Let's Talk About Ageism and Dance

At an event last week, about 30 adults came together to present a community dance. Some of them were women and men in their 70s and had never danced in public before. The excitement on their faces, the joy in the gait as they took their positions and the sheer bliss they exuded while moving to music, lyrics and rhythm .... as a viewer and a dance professional, I was inspired. 

After the presentation, an elderly participant's eyes filled with tears as she said, "I will never forget this day. I did something that I never imagined I would be able to do." Such is the magic of Dance.

And yet, some members of the crowd that evening questioned the need for these adults to have danced. The previous evening, a group of mature women had presented a joyous folk dance.  "Why couldn't children have performed instead?" was the question asked. As I ask, "Why NOT the adults?", I realise that ageism* continues to exist unabashedly especially in Dance. Noone asked this question when a group of adults sat down to sing! 

(*Ageism - prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age)

While thinking about ageism and the defying of stereotypical norms, Eileen Kramer just has to come to mind. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she has said, "Dancing; it psychologically strengthens me. I like looking at myself in the mirror. I like people to tell me that what I did was beautiful." Interestingly, Eileen has lived in various countries, including India,... "I lived in India for quite a long time, I danced there...and it gave me a purpose. I wasn't just wandering about looking at things. I absorbed a lot in India."

It is not just the fact that Eileen Kramer is 100 years old. I look at her dance photographs and I watch her videos, and I am convinced that there is a special depth and magic to her portrayals ... it is something that a younger body would find difficult to convey. 

 

 100-year old dancer Eileen Kramer   Image: www.womenrockproject.com

100-year old dancer Eileen Kramer 

Image: www.womenrockproject.com

 Eileen Kramer in the studio .... yes, she still performs and she is loved for it!  Image:abc.net.au   

Eileen Kramer in the studio .... yes, she still performs and she is loved for it!

Image:abc.net.au

 

 

The Australian Ageing Agenda states: "In 2015 we treasure our children and venerate beauty but have scant regard for elders. Research into negative stereotypes has shown that society’s poor opinions about ageing has negative impacts, not just on elders but on society itself."

In this regard, a story such as Eileen’s is truly inspiring as she herself has discovered tremendous freedom in ageing and has said, “I no longer have to pretend I am 35." Eileen's advice for positive ageing is this: “Try to do creative work, because if you’re dealing with creative work you’re doing something new all the time.”

Thank God for incredible women like Eileen! 

A decade ago, I watched an intimate and touching performing by an Australian dancer in her late 50s. THE 18-minute piece, part of the Singapore Arts Festival, was the shortest performance I had ever attended but it left me thinking. Ultimately age is not a barrier to being on stage. In a work such as that one she had presented, it is concept, experience in life and subtle portrayal that overrides all else; I came away convinced that a younger dancer would not have been able to depict with such sensitivity what I had just witnessed. 

Carlo Saura's documentary films show that bulky elderly women often perform Flamenco dance very gracefully. On my visits to Bali I have watched 75-year old women dancing in temples. Even in Kabuki and Noh older women perform for it is believed that with age they mature and their technique improves. In the west, Pina Bausch, Susanne Linke and Martha Graham are examples of solo women dancers who danced beyond the externally imposed boundaries of age. In India we had Balasaraswati, the mature legendary dancer who exuded sensuality on stage (through a dance form that was later stripped of its sensuality in the name of acceptability).

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

"Maya Angelou knew that dancing is a political act when it is done by a body that is expected to be joyless and passive," says my dancer-sister Shobha who simply loves to dance - "so much that even if my feet swell and my calves cramp I don't care. The way I dance has changed from age to age. From pretend-ballet as a child, through Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi for much of my younger adult life, to bopping to the radio as I cleaned house and twirling around the room with my children in my arms...there has never been a time when I didn't want to dance." 

 Having recently taken up flamenco dance which she finds exhilarating, she asks, "You think it's easy to keep dancing when so many parts ache and so many tasks clamour for an older woman's time and energy? But it would be much harder not to dance. Because if I didn't dance, my heart would ache. And that would be far worse.  So never tell me that a woman my age shouldn't be dancing. Instead, spit out your internalised misogyny like used up chewing gum and come dance with me." 

Why must adults dance? 

Because they just MUST.

Oh, the joy, self-expression and self-discovery that are associated with the act of Dancing - they are ageless and timeless. Also, research reveals that Dance has tremendous benefits for the elderly not just in terms of physical health  but also in strengthening neural connections and thus improving memory. 

Dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's .... 

Better get up NOW. Just Dance!