What will happen when I grow OLD? What will happen when I can’t dance like I do now—when my body won’t do what I want it to do—when I have to retire from performing? Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to teach dance or make dances, but what if I still want to dance? What if I still want to experience the pleasure of moving with strength and facility, fluidity and grace? How do I keep my dancing alive in me?
Such questions can haunt dancers of all ages. They are rooted in assumptions about the short, ephemeral life of a professional dancer that many in western culture take for granted as true. But are these assumptions true? Must age be the enemy of dance?
I have always felt like an older dancer—ever since I took my first ballet class at age 17 in a room full of 11 and 12 year olds. Several years later when I finally realized, at the ripe age of 20, that I was indeed a dancer, it was too late to mold my bodily self into an instrument for any classical technique. I was too old to pursue any style with the degree of intensity and investment needed to allow it to guide the development of my bodily self. There was always some part of myself that couldn’t and wouldn’t fit the form.
For years I lamented this fact, before realizing its sunny side. My late but passionate start set me headlong into a confrontation with assumptions about dancing and aging that dog the profession. I had to dance, and I had to find a way to do it that worked for me. I had to discover a way of dancing that I could practice until I die—a way of dancing that would engage and grow the trajectories of movement that my bodily self was always already making. My late start was an opportunity to dance differently.
So too, my late start gave me a unique vantage point from which to perceive how assumptions about dancing and aging serve to devalue the ongoing practice of dancing. These assumptions place undue limits on who can dance and for how long; they restrict dance to a certain range of the population and certain registers of expression, and they reinforce a marginal rank for dance versus other art forms by associating dancing with youth, physical prowess, the body, the ephemeral, and the material.
Of course, there have always been exceptions—those dancers, often, at the forefront of the field who continue to create and perform well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. However, they are most often perceived as exceptions, raising the question: how did they succeed? How did they keep the dance alive in their bodily selves?
My late start set me on a path to discovering one set of answers. Here are five kinds of work that I believe must be done to keep the pleasure and power of dancing alive until we die.
1. Finding freedom from the tyranny of technique.
When dancers are young, they hunger for technique, longing to gobble up the steps, preferably the hardest ones first. There is a craving for the joy of physical challenge, for finding limits and pushing through them. There is desire to move farther and faster with legs longer, jumps higher, and spins speedier. The thrill of these physical accomplishments propels dancers to seek out new kinetic feats and perform them to ever more exacting standards. It is fun!
Yet, this way of relating to technique, as exciting and enabling as it can be, can become an impediment as a dancer ages. If it becomes impossible for a dancer to master the trick, execute the move, or ascend in the company, it is easy for her to feel frustrated and blocked. It is easy for her to turn away, believing that, if she cannot dance in this way, she cannot dance at all.
To survive as an older dancer, it is necessary to make a different move and shift one’s understanding of technical prowess. A way to dance is always someone’s way to dance. And there comes a time in one’s training when it is essential to ask: are these movement patterns helping me—my unique, relational, bodily self—become all that I am and have to give as a dancer? As I strive to recreate these patterns in my bodily self, am I experiencing the life-enabling pleasure of participating in the rhythms of bodily becoming?
From this perspective of bodily becoming, technique is not an end; it is a means. It is not a means to performing certain tricks; it is a means to finding and releasing the innate capacity to move that every human is. It is not means to excellence, but an agent of discovery—offering patterns of movement that other people have found useful for tapping and releasing their own capacity to move.
To keep dancing throughout life, we need to free our understanding of dance from the tyranny of technique. We need to cultivate a concept of dance as an activity in which we are seeking opportunities to move that will quicken our sensory awareness, so that we are better able to sense and respond to the impulses to move that are always already arising in us.
2. Finding new ways to practice.
With this shift in understanding of what dance is comes a second shift in practice. When young, it is easy to believe that the measure of a dancing future lies in whether or not you go to class every day. The feeling of being in class, of sweating alongside others, of bending your bodily self to new extremes, lets you know that you are a dancer—that you are progressing and even excelling along the path of your dreams. A day without class can feel like a horrible, irredeemable loss—a backward slide away from an ever-elusive perfection.
Yet, as years pass, this commitment to daily class can fuel an unwillingness to attend to the singular needs of one’s dancing bodily self. At this point, the challenge of keeping dance alive can no longer be handed over to the structure of a class. Instead, the challenge, every day, is to discern what kind of movement is needed to open up the stretches of sensory awareness through which movement and energy move.
