Change and Age: Women Dancers in Midlife

By Marybeth Weinstock

September 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

A number of years ago, I was taking a course in adult development as a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology. One day a lively discussion ensued as the professor and several students explored the emotional challenges they were facing as women in midlife. I realized that I, too, was experiencing this passage. The fact that I had been a dance/movement therapist for many years and done a great deal of self-inquiry, had not prepared me for the shocking realization that I had entered this passage.

As dancers the shift into midlife can be particularly poignant, given our identification with the grace and shape of our bodies as we move through our art form and our lives. My personal experience of this shift led to my dissertation research.

The emotional and physical passages from youth to young adulthood and to midlife have been both difficult and meaningful for me as a woman, and especially as a woman who dances. Discovering how other women dancers have fared holds great importance in my life as a dancer, a therapist, and a researcher. The purpose of my dissertation entitled “Women Dancers in Midlife: Coping With the Transition,” was to explore the psychological experience of midlife transition for women who are dancers, what challenges they have experienced in this process, and what has helped them cope with the challenges.

One of the most exciting parts of the research process was the response to my search for participants. The women I interviewed were thankful to have a place to talk about what they were experiencing. There were ten participants in the study ranging in age between 45-55 years old. The participants met the following qualifications: they had studied dance at an advanced or professional level for at least ten years; they had performed professionally for at least three years; and they were still actively involved in dance. There was such an enthusiastic response, I had to turn women away, and was able to select a cross-section of participants in terms of ethnicity and dance technique.

Carol Gilligan, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist (and former dancer) who has done groundbreaking work in women’s psychology since the early ’80s. Her work led her to formulate a method for interviewing women based on women’s voices. Her Voice Centered Relational Methodology provided a safe atmosphere for the participants in my study to contemplate their very heartfelt responses. It also offered a fruitful method for compiling the significance of the answers the participants provided.

The women I spoke to engaged in the interviews with honesty and passion. I was so moved and honored as they opened their hearts to me. Many tears were shed. In gathering the data, I compiled numerous commonalities they had shared in their struggle to live with, adjust to, and dance through the myriad of changes that had overtaken their once lissome bodies. All the participants named an assortment of ways in which they had changed how they dance in order to cope with the effects of aging on their lives. Today, we will look at the experience of pain and how the participants have coped with it.

Most of the participants spoke about coping with pain from dance injuries. Many shared the belief that heightened physical awareness is a common trait of dancers. Coping with pain, therefore, may be derived from understanding bodily limits in the unique way that being a dancer can provide. A dancer’s refined familiarity with her body and its limits can provide the necessary guidance to continue dancing despite injuries. A caveat about this particular point is called for: in the review of the literature, there were references to researchers who found that dancers may dance their way through injuries into worse injuries. The participants who spoke about this came from a place of the wisdom of hindsight, and shared the care they take as they learn to move through the pain. In addition, they all spoke about going to healing practitioners of various forms. They also shared that seeking advice from other dancers and athletes provides a multitude of strategies. In addition, learning other movement techniques, such as Hatha Yoga, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais offers further relief.

In contemplating the changes necessitated by attending to the pain and injury endured by the participants, there was some reflection about watching older dancers age gracefully. These older women are role models, mentors, and the source of inspiration. The participants also discussed grappling with the disparity of an empowered mind within a less powerful body. This paradox elicited evocative responses; the creative reflection that ensued opened up a path of meaning for the participants. The pain suffered leads to deep contemplation. One of the participants shared, “You have the opportunity to let go of some of the more superficial metrics by which you judge your place in the world. Hopefully, you start to look at other metrics. I spent so much of my life as a young dancer feeling like I wasn’t good enough. There’s no expectation of it on the part of myself or anybody else and so that’s really quite freeing…really inspired to work within my limits.”

The participants shared that having the opportunity to articulate these feelings out loud was helpful on many levels. In fact, most expressed a desire to continue talking about it with other women dancers, and also to know how the other participants had answered the interview questions. This inclination to share validates Carol Gilligan’s theory that women learn, grow, and heal in relationship with one another. Sharing resources, feelings, frustrations, sacrifices, tears, and laughter with one another affords the opportunity to continue the process begun in the interviews.

This desire to share provided the inspiration for the series of workshops Taira Restar, MA, and I have created to continue the work begun in my research. Taira, my first dance teacher at Anna Halprin’s studio, was the first participant I interviewed for my dissertation. At the end of the interview, to my complete delight, she exclaimed, “I want to do workshops with you!” We began our workshops entitled Creative Transition: Women in Midlife Converse Through Dance, in the Spring of 2010. We made the decision to open the workshops to all women in midlife who wanted to express the challenges of midlife passage through creative means. We created the workshops with the intention of providing an atmosphere that would be very inviting to dancers, but also to include all women who find dance to be an expressive tool for their aging bodies.

We crafted a method of scoring our workshops together that includes, in addition to creative dance, drawing, writing, ritual, breathwork, somatic movement, improvisation, and play. We incorporate specific moments in the workshop addressing the pain of aging and injury. As we warm up together, we support and encourage one another to address the aches and pains through verbal and non-verbal expression. This permission to be open and frank about this difficult reality is integrated in the container of the workshop, and continues to unfold throughout the day as we bond and construct our creative space together as a group.

After observing the delightful response to our very first workshop, Taira was inspired to suggest adding a seasonal theme, in keeping with the sacred feminine. For instance, our Summer 2011 workshop was held outdoors in nature and we explored inner and outer nature as we moved in the lush environment together. Our Fall workshop on Sunday, September 18th at Anna Halprin’s historic Mountain Home Studio, will include the theme of falling leaves, and the metaphors of change in the natural world. Anna is an inspiration and mentor to both of us, and her influence is apparent in our workshops. Her life in dance inspires our lives in dance. At 91, she continues to move through, honor, and love the changes of her amazing body.

Our Creative Transition workshops have built a community and they occur bi-monthly. I am honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to share the fruits of my research with women drawn to broaden their expression of this time of life, to do so through creative means, to delve into self-discovery, and to create in the company of like-minded women.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of In Dance.

Marybeth Weinstock, PhD, BC-DMT combines Clinical Psychology and Dance/Movement Therapy into work as a therapist. Now President of the CA Chapter of the American Dance Therapy Association, she studied dance with such Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis and Hanya Holm.