Artistry and the older dancer

This week, DanceEast held their event, HOST as part of ‘Move, Be Moved’ festival. HOST provided a platform for academic discussion and debate, practical experience, performances and celebration of dance by and for older dancers, both in a professional and participatory context.

For me, the most interesting questions posed during the day were around the differences in how we perceive this work in professional or community contexts - and how the two intertwine; as well as the value of high quality teaching practice, both improvisatory methods and technique teaching.

In line with my recent research, I would argue for the value of high quality teaching in this practice. Technique, skill and execution, or freedom, improvisation and authorship - all these contrasting facets of dance are valuable and can challenge different dancers in different ways, but the way they are taught can have a fundamental impact on the value, the enjoyment and the achievement felt by the dancer.

However; the focus of the event was the artistry in older people's dance practice. And I also believe that without a dance artist that has a rich and varied imagination, strength of artistry and the vision and creativity to deliver this to a variety of different and unique dancers, classes can become merely a sequence of movement tasks or simply a series of physical exercises - beneficial, but without the colour, joy, inspiration and expression that dance gives us above and beyond mere exercise.

A few months ago I was asked to contribute to an article about the value of performance opportunities for older dancers. The resulting article was published in Arts Professional and can be found here:

Dance to Health performance at AESOP First Arts and Health Conference in partnership with East London Dance

Dance to Health performance at AESOP First Arts and Health Conference in partnership with East London Dance

The published article doesn't paint the full picture of the responses I gave and so I thought it timely to share these now. I think the answers are still relevant - yet even a few months on I am conscious of how I may respond differently in light of my research. Most notably, I would be sure to emphasise that I am coming from the perspective of community dance activity, and that most of the reasons why dance performance opportunities are valuable for older dancers, are also the same for many other community dance groups of all ages and abilities. They are reasons relating to being human, and not specifically to being older. Although I acknowledge there are some specific issues of visibility of the older body that are extremely relevant in a youth-centric society.

These are my responses:

1. Can you tell me why working towards a performance goal can offer unique benefits to an older person’s wellbeing in comparison to weekly classes alone?

I'd say it's true of us all that having an end goal or something to strive towards with a deadline and a resulting product can keep us motivated. But beyond this dance performance gives us an opportunity to express ourselves, harness our creativity, and for many - demonstrate our learning and the development of our movement skills.

Not everyone that takes part in dance wants to perform, but for those that do it can be exciting, motivating and confidence boosting to put yourself in an exposing situation and take a risk and express yourself through movement. The unique buzz of anticipation and nerves can drive us forward towards the euphoria of achievement felt after performance. The impact of a performance opportunity for older dancers is possibly even more of a thrill given that it's often suggested that movement confidence can decline in our later years with the disconnect between body and mind becoming more prevalent. The accomplishment of a performance can provide an irreplicable surge of confidence which can impact physical health by improving self esteem - greater confidence in movement can lead to to increased range of movement potential.

2. Society sometimes perceives older people as inactive; both physically and in terms of what they contribute, which can have negative effects on self-esteem. How do you think taking part in dance activity and/or performance might help in this respect?

The perception of older people is exacerbated by the media featuring stories that provide negative assessments of the financial strain of the ageing population on our national health care system. Older people are depicted as unable to contribute to society and therefore a drain on our economy and resources. In general the culture of our media favours the image of vitality and health over age and a declining physical ability. However this renders older people invisible which only serves to increase the favour towards the young and strips older people of their voice and position.

Older dancers taking part in performances provide a positive role model for other older adults at risk of isolation due to a reduction in physical activity and a lack of confidence to navigate the busy world. Seeing active older people expressing themselves physically demonstrates the positive contribution that can be made beyond retirement age - combating stereotypes and giving others the motivation to step out and try something new.

3. Can you give me an anecdotal example of how you’ve seen your older people respond emotionally to dancing and performing, and perhaps how they’re bonded as a group through making a performance together?

In much of my work with older dancers, including people with dementia and Parkinson's, the joy of movement and the feeling of contribution made within a dance class provides a tangible sense of worth and achievement even within a one hour session. Encouraging unique movement responses and ensuring all dancers feel free to move without the barriers of judgement or a preconceived notion of what is right and wrong, gives older dancers a feeling of freedom. Being given permission to try out movements that one would otherwise consider beyond the boundaries of the body give participants a sense of control back to an otherwise uncontrollably changing body. This can provide a huge amount of pleasure as well as inspiration to continue valuing the body and what is possible.

Dance is a multifaceted art form with the possibility to encourage social connections and group cohesion through shared experience. Performance can enhance this shared experience and group connectivity due to the risk taken and the nerves and anticipation shared. Working together towards a shared goal; with the same doubts, concerns and pressures; feeling the same sense of elation with the audience's response. The sense of importance and occasion of performance will bring together any group of dancers quicker than a weekly dance class can.

"It was all so much fun and we had such laughs not only with the teachers but with the people in the other groups. Life is sometimes full of surprises and none more so than 'shaking my booty' at the Royal Festival Hall. I am still euphoric!!!!"

This quote was shared with me by a dancer from my Dance to Health group - a project in partnership with AESOP and East London Dance. 27 dancers met and worked together for one month towards the opening plenary performance at the AESOP First Arts and Health Conference at Southbank Centre. The dancers from East London Dance's older dancers group 'Leap of Faith' and two Dance to Health groups had never met before January 2016, let alone performed, or shared a stage together.

4. Do you think the capacity for human touch within dance is an important part of older people's dance?

Touch is one thing that can go missing in the life of an older person who is isolated. Not only touch from another person but also the connection to ones own body through touch. Dance encourages people to use touch to re-acquaint themselves with their own bodies, as well as to connect with others during a dance class. Although touch can often be a difficult subject and is often avoided in education settings, it can provide someone with comfort, a feeling of protection, reassurance and support - and even the opportunity to hold hands or press palm to palm in a dance class can remind people of the importance of human contact. I think it is an essential human behaviour and in the life of an older person if touch is infrequent, the dance class can be a safe place to regain that connection.

5. Do you think by older people performing they are helping to challenge typical perceptions of older people?

As I mentioned above - the typical perception of older people in our society as incapable and inactive is compounded by an ageist view perpetuated by the media. If a positive representation of older people being active, artistic and contributing, can be demonstrated through dance performance, this can go some way to turning around the stereotypes and challenging our notion of what constitutes old age...