This intimate conversation between Danspace Project 2021-2023 Research Fellow, devynn emory, and 2022-2023 Renewal Residency Artist, Yo-Yo Lin, emerged organically and iteratively—first in a New York City hospital room, then followed by my curious nudging, and ultimately across the world over Zoom. This is an ongoing conversation between emory and Lin, that will continue “for as long as we both have bodies and need healthcare,” writes Lin. Together, they dream about more integrative health care, scores for organs, and what healing asks of us.
— Seta Morton (Program Director/Associate Curator)
Read and/or listen below.
Fall of 2022.
I slide back in an armchair with my legs elevated while devynn slowly moves their hands around my ankle, their motions deliberate, yet gentle. I lay still, following their movements internally, with my eyes closed. We tune ourselves towards the invisible, the energetic channels that flow from their hands to my feet. A forest soundscape plays in the background. This duet lasts for about 20 minutes.
This was a very different kind of dance, one that takes place behind closed curtains in a hospital room between nurse and patient.
It is no longer useful nor possible to imagine our paths without the presence of COVID-19, its impacts, and how it continues to affect millions of people around the world. In the U.S., 1.1 million lives have been lost, and 10-20% of Americans report long COVID symptoms. In this story, devynn emory was working as an ICU nurse with many COVID patients throughout the pandemic. Given their extensive background in bodywork, they transferred to the Integrative Health department, where, as a registered nurse, they provide healing methodologies such as Reiki, massage, and more to bedridden patients. I was one of those patients.
Like many chronically ill and disabled people, I was, and am “at-risk” when it comes to contracting COVID-19. From a medical perspective, this means living with pre-existing conditions that could be fatally exacerbated by the illness. On the day-to-day, this means spending much of my time these last three years taking defensive measures. This includes but is not limited to the following maneuvers:
- moving out of a shared apartment
- returning to homelands
- advocating for remote work in the midst of a spike
- building care networks for preventative care
- joining a discord server sharing COVID vaccine reactions
- hosting accessible nightlife events in the virtual realm
- forming bubbles and pods and whatever kind of soft round containers of safety
Like many others, I spent much of the last 3 years risk-assessing and dodging a virus that would have serious implications for my well-being.
Then, after a maskless gathering, I contracted COVID.
20 days later I was in the hospital for heart palpitations.
It was a perfect storm, as fellow disabled artist friend iele paloumpis tells me while reading my astrological chart from that day.
My heart needed emergency surgery. My partner sees me into the operating room, my parents still asleep in Taiwan time. What was one surgery became many. What was a “two-week recovery period” became an excruciating 2.5 months in the ICU and then in physical rehabilitation. As I write these words, I continue to tend to the aftermath of this hospital stay.
It was during those dark, seemingly endless, winter months that devynn and I crossed paths again.
Before the hospital, I met devynn through the dance community, meeting briefly at performances at Danspace Project. I also knew their work through the Danspace online archives (devynn is a Danspace Project Research Fellow and has performed at Danspace many times). There were quiet evenings during quarantine that I spent watching performance videos of mmm, soothing the aching feeling I had in my stomach for the lives lost during this time.
Amidst the loud, incessant proclamations of post-COVID returns and government roll-backs on the crumbs of support offered during this time, I think often about those who are repeatedly left out of this supposed “we,” in the “we’re back to normal” rhetoric. Perhaps this “we” constitutes the easily visible, the desired self-narrative of who is deemed as “the public.” The “we” I used to know drastically changed once I was in the hospital, where my surroundings broadly constituted those usually left out of this supposedly all-inclusive “we.” Primarily, the sick, the elderly, and the care-workers.
iele explains to me, reading the stars of my birth chart, that I openly talk about the unspoken, the stories of the institutionalized, the ones living behind closed doors. While I believe I’m still coming into my own as an activist, since 2019, I’ve been making work about my experiences living with chronic illness–observing, archiving, and honoring how my body moves through, with, and against the world around it (see Resilience Journal). Through this practice, I found a gem of a community in disability dance in New York City, and with the encouragement of disabled dance artists, have since then developed an experimental movement practice of my own. This practice came naturally as I began to investigate my disabled body as a site for emergent aesthetic forms. Removing layer after layer of ableist ideologies on what the body “should” look like or do, I worked with dancers, musicians, and technologists to form an interdisciplinary practice of embodied expression, endeavoring to form a ‘soft data’ archive, a series of works that hold the unquantifiable aspects of my disabled body—a record or realm of crip possibility (see channels @ The Shed).
