one of seven artistic pieces presented during the culminating event of In Our Shoes, an eight-week series on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. Other performances included spoken-word poems and a song with lyrics inspired by a 911 call about a woman being raped.

Though the process was far from easy, art served as a way for the performers and the public alike to confront the issue and find a way to heal the damage it has dealt. 

A dance for survivors

Set to Sia’s “Bird Set Free,” LeDuc and her fellow dancers depicted the physical and emotional aspects of sexual assault. She calls her dance a diamond, a gem of beauty borne out of harshness. 

Central to the performance was the silence that surrounds this issue. At the onset, Sophia Harp clamps her hand around the mouth of a wide-eyed Jettie Shin. Later, the dancers pull and yank Shin, a tactile representation of the internal struggle survivors face in the aftermath of an assault.

Even when one comes forward, it is often difficult for friends and loved ones to know what to say. LeDuc and her troupe tried at times to embrace one another, to offer comfort, but the interaction appeared stiff, unsure — a sentiment made even starker because of the usual litheness of dance. 

Their movements — sometimes synchronized, often not — juxtaposed the violence of assault with the tenderness of healing. 

As LeDuc admitted, choreographing and rehearsing her piece came with its own battles. A survivor herself, she suffered residual trauma that at times struck so intensely she felt unable to perform. 

“I’ve never been in a situation where I can’t dance,” she said. 

Her fellow performers, most of whom also are survivors, experienced similar re-traumatization as they re-enacted the aggressive elements of assault. 

“We would get goose bumps as we rehearsed it, then we would all cry afterward,” LeDuc said.

Despite the emotions it unearthed, they each found themselves working through their trauma rather than feeling crippled by it. 

“Being able to go through the movement and keep a strong face or a somber face is something I needed to do to be strong enough to re-enact my emotions and my past,” Harp said. 

The more LeDuc imbued the dance with her own experiences, the easier she found it to confront them.

“It has forced me to speak about it in my classes. It has forced me to speak about it with males,” she said, something she avoided before. 

Shoes tell a story

Surrounding the crowd of about 100 people were more than 40 shoes decorated to symbolize experiences with sexual assault, or to offer encouragement to survivors. 

One said simply, “You are enough.”

Across the room, a pair of daffodils sprouted from a single boot with nails poking from the black leather.

On a table farthest from the performers sat two women’s shoes. White feathers covered the insoles of the right one, adorned with blue drops in the shape of tears. Next to it was a heel with spikes and a dark red substance, meant to depict blood, glued to the toe in perpetual ooze.

“One is sadness. The other is anger,” said their creator, Kim Keith, who helped to plan Saturday’s event. 

As the executive director of Steamboat Creates, Keith has not had as much time to create her own art, compared to her days as a student at the Colorado Institute of Art. 

But for the last 10 months, a medical issue has forced her into a regimen of invasive examinations and treatments. With the probing and pain came memories of her own experiences with sexual assault, which caused re-traumatization in the form of panic attacks. 

At first, she did not understand why she felt this way every time she went to see her doctors. She asked them about it, along with close friends.

“They helped me realize these are memories that are surfacing,” she said. 

To deal with the emotional trauma, she turned to art. After every treatment, she went to her studio, where she channeled her amorphous, all-consuming suffering into tangible artwork. The shoes were among such manifestations.

“It was my way of getting out of my head, out of my body the things I was still experiencing,” she said. “It became this vehicle for me to express myself, the pain, the sadness.”

Like LeDuc, Keith’s process of sharing her story has come with its own challenges.  

“I have this fear people are going to look at me differently, judge me,” she said. “But you just have to power through that and do it anyway.”

A visit from an angel

Keith recounted a visit she made last year to an art installment in Rangely. Known as The Tank, the installment consists of an old, metal water tank that has unique acoustic characteristics. 

According to Keith, a single sound reverberates for about 40 seconds inside the tank, morphing as it bounces from wall to wall. 

As she stood inside, the phenomenon swelled wonder within her as only art can. She knelt to the ground and crouched in child’s pose, tucking her head to her knees. 

“It was the first time I let myself whimper,” she said.

The small sound traveled through the tank, stretching into a moan, then a throng that seemed almost holy. 

“I felt like I was being visited by an angel,” she said. 

Thus is the beauty of art — to remind artists and audiences alike of the light that shines, pure and strong, no matter the darkness. 

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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