Age, Agility & Anxiety

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Age, Agility & Anxiety

Debbie Lee-Anthony
Published by Debbie Lee-Anthony in Dancing as you get older · 16 December 2021
Tags: ageagilityanxietydancingmaturedancer
Age, Agility and Anxiety - dilemmas of the ageing process upon the mature dancer
This article is primarily concerned with the dilemmas of the ageing process upon the mature dancer, from a personal perspective. I will reflect upon my own experience within creative practice and refer to interviews with established, mature practitioners in the dance profession.

At 47 years of age I am finding challenges and difficulties with sustaining high levels of stamina and physicality which I once enjoyed. I have reached an age where my body is undergoing many changes, physically, metabolically and biologically. At this stage of my career I am noticing persistent aches, muscle strain and joint pain.  After moving, at times my body’s response is one of discomfort and a variety of ‘hurts’. Consequently I have been asking myself the following questions:

Am I too old to continue performing? What will change about the work and how will it change? What is it that I have to say? Who am I dancing for? Where and in what context will I perform?  Will anyone be interested? Should I make work that is softer, slower and less physically demanding on the body? When is the right time to stop? Is there a right time to stop? How will I know it?

In terms of technique, things however are inevitably changing. Where matters like the height of a leg or jump, speed of a turn or the execution of complex, intricate and technically demanding movement vocabulary were once things I paid some attention to, this is of far less significance to me now at this stage of my career. Interestingly, this if you like ‘acceptance’, accepting things that my body cannot do, and yet still ‘pushing ideas physically’ is something that I am grappling with and currently investigating within my work. The body being the dancer’s instrument is of paramount significance in the medium of dance. Consequently, when I suffered a fall in the dance studio in April 2004, resulting in chipping part of my tibia bone, it came as quite a devastating blow. This was ensued by keyhole surgery and a 3 month recovery period. Needless to say, I am acutely aware of approaching my practice in the studio with more care and consideration. Every day brings a new warning where the joints, soft tissue, nerves or muscles complain that perhaps I should ‘slow down’ or reconsider that particular movement or action.

As the joints stiffen and the muscles become less flexible and defined, the mature dancer is consequently faced with the consideration of a different aesthetic. World-class ballerina Makarova, whilst performing into her late 30’s, said on describing her working life “Even with arthritis, which I have in several places, muscles eventually respond. I’m used to pain, we all are. Some days, when you don’t have pain, it’s strange.”  (Sunday Times, 2005) This is something I have been able to identify with.  I think the nature of choreography, essentially researching through the body, trying to find new and innovative movement vocabulary, inevitably brings about an element of strain.  We put our bodies into unusual, sometimes extreme, positions and, more often than not, work one side of the body more than the other. Generally speaking, this imbalance and wear and tear on the body really takes hold and, if one wants to push the body and a particular movement idea, one gets used to working not without some pain.

Whilst studying with Liz Lerman in America last year, I met with 71 year old company member Martha Wittman. Martha had this to say: ‘I cannot imagine my life without dancing. I think I need the moving and the expressive place to feel connected to life -  to the world and to other people; it is important to feel I have a voice.’   It was interesting to note that a particular shoulder injury caused her to stop dancing for a few months - when she was a mere 68!  Martha reflected on earlier concerns she once held about age. ‘When I hit 40 I thought ‘this is it’. I began to have some hurts and feel my body being in pain. I was also a very nervous performer – in my younger years I suffered a lot with this. What is interesting to me is that there has been a real change about that now. It is no longer the nerve-wracking experience it once was!’  She added, ‘I don’t worry about some things any longer - that my balance isn’t there, that my legs don’t go up or that I can’t jump as high – and I used to love to jump!  I do miss that, so I just do it occasionally....just a little one!’ What struck me as I watched Martha teaching repertory and leading creative sessions, is her ability to make the smallest, simplest of gestures look so full of beauty, grace and intention.  Her depth of expression is more than evident when one watches her move and I had the great privilege of dancing a duet with her during my two weeks of study with the company.

When interviewing leading Bharatanatyum dancer and choreographer Chitra Sundaram, she revealed her devotion and unrelenting commitment to her art. When asked why she dances, Chitra had this to say: ‘I dance because it’s my only real creative outlook.  Growing up in India is so much of our ‘allowed creative expression’….I dance now because I feel like I have to – like a demon inside me possessed!’’   When discussing the effects upon the body and any pain, difficulties or injury that might occur, Chitra commented ‘Recently I hurt myself badly – a slipped disc – and this significantly affected my muscles. The nerve pain caused a great deal of muscle atrophy and that came as a huge shock to me. It has been very difficult trying to deal with that.’ Chitra then mused with an honest and thoughtful reflection that perhaps her injury was partly owing to the fact that her body was in a great physical condition, and that maybe sub-consciously she continued to dance and approach her practice in a slight state of ‘physical arrogance’. Chitra explained that she had been warned in 1997 not to do certain things and she didn’t listen. Her struggle was to see how she could gradually strengthen her muscles enough to be able to get back into creating for performance again. Another struggle relating to the ageing process for Chitra is one concerning her eye-sight. ‘I cannot see very well to apply my stage make-up….I need to ‘put my glasses’ on so that I can see well enough to do my eyes!