With my unconventional approach to the dance world, devynn’s multi-hyphenate background intrigued me. In their words, devynn emory is a choreographer/dance artist, dual licensed bodyworker, ritual guide, medium, and registered nurse—practicing in the fields of acute/critical care, hospice, COVID, and integrative health. In my words, devynn is a deep listener, a profound and practical person, a shape-shifter—someone who can traverse many realms. As a dancer, they talk about carrying their father’s “stoicism,” and how for better or for worse this embodiment is embedded in them—just like Bob Fosse’s injuries, they joke.
We bond over our shared love for reality dating shows. Our conversation flows easily, exuberantly, halting only when the 40 minute trial zoom runs out. (“Hopping back on!” “I’m here!”). We do this dance of hopping back on and off 4 times until we tap out. After all, it was my bedtime in Taipei and devynn had to get to Danspace for an event.
We talk about healthcare, traditional knowledge, transitory states, and what healing entails.
Zoom call with devynn [and Yo-Yo] in May, 2023 and 6 months post-operation.
This conversation has been condensed to fit the needs of this publication.
This was honestly the most intense hospital [experience] that I've ever done. I come from a background with multiple surgeries so this is something that I understand to a certain level, but this was my first time going through a hospital stay of this intensity in New York. It was so miraculous to me that you were at the hospital… I was so relieved to see you.
I was blown away at how confusing the whole system was, and was relieved to have someone to talk to about it who was on the inside. Experiencing this kind of life-threatening situation and knowing that it could easily go both ways was terrifying. I feel you treating me was the first time I received a form of care in the hospital that wasn't, you know, checking my blood or giving me medication. You came in and you did Reiki and showed me my pressure points on my ankles for my kidneys, and you showed me the television channel with the forest meditation. It honestly felt like it was the first time that I received a tangible form of healing.
Thank you for being there and doing that and offering that in the time that was just so intense. I have so many questions after that interaction. How did you come into this work? What are the odds that we would meet in this context?
There are so many ways to respond but I’ll start by saying I’m so grateful to be connected.
I've seen you at really important events in my trajectory, at our shared [artistic] home Danspace Project in New York. I trust them as a space that supports both of our work. I think I got a text from iele asking if it was OK to put me in touch with you while you were a patient at the hospital I work at. I was happy to support someone in a shared community, navigating such a complex system.
[I had texted dancer Lisa Parra and eventually connected to devynn—Yo-Yo]
Treating you at the hospital was a welcome reminder of why I went down the pathway from healing and dancing work into nursing. I am grateful for all of my degrees and skills and teachers and also, wish to pass on as much knowledge as possible so we can all care for each other.
I come from preventative medicine with a degree in Western medical massage, a degree in Chinese medicine, a bachelors in dance and choreography, too many certifications, and I added RN in 2014, and am on my way to become a Nurse Practitioner in psychiatry. I noticed there was a financial limit in my bodywork practice, as not every client of mine can afford to pay out-of-pocket. I wanted to extend my arms to the wider public, insurance or no insurance, who were experiencing acute trauma. I keep thinking, as the world ends, how can I stuff my pockets with more tools? I was not prepared to work as a COVID nurse, but it has changed me forever.
Outside of a Western hospital, many communities look to—one person who is the cobbler,
the midwife, the healer. We support each other in reciprocal ways. I long for a slower, more intentional, more relational day-to-day as my ancestors lived, as an antidote to the crushing colonialist capitalism I feel trapped in sometimes. As an artist and a healer in today’s world, I also went into nursing for financial stability. I left home early and have been hustling since. I am humbled by the blessing of an inpatient hospital setting that connects me to a very large and diverse part of humanity in the heart of Lenapehoking (NYC), treating folks in some of the most vulnerable moments of their life. Especially in these times, it's a huge honor to offer care. In some ways, being inside those walls connects me to the reality we are all living in.
