I didn’t start my professional dance training until I was almost 20. Since I had been a good party dancer and athlete all through school, I thought I would be able to dance forever. Well, forever turned out to be 52. I continued teaching until 60. Now that I am semi-retired I am acutely aware of the dancers who were vital and visible in the 1970s through the 1990s who I never hear about anymore. What happened to them? Where are they? Who have they become? What engages their lives and creativity these days?
“Where are all the dancers over 50,” laments Anne Bluethenthal in her 2010 work, Pluto In Capricorn. There seems to be an invisibility that occurs for dancers when we age.
According to studies from The aDvANCE Project and Career Transition For Dancers, dancing is the most short lived and underpaid career of all the arts. Most dancers retire between 31-44 due to injury. Being too old to continue and moving to another field are the next most common reasons. Of course there are dancers who remain vital and thrive well into their 60s even 80s and 90s.
Directing a company, dance organization, or studio allows one to remain connected to dance for a much longer period. Younger dancers rely on older dancers for jobs and mentorship and the culture is enriched by the work of the older choreographer/artistic director. And yet there are few older dancers who are still working.
Dancers in the educational/University systems can also loose touch with the larger community, although they are able to continue their relationship with dance and the mentoring of a new generation of artists.
Aging as a dancer can pose many challenges, as well as opportunities. It is difficult to give up what has been one’s life passion, means of self expression, and identity for 20-50 years. The reality is that our bodies age and change, making it difficult if not impossible to continue dancing as we once did. We now have a chance to slow down and pay attention differently.
I don’t feel, however, that aging means that we have nothing to offer the greater arts community. Through the wisdom of our age, creative expression, depth of understanding the human spirit and the vicissitudes of life, our dancing changes to offer another level of experience. There are older dancers who still have the desire to perform, however, venues become increasingly more difficult and there are few grants or awards for the older dancer.
Having to stop has been a source of deep sadness and depression for me. Grieving this loss I liken to that of losing a cherished partner I could count on to help me make sense of the world. I miss the ability I once had to move with a lightening-quick physical response and fearlessness to music that I love, or to have ideas I want to express. The change in drive and energy that can happen as one ages can be startling. It’s taken me three years to process my transition. With the help of therapy, coaching, meditation, physical therapy, women’s and business support groups, I have come to appreciate what I have gained as well as lost. For others perhaps the transition has been smoother. I wonder if changing careers at an earlier age when there is more time on the other side to retrain and rewire makes it any easier.
Still, there are directors who are addressing the process of aging in dance.
Jirí Kylián started Nederlands Dans Theater III years ago for his older dancers who were no longer able to dance with his main company. Recognizing their continuing value as artists he felt a responsibility to serve them.
Paradigm is a company started by Gus Solomons Jr. for himself and fellow dancers, Carmen de Lavallade, and Dudley Williams. There are currently eight dancers in the company in their 60s-70s who performed last year at UC Riverside to sold out audiences.
Several of my contemporaries and I danced with New Shoes, Old Souls in the Bay Area in the mid to late ’90s. Made up of dancers ages 40-75, our concerts were sold out as well. It seems there clearly is an audience for older dancers. How could there not be with so many Boomers currently turning 65. There will always be people continuing to age who want to see themselves reflected in art. As a culture we have an obsession with youth. So You Think You Can Dance has a top age limit of 30 to audition, which, in my opinion is an age when dancers are just beginning to know themselves.
My question then becomes: how do we keep older dancers as a visible and vibrant component of the community? How do we begin to value the wisdom that can come with age and what it can offer to dance and our culture in general? What are we losing by not including aging as a natural part of our art form? Among musicians, writers, visual artists, and stage actors, there is acknowledgement of and a place for the older artist.
I believe we can and must create a different relationship to our aging, not only for those of us who are older, but for all dancers who will eventually age and face the same issues.
What does it mean for us that we stop dancing, stop creating, or stop engaging in the dance community? I’ve spoken with dancers who felt shame at losing their bodies and not doing what they had been known for and valued for. Perhaps this is why the The aDvANCE Project study on aging artists found that many feel isolated and lonely. My hope is that we open this conversation. There is so much untapped wisdom available among the legions of aging dancers. None of this is to ignore the fact that many dancers can leave the field and find passionate fulfillment in other careers or in retirement. I am glad to now have time for myself without the high pressure and physical demands of dance. Yet, I miss the creative relationships I used to have in rehearsal, teaching and taking class. I, as have many dancers, become involved with other disciplines such as Tai Chi, Zumba, Pilates, Yoga, Qi Gong, body conditioning, etc. All these forms are wonderful and healthy, yet none have given me the deep satisfaction and connection to life that dance offers.
I also want to recognize and honor those who have been financially, physically, and emotionally able to continue on well into their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Some dancers take a hiatus only to return to dance much later with a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration as Marge Champion did at 90.
My interest now lies in creating a support community to talk about aging. Or perhaps to dance together without the public scrutiny of a performance–going into a studio and moving through our bodies–as we are now. Dancing with each other for the sheer pleasure of it and desire to connect.
This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of In Dance.