In an interview with performer, film-maker and choreographer Liz Aggiss, Professor of Visual Arts at Brighton University, she had this to say;

‘I didn’t seriously start dancing until I was 28 – age has never, ever been an issue for me as a performer. All my teachers were in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  Also a lot of the other students I trained and danced with in America were ‘mature’. For me, age has never been an issue – it wasn’t then and it isn’t now.’ (Aggiss, 2005)

Liz went on to say how in many ways as she has got older, her body has become ‘the material’ on which she creates her work.  Her performance persona is built around her ageing body – and also her non-standard (her words) dance body and self-image.  She went on to say how her dance material is all located around ideas of the body, the solo, the female image, the live body and the screen body, and how bodies in space ‘fit the space’ in a particular way. For Liz, content and context is everything – and finding an appropriate movement vocabulary to support the idea. I was interested in something Liz talked about regarding her body outside of a performance context.  She explained

‘How I feel about my ageing body on a day to day basis, is different to how I feel about my body in a performance context.  In the latter I am very confident – I really want people to understand, acknowledge and appreciate the fact that an older woman, presenting her body in performance, can make a difference and encourage a greater understanding of the mature dancer. In day to day life off stage, I berate my ageing body.  In a sense, the performing body is a much easier body for me to cope with – it’s the script that I know.’ (Aggiss, 2005)

Liz went on to say how the ‘recovery time’, post performance and movement memory, are the main struggles for her as a mature dancer.  She explained how she has to accommodate for more preparation and recovery time before and after performance.  ‘Its like a sandwich – the difficulty being with the two ends - the performance in the middle is fine!  Similar to Martha’s sentiments, Liz reflected on preparing for performance: ‘I really know how to work an audience now in terms of the humour and the more poignant moments – and I am less frightened of performing than my earlier years.  I am better at commanding the space and I guess that has come with age!’  Liz talked about the amazing journey that renowned Japanese Butoh artist Ohno Kazuo, now in his 90’s, takes you on when one sees him perform. ‘It’s about having an appropriate movement language that clearly expresses what one has to say’. Liz mused  ‘If you believe you still have something to add, as a performer, then I think you should just keep going.’

According to the BBC national news, one in three people are now over 50 years of age, which of course means people are living longer and therefore dancing longer. I was also interested to note that The Arts Council have begun actively promoting art and dance for older people as part of their inclusion policy when awarding project funding.  Thankfully, there are choreographers and dancers out there who are passionate about addressing this issue of the older dancer. One such artist is American choreographer Liz Lerman, who first began working with elders 25 years ago and is renowned for her intergenerational and multi-cultural work both in her professional touring company. She told Ageing Today: “Advancing the art form is not about making dances and putting old people in them in the hope that they will look like young people.  What helps the art form is when it shifts, changes and adjusts to let the older people look as beautiful as they are.”  (Lerman, 1999)
Lerman also stated in Animated 1999 that within her work she often has seen a powerful bond develop between those in their 20’s and those in their 60’s.  Individuals of both ages frequently find themselves ‘trying to figure out what the next stage of their lives is going to be.’ Critics of Lerman’s work often challenge the validity of including older dancers because they lack physical virtuosity or suggest that the presence of older people is gimmicky or overly sentimental. Lerman has responded to this with her conviction that they only say this out of distaste or even fear. Lerman went on to say in Animated how beautiful she considers her older dancers to be.