I left acute medicine and COVID nursing recently after an injury to become a certified holistic nurse and moved into the department of Integrative Health. I believe Creator wanted me to step aside from the critical care for a moment to begin a lifetime of recovery. Western medicine still hasn’t yet…integrated…the concept of “Integrative Medicine” and I love offering guided and hands-on healing modalities to patients, family systems, and staff. I can bring all my tools to the hospital; however, I want all nurses to be trained in these tools so that we may offer whole-person care to each patient.
“Integrative” should be a way of practice for all of us.
Yo-Yo: I felt like you were a secret agent!
devynn: [Laughs] you don’t expect it—someone coming in with a white coat and instead of yielding a needle, offering Reiki, massage, and guided somatic work.
Yo-Yo: You're saying integrative health is looked down upon by other departments?
devynn: Western medicine focuses on fixing the problem. When Western science is needed—it’s incredible! I love continuing to study how the body works and heals through the disease process and offering pharmacology, procedures, and surgery as modalities, as an option. I believe radical folks can create a lot of change when piercing from within a large system. Some of the work I do now is translating complex medical language to make it more accessible, offering a non-English language line support, patient advocacy around pain management, and emotional support while facilitating interdisciplinary team collaboration and communication. If I am offering a healing modality, I show up to support folks in listening about their culture and spiritual practices first. I’m not there to teach them something that is theirs or is already a huge part of their life. I always start there… and sometimes it looks like holding space for someone’s prayer and creating space for them to practice amidst a traumatic setting, holding time still. Sometimes, I offer a practice such as reflexology, acupressure, Reiki, body scans, and various energy healing modalities. I enjoy teaching folks so that they themselves can practice, without the hierarchy of me doing something to them. There is enough of that already in the hospital trajectory, as you know. It is a huge honor and blessing to bring soft embodied practices into a hospital setting.
Due to Integrative Health being an expertise that transcends beyond Western medicine and holds my 20 years of practice, I am offered a white coat. The other folks who wear white coats are MDs and NPs so they expect something from me aligned with their science. “It’s the future of medicine” they sometimes say. We know this is old medicine and it has profound healing potential based on the collaboration it relies on, so it comes off as threatening. To me it is a high level of care to look at the whole Western medical picture and then to support it with many other tools. We have a growing amount of providers that recognize the change in their patients’ progression of healing after a visit. We love those providers!
Yo-Yo: [laughs incredulously]
devynn: [Laughs] So wild! I find the practice in the crevices of palliative care, medicine and surgery, spiritual services, psych, bereavement, patient advocacy, and guided or hands-on modalities to offer or pass on to patients. I have to let go of what the systems think, and keep showing up for my patients. They… are the ones holding all the knowledge of their bodies, and we collaborate from there. And yeah, I admit that just the word “Integrative Health” can hold some cultural insensitivity, or be practiced without support and sensitivity.
Yo-Yo: When I was in the hospital, I was literally like, what does that even mean? [Laughs]
devynn: Right? I am more than honored to treat the whole patient, their family systems, and staff. Us staff, my goodness some of our PTSD, especially us COVID nurses, is through the roof! It’s an autonomous role [Integrative Health Nurse], so I practice in my way. A huge part of the role is navigating medical trauma that folks are in and being a liaison between departments and advocating for patients. Integrative for me is using every tool in my box and improvising to see a person in all of their experience.
I fear that the pressure to be a working artist includes doing nothing else. For me and my class background, that is not possible. Also, if you’re a nurse, there is a pressure to do nothing else and dedicate and volunteer your body. As a healer, a nurse, a dancer, a multi-pronged person, it’s just not my experience, and I live in the resistance and balance. I do my best to listen to my callings and follow my body around while also seeking stability. And so, I’ve been weaving it all into my performance work, which feels a necessary way for me to work through the trauma of being an aware person in rich systems. I just want to be with others in the mud of the realness of things really. What else is there in life.