Sometimes, meeting this task means attending class, but doing so differently. It means engaging everyday exercises and intentionally experimenting—even doing them incorrectly—as a way to broaden the band of sensory awareness through which individual movements travel. It means assessing the choices that each technical move represents and holding them accountable to the sensations they produce in you.
Sometimes, however, the activities required don’t look like dance. Often they access realms of kinetic experience that a given technique does not. In so doing, they may exercise patterns of strength and connectivity that reach beyond or beneath a familiar technique—and that even serve as its enabling condition.
This dynamic is especially true of activities that involve an aerobic, rhythmic, symmetrical cadence—such as walking, swimming, biking, and running. Such activities help a bodily self sustain balanced, whole-body patterns that underlie the production of particular dance movements. Such activities thus guard a bodily self against the potential for injury caused by overworking patterns abstracted from the range of human movement possibilities. Such activities can help a bodily self breathe and release tension, thereby opening further potentials for dancing movement.
Of course, to one who dances, such activities never seem to be enough. They are not “dancing” as a person is used to feeling it. However, as activities that strengthen the bodily matrix of which any dance technique is one expression, they are essential for the ongoing practice of dance. They serve to keep alive in a person’s sensory awareness the criteria for health to which any technical challenge must account. They keep alive a desire to dance what is missing from those activities.
To keep dancing throughout life, then, we need to shift our practice so that it includes activities that cultivate a sensory awareness of what our ongoing practice of movement requires. We need to engage in activities call our attention to how our dance movements are making us.
3. Finding a new sense of one’s self as a dancer.
With this shift in the concept and practice of dance comes a third—a shift in your sense of the relationship between your self and dance. Early on in a dancer’s career, dance often looms as something to pursue—a world to enter, a community to join, an aesthetic to master. Dancing is something for which to reach, so that one can become a dancer.
As time passes, however, the challenge shifts from fitting one’s self into an idea or practice of dancing, to affirming the dancer that one already is. Here, dancing is no longer only about attaining a rank or prize or job or goal. It is no longer about attaining some external recognition that marks a person in the eyes of others as a dancer.
The challenge, rather, is to realize that you are a dancer. The challenge is to be fully present in and to oneself, to the open-ended, non-directional process by which movement emerges and becomes real as who you are. It involves realizing that dancing is the medium in and through which you experience life, and come to know your self and your world.
To keep dancing throughout life, then, we need to cultivate a sense that we are dancers, whatever we do and however we do it—because we are participating consciously and creatively in the all-too-human process of seeking, recreating, and expressing patterns of movement.
4. Cultivating trust.
As these shifts occur in concept and practice and one’s relationship to dance, there is a fourth shift that accompanies them as well: a shift in trust. Early on in the pursuit of dance, when seeking standards of value, dancers often look to those who have come before, those who have succeeded, and those who are succeeding now. They look for touch points and evaluative criteria in techniques and repertoire that already exist.
However, as a person lets go of technique as a measure; lets go of class as a standard, and lets go of a sense of dance as outside of oneself, terror can strike. What is there to ensure that one’s dancing will be good, relevant, and worthwhile?
Here, it is necessary to cultivate the trust in the movements that your trained sensory awareness has the capity to discern. It involves trusting that whatever is coming through you when you attend to the movements arising within you is expressing aspects and dimensions of humanity to which dance—in order to be dance—must have access.
It means trusting that any move to broaden dance or take it in a direction that aligns with your skill and attunement actually has the potential to reveal something about human life that has not been known in just that way before—things about life that need to be animated and felt and made real through dance.
To keep dancing throughout life, then, requires trusting that we are part of what dancing is and must become.
5. Embracing infinity.
A final challenge accompanies the first four. Even though the dancing a person does may not follow a trodden path, or reinscribe the patterns of a given technique—even if such paths and options are impossible–a dancer must know that her potential for dancing remains infinite.
The range of what dance can be and must be has not yet been determined. Sensory nuances and distinctions are ever elastic. The patterns that can be made have not all been discovered, and they never will be. The shapes that life is are always evolving, and so will the kinetic images needed to animate them. Those kinetic images will come through the bodily selves of those who attend to what is unique to them in the moving moment–throughout the full spectrum of their lives.
From the perspective of bodily becoming, the entire span of a life and everything in it can be a catalyst for growing dancing into something that can reveal that experience or event as significant for our bodily becoming.
To keep dancing throughout life, then, we need to know that any limit to movement is an enabling condition of movement; that every technique exists to define such limits; and that our task as a dancer is to remain open, in every realm of life, to finding in such limits new ways to move. When we do, we find that same thrill and joy of moving, as we surf the sensory swells it releases.
It is who a dancer is, and what a dancer does.