“I think they are beautiful.  I cannot help challenging this notion of the ideal dancer – young dancers with tension in their necks and scrawny bodies, as compared to the beauty and commitment of the older dancers”. She added, “I have seen over the years doing something as simple as a gesture of touching the face as beautiful and courageous as anything I have ever seen on stage. So I am drawn by the aesthetic power, by the ability to tell stories that I could not tell without them and by my conviction that they change the performance space.”   (Lerman, 1999)
Other major dance innovators have come across some controversy regarding being an older dancer. Leading American choreographer Martha Graham continued to dance into her seventies and one critic suggested she should not perform in costumes which were sleeveless and low-necked (this obviously with the idea in mind that the ageing body should be ‘hidden’).  Mark Morris is another world-renowned choreographer who warmly welcomes the mature dancer. His company are made up of mostly mature dancers in their mid-to-late 30’s, some in their 40’s, the youngest being 25. In an interview with the Sunday Times (2005), he said:  “I don’t really like to work with young dancers because it’s a small group and we have to get on together.  Anyway, they don’t know anything, so they don’t dance well.”   Judith Mackrell (Guardian 20/10/05) said of their work ‘All Fours’ (2003) presented at Sadlers Wells as part of Dance Umbrella 2005: ‘Sometimes the drama is apparent in the dancers’ gestures, but often it is carried by the shape of their bodies, which give form and weight to emotions you can’t even name.’
Of course an artist one cannot possibly fail to include is the provocative German choreographer Pina Bausch. In 2000 Bausch assembled a cast of 26 men and women, none of whom had formal dance training and who were all in their 60’s and beyond, to re-work her classic Kontakthof, first created in 1978. In this work, the performers are required to display an array of extreme emotions, angers, hostilities and desires.   They also enact moments of extreme tenderness, some of the performers taking off most of their clothes.  In other scenes the performers throw tantrums and race round the stage like hyperactive children.  It is perhaps mature performers with life experience, I would argue, who can bring a totally honest and convincing performance to such a confessional and intimate work. Whilst the choreography in Kontakthof is minimal in movement terms, the cast were expected to attain professional levels of accuracy and co-ordination. There is much repetition, remembering of counts and steps to execute in the 3 hour-long work that requires tenacity, patience and disciplined rigour. Judith Mackrell said of their performance: ‘Some of the dancers displays of emotion are made all the more touching by their instinctive reserve; moments of vulnerability are intensified by their ageing bodies; sparks of larkiness and eroticism appear all the more reckless because they are unexpected.’ (Mackrell, 2004)
Cecilia Macfarlane, renowned independent dance artist of over 30 years experience, is based in Oxford where she runs her own intergenerational community dance group  DugOut. The group has 25 regular participants, ages ranging from 24 to 85. Cecilia said in an interview in Animated winter 2004, reflecting on what drives her work with the group:  ‘There is a depth of experience shared that never ceases to feed me…. each project that ends seems to point to the next one as dancers grow wiser, older - new layers are revealed. ‘ Cecilia is concerned with the stereotyping that is inherent in our society about age.  She likes to spend time playing, confounding and changing people’s perceptions about who is too ‘old’ to dance and perform.   Ursula, the eldest member of the group at 85, started dancing when she was a mere 77.  She told Animated ‘Dancing makes me feel irresponsible and younger’. What an inspiration to us all!

Rosemary Lee is another long-standing artist who has addressed the older dancer in her projects.  Her dance work and film ‘Dancing Nation’ (2001) included older dancers and was a very powerful work. I remember seeing a performance at The Place and being deeply touched by the grace, beauty and strength of the performers as they tenderly supported each other on stage.  
Long-standing dance artist Ann Dickie has also addressed the older dancer in her work.  In 2000 Ann Dickie set up a company, ‘From Here To Maturity’, comprising of a diverse group of some of Britain’s best dancers, from companies including Michael Clarke and Rambert.  In an interview with Alison Kirkman in the Dancing Times, Ann reflected on the concept of her work:
‘From Here to Maturity challenges the audience’s perceptions of contemporary dance and dancers. The population is ageing and society is changing. At last, people are beginning to recognise what some of us have always known – the value of the creativity and experience of older people!’  (Dickie, 2004).
Something which struck me as quite extraordinary, was that during her 40’s Anne suffered with osteo-artritis in both hips, resulting in several years break from dancing and having both hips surgically replaced.  Ann found that gently returning to dance was a significant contributory factor to her healing process and her experience inspired her to return to both studio and stage.   
To conclude, if the dancer in you still wants to dance and you have something to say, one should continue dancing the dance for as long as the mind, body and spirit are willing. Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests that middle-age can be looked upon as a period of second flowering, second growth - even a kind of second adolescence.  She went on to say how society in general does not help us accept this interpretation of the second half of life - and therefore this period of ‘expanding’ is tragically misunderstood. Perhaps we are too caught up with insisting on permanence, duration and continuity; Linbergh reflects: ‘The continuity in life, as in love, is in growth, in fluidity and freedom - in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.’ We must learn to live in the present relationship with our bodies, hearts and minds, accepting things as they are now. I will finish with the wonderful comment from Ursula, 85 year old member from ‘Dugout’, when asked  why she keeps dancing, ‘because I am not yet dead.’

Dickie, Ann.  Dancing Times (April 2004)
Mackrell, J (2004) The Guardian 12th  February 2004
Mackrell J (2005) The Guardian 20th  October 2005
Lerman, L (1999) Conscious Ageing. Animated, summer issue 19-21
Linbergh, A M (2004) Celtic Book of Prayer Mid-life Appraisal p 219-220 Macfarlane, C (2004) Rule Breaker. Animated, Winter issue 18 -20.
Morris, Mark (2005) Sunday Times

Liz Aggiss May 2005, Brighton
Cecelia Macfarlane 2005 E mail interview
Chitra Sundarum, April 2005, The Place, London
Martha Wittman, June 2005, Wesleyan University, USA
Body of Experience, an evening of new multi-cultural dance works celebrating the mature soloist, toured nationally in Autumn 2006. (Artistic Director Debbie Lee-Anthony (Co-Director Soma/Numa) managed by Tim  Tubbs, (Director UKFD.)

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