But really my goal is to bring medical people into more awareness. I'm teaching movement classes for surgeons and doctors and providers and somatic practice with nurses and…it's challenging. It's a welcomed stretch to be with folks learning to bring more awareness to their body, when our job is to focus on everyone else’s. It brings up a lot for people in the hospital setting. I worry about this work when we don’t find our feet on the ground before we touch someone. In a culture of disembodiment and with training in leading with the mind, the structural product is to move so fast we don’t feel. Some of this is necessary, as the ongoing intensity is too much to absorb. And, I think there is a balance to be found…a return to human-ness.
Thank you for sharing how our time together was impactful when we practiced together in inpatient. It means so much to me. It reminds me of why I came to braiding many paths together. Even if most of the time I am not sure if I will be met with disregard or open arms, I am reminded one patient at a time that this is important. I adore my patients, they are my teachers. It’s a relief to dig into this with curiosity together.
I pray that one day Integrative Medicine is integrated into all of the work each of us offer, instead of it being an expertise. Every patient, and staff member, deserves advocacy and to be seen as a whole person.
Yo-Yo: Mmm. [wipes away tear] Mmm!
[Yo-Yo takes a deep breath and sighs]
devynn: I've decided to call it after 14 years of study, and to go back to school one last time to become a Nurse Practitioner so perhaps I can move my nursing into private practice alongside my bodywork practice to align with my ethics. I want to be able to look at a medication and choose an alternative because I know it will impact the patient's kidneys for example.
Yo-Yo: I faced that exact problem so many times in the hospital. Often the medication would have adverse effects to my injured kidneys and they would prescribe it anyway. Each organ had a different doctor and no one was actually talking to each other!
devynn: I want more space to integrate diagnostics into pharmacology into healing modalities. I want it all. You deserve all the options.
Yo-Yo: So you could technically have your own private practice if you become an NP? I know it's so important to have someone like you in the hospital system, but I can imagine how incredibly exhausting it must feel to work towards shifting the system to be more integrated. Like what you were saying earlier, you need to rotate out.
I was one patient among many who you treated and I felt very deeply impacted by that experience. I felt way better. I knew that if this were something that I could receive more often, I would ACTUALLY heal during this time in the hospital. All of the trauma work that you were doing—you listened to me, to all of the pain I was going through. You gave me Reiki for a specific affected part of my body, then gave me the tools to self-massage my pressure points. I thought, if I could get this every day, I would physiologically, mentally, spiritually get better.
On one hand you were so integral to my hospital recovery experience, but if you were to start your own private practice, it also makes so much sense, because trying to change a system that's so fraught already is going to take a village. At least from what I've seen with disability justice work, or smaller action based work groups, it just feels like creating a third world or just creating an alternative space could perhaps allow you to run further.
6 months post operation in a small countryside town in Taiwan.
My feet are still tingling, my right one sometimes numb. My right hand feels achy and stiff, as if my fingers were no longer mine. I count the months through the indented rings on my fingernails.
The doctors told me I have neuropathy. It’s not really something that is treatable, they said.
My bodyworker massages my fingers with a swift deft rotating motion, her hands become eyes seeing into the chi channels of my fingers. I feel as if my fingers are inactivated glow-sticks, my fascia and sinews crackling as she makes her way from the base to the tip of each of my fingers, pressing and rotating and releasing. My fingers feel warm and I feel the blood pulsing through them.
She pauses to let me feel my hand. How about now? She asks.
I wiggle my fingers. A faint ache in my knuckles but a definite improvement, the stiffness receding.
Wow, I say. Better.
devynn: When you reached out, I had a fantasy of creating a movement or practice score for your kidneys.
devynn: I love to work collaboratively with my clients in private practice, and with my patients at the hospital. I would love to design movement scores for folks I’ve been working with for a while who may need some more independent guidance to keep shifting a dynamic in their systems. When there is collaboration between bodies or within one’s own body, movement is a great tool, as you know! You were the inspiration for these movement scores for my private clients and patients.
Yo-Yo: I'm just blushing right now. [laughing] Aww, a score for my kidneys!
devynn: [laughs] Yeah… those sweet little beings. They’re working so hard!
Yo-Yo: Working so hard! That’s really weird because literally, I'm on day four of doing meditation for my kidneys.
Yeah. Because—I don't know if you know—but when a part of your body is hurt and going through all this trauma, you don't even want to really put more time into thinking about it beyond the recovery that it needs to go through. Because it's so intense—it's so charged at that moment, you know? But it's interesting to think about it in a way that's like, how can I do something for my kidneys that isn't simply eating well? It's also this process of being with my [injured] kidneys and embodying a state that would allow me to be closer to them. Instead of always thinking they need to be fixed. So I've been trying to do that. I haven't formulated anything yet. I've been trying to do that with different parts of my body: my heart, my lungs, my kidneys. The parts that have been affected the most.
And I have been writing scores for the past two years. And I actually have this set of scores I'm putting together with my friend Yidan Zeng who's also a mover and interdisciplinary artist. It’s all about nature, moving with bodies of water, moving with roots, moving with the sun, and they're written over the course of COVID era because, yeah, you know, COVID fucked shit up.
I was in a lot of different places because I was just kind of running for my life in a lot of senses where I was in New York and then my roommates were not being safe when it came to COVID. And then I was like, okay, I need to go somewhere else. So I ended up living in Connecticut with my partner’s family for a bit and then moving to Taiwan to live with my family for four months. So I was just in a lot of different places and it was really not grounding. And I felt very fragmented a lot of the time. And I just started writing these scores with these parts of nature, the moon, sun, flowers, and just allowing those to be an access point to a sense of place.
That's what I've been writing for the past couple of years, just for fun as a way to find grounding. I know so much of your work has to do with land and space and site and all of that knowledge that goes with it. And it was just so interesting to me because as a child of immigrants I find myself often in situations where I don't have a sense of kinship with—specifically a long term kinship—with a land.
And so I'm also really interested in how to access that space through movement. Like, access a sense of place-hood through movement. And it's really weird because the place that I'm “in” these days is literally—it's Taiwan—but it's also like the place I'm in is my body. So yeah, I think writing a score for the kidneys and writing a score, you know, specifically for these parts of my body would be really interesting.
devynn: I could cry thinking about a score for the moon, for your kidneys, for my heartache, for all of our heartache. Upon exiting the hospital each shift over these last few years, I’ve just been running toward water, toward my belly on the earth to pray. Not a new concept and not new in conversations of disability justice but I’m really moved toward conversations of internal landscapes, earth landscapes, and taking a pause on New York-centered creative conversations. Or really…continuing the permission to move with what moves me.
Yo-Yo: I know what you mean.
devynn: We know funding dictates what details in the art and dance world are "allowed" to grow. I have learned alot and continue to learn, how to keep my work online as well as ephemerally in person. can anybody help me hold this body, a traveling grief altar made in 2021, has been created so that one could be anywhere in the world and still practice with that altar and thus, it has taught me that it’s a durational lifetime project.
I want to pause to note that currently… we are having this conversation exactly 12 hours apart, and thus the vibration of this conversation is expanding across land, oceans, vibrations, and a time differential. What a beautiful way to deepen our relationship. I don’t share it often and don’t move through the world with this identity, but I have a learning disability, since birth, so often technology and how it works is typically in direct conflict with how my brain works. I share this to say—moving toward it in my practice to expand relations and access for others has supported me in shifting my connection to it, and for this I am very grateful.
You mentioned that “home” is currently not a specific location other than within your body right now. This has come up when I teach land somatics, a practice of inviting people back home in their mind. I understand that so many of us, geographically or culturally, have a complex experience with this due to colonization, so it’s lovely to hear that you are a traveling home, your body as your vessel.
[the conversation moves through the soft data–the conscious and subconscious–movements we store in our bodies from our environment and communities...]
Yo-Yo: I have this running research question that I ask artists: “what does healing mean?” I've been trying to figure it out and I taught a graduate class at NYU before all this shit went down, called “Media-making as a Healing Practice.” I noticed a lot of people making work that was specifically in the realm of healing, either as a concept or just as a practice within the work itself. It’s interesting to me how healing can mean so many different things to different people. The idea of healing is especially contentious for disabled and queer communities. I'd like to know your perspective on that, as a healer yourself in your work as a nurse and as a performer. I can share with you a little of what I've gathered so far about that.
devynn: I would love to hear.
Yo-Yo: The etymology of healing means to “make whole.” So it's a sense of gathering, of paying attention to something, or witnessing or listening. It's not about fixing broken pieces. It's not going back to what it once was. There is this really amazing jazz drummer named Milford Graves who [devynn nods] yeah, you know, he also came up with his own kung fu.
devynn: There was a huge retrospective at Artist Space right before I performed Grandmother Cindy there. The curators, Daniel Jackson and Jay Sanders, walked me through the exhibit. I wasn't as familiar with his work, and I was BLOWN. He brought in so many aspects of his being as a drummer, writer, acupuncturist, designer, costumer, etc. As you can imagine, I resonate with artists who bring their full self to the experience.
Yo-Yo: I mean, he's just amaaaazing, what he was doing with heart rhythms and how he learned about his own heart. He was a lab technician and he was just like, I'm going to learn the software. And then he built this software and then made his own techniques to treat heart arrhythmias. I went to see him before he passed and then in a conversation with his student, there emerged the quote, “healing as a process of becoming.” And I think about that a lot. And it's interesting because when I was teaching this class, my grad students were really questioning what healing is.
Some people said, it's meditation, [devynn rolls eyes] and then other people mentioned how actually healing can also be something that doesn't feel good and can be very painful as well. So I think there's so many layers to it and so many pathways of how we “get there.” I'm also very interested in what you think because your healing work resides in so many intersections with medical and spiritual realms, and also within the realm of transitional-based work as well.
devynn: I love the question and feel we could have about ten conversations about this and ensure it’s a conference [laughs]. It's a lifetime question. But what comes up immediately? Reversing the direction of the eye-roll. This is an eye-roll reversal topic because healing is not one thing, and perhaps the antidote to the complex question is—healing can be held gently in the dance of finding balance. And then…the word “balance,” is also complex. One guided tool I use is the tool of polarity. I say “guided” because I never utilize a tool or method with clients or patients, unless I am in conversation and collaboration with Creator and the person’s energetic dialogue. Polarity helps find something in the body that is experiencing temporary or long term distress. Once found, I locate another area of the body that is feeling vibrationally alive, steady and supportive. I invite the two parts of the body to talk to one another as an invitation, without the goal of fixing or canceling or halting. Balance even still, is an impossible task, but the body can source within itself if prompted, like a circuit, a circle. Pema Chödrön, I believe, mentioned that in the arc of a lifetime, one could practice moving toward said balance forever, and that this is the dance, albeit impossible.
All of this of course brings up ability, disability, illness, disease, and disorder. I work to validate the body in the state that it’s in, knowing that only outside systemic systems bring about change in the body, both natural and oppressive. I feel strongly about supporting the body where it’s at and what the body desires. This requires consent. How do we collaborate with pain? Do we want it to shift? It depends on the person. Pain is a beautiful messenger.
[we discuss healing techniques and stories of people healing from acute illness and accidents.]
devynn: So I think what I'm saying is, healing sometimes can include locating balance in oneself, moment-to-moment as it shifts, sourcing one's body with other vibrational entities, Spirit, and more than human beings. Humans alone cannot enact huge levels of change without this collaboration.
My bodyworker slowly moves her hands under my lower ribs, massaging what she tells me is my liver. My dad hovers over me, verbalizing what runs through my mind as well.
對 ，今天我們來按摩一下肝臟 。 想想你肝臟裡的毒物。
(“Yes let’s work on the liver today. Think of all the chemicals from surgery that your liver has to cleanse still.”)
I turn my face towards the nearby sliding glass door, facing a nearby forested hillside. It had been raining sporadically so the leaves on the trees outside were glistening. Barely perceptible unless I close my eyes, I catch the sweet scent of jasmine on the next breeze, carried along with the song of birds.
A little further up the hill there is a clearing beneath a large tung tree dotted with white flowers. Most of the tung blossoms have fallen and lay at the floor of the forest, creating a thin white blanket of blooms. A stronger breeze showers more petals down. Taiwanese people affectionately call this “snowfall in May.”
I close my eyes and let myself bathe in the sensations of the lush landscape outside. I feel my bodyworker touch something deep and painful in my side.
The pain slowly subsides as she slowly works. Opening.
I fall into a deep sleep.
Among the tung flowers, a white egret searches for earthworms on the forest floor.