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The Sunday EssayDecember 10, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Is there an age when you can no longer dance?


How I faced the limitations of dancing into the ‘sunset years’ of my life.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by kūkū.

To choose to be a dancer is a lovely act of defiance” – Daniel Nagrin, How to Dance Forever

Is there an age when you can no longer dance? Not in the lounge, at a party or at wedding receptions, but for audiences in public spaces? How do you face the limitations, both self-imposed and societal, of dancing into the ‘sunset years’ of life? 

I have been pondering these questions for the last few years, sparked by my work with the contemporary dance production Orchids from 2015 to 2019. During the final Orchids performances I was close to 62, and last year, on my 65th birthday, I performed a new solo, six decades after taking my first dance class. 

A 2017 review of Orchids commented that “mature performers are a precious rarity,” and this observation, made in relation to my contribution to the work, led me to consider what constitutes a ‘mature’ performer. Other questions I mulled over: Why dance? And why keep dancing?

It was during the first workshop of Orchids in 2015 that I began to feel lost and completely out of my depth. The cast, six women of different ages, all took turns teaching our morning warm-up classes.  Each one felt like I’d been dropped into a foreign country with the expectation that I would be fluent in the local language on arrival. 

Floundering around in the other dancers’ classes, I was unversed in the exercises, and my body couldn’t move like theirs. I felt old and delusional. Some of the dancers were half my age – the same age as my children – and I felt the constant juxtaposition of my ageing body with theirs: younger, more capable, more beautiful. Who was I kidding that I could be a part of this work? 

It is indisputable that our bodies change as we age; not just hormonally, but also regarding bone and muscle density and strength. A recent article in the New Yorker confirmed that “after the age of forty, all of us, even the athletic, lose about eight percent of our muscle mass each decade, with a further fifteen percent decline between the ages of seventy and eighty.” So, even with safeguards in place and a plan of action for my training, I was facing an uphill battle due to my age alone. 

Still, I persisted. If I’d been performing solo, I wouldn’t have pushed myself up against the barrier of physical overwork, and my critical eye might not have been so inwardly focused. But by embedding myself in a group, I had no choice: I had to keep up as best I could.

However, it was during the dress rehearsal that I felt a shift in myself. On stage, I walked into the light. My body was on display and there was no hiding my ‘maturity’. I commanded the air around me. I carved into the space. I danced.

It’s hard to explain to non-dancers what happens during these moments. The New Yorker Stuart Hodes, who danced into his 92nd year, described it as “magic time … an all-consuming blaze of being.” The choreographer Agnes DeMille said that, when you dance, you are “for minutes heroic.” 

There have been many studies published recently that outline how dancing into older age improves brain health and even reverses age-related decline. Dancing improves balance as you age, and we know this is crucial for preventing falls, broken bones and the complications arising from these accidents.

But performing dance differs from dancing to keep fit. Historically, dancers, like professional athletes, would be encouraged to stop dancing by the age of forty. Professional dance requires physical strength and stamina, technical prowess and that indefinable quality that constitutes performing. You are asking people to watch you, seeking their attention (and approval), hoping that your dancing transmits an intangible feeling between you and the watcher. While you move, you want people to be moved. 

Speaking with a colleague in the theatre bar after the opening night, a dancer about 20 years younger than me, I voiced my uncertainty about dancing in public again. I told him of my doubts about my capability and insecurities during the making of the work. I told him I kept questioning why I did this, what motivated me to expose myself in this way.

He responded: “You are doing it for us. We need to see you. We need to see experience on stage.” 

Perhaps because I had been so focused on keeping up, staying in shape, managing injuries, and remembering the material, I couldn’t see the essence of my contribution to this work. What some viewed as “maturity” others saw as “experience”. There is a difference. Maturity implies age, while experience is a deep knowing.

On reflection, my work with Orchids was a public manifestation of my true being. On stage, I had conjured a dancer, a person, who feels most at east, confident, and powerful in performance.  

In 2018, I packed up my life in New Zealand and returned to live in the USA, where I hadn’t lived since 1986. Many circumstances prompted this radical move: an ill, elderly mother; relentless grief from my marriage dissolution; endless and fruitless job searching. As our bodies change with age, so too do our minds: our thoughts and beliefs are not the same at 65 as they were at 25. A ruptured Achilles tendon, a severed meniscus, a torn ACL, hamstrings ripped from the bone, toenails cleaved from the skin. Mental fatigue. Eating disorders. A physical takeaway order from my life in dance. Just as when bodies are injured, damaged emotions also leave scars. I decided that I would go back ‘home’ and start again. Turns out Aotearoa is home.

I arrived back in New Zealand in 2021 with nowhere to live; no work; single. It occurred to me that making a solo dance would ground me; set me on a new path in Tamaki Makaurau. I was inspired by something Yvonne Rainer wrote about one of my heroes in contemporary dance, Trisha Brown: “Memory stored in the body. She is talking about emotion stored in the muscles and the process of accessing it through gestures and movement. This is a very different idea from “expressing” emotion through gesture”. 

This is the idea I wanted to work with. I didn’t want to make a dance that expressed anything. I wanted to dance to feel whole. 

I sent a request to two non-dancer friends for instructions on how to be here, now. “Much like instructions for assembling a table or chair,”  I wrote, “your instructions should provide a guide for making an object; in this case, a dance/performance piece.” The writer Paula Morris and the visual artist Adele McNutt responded with a set of instructions, a sample of which follows:

Whoosh up and down, in a diagonal motion, as though you’re pulled by different poles.

Show how you’re rooted in the ‘here and now’ by keeping your feet still for a time and your body in movement.

Move with your back to us so we see the shape of your movements but not your facial expression. 

When forced into limitations, the parts that can expand are the brain and the heart. 

Things will not go according to plan.

From these and other instructions, I assembled a six-minute work. The instructions liberated me by providing limitations and directions, a map to translate into movements. And unlike the creation period with Orchids, I didn’t have younger bodies to compete with, nor classes that made me feel inept. The pedestrian, non-narrative, non-emotive instructions gave me the freedom to move as I could. Without the instructions I wouldn’t have been able to make a dance for myself. I would have fretted about what I wanted to express, how I was unable to dance the way I wanted to, what would people think of this dancing body. 

Over six weeks alone in a studio, I made a dance which I performed for a few friends on my 65th birthday. We gathered, appropriately, at the Old Folks Association Hall. It was a cold Auckland afternoon, and I was nervous. The doubts came back. I was again about to expose this aged, technically-limited body. 

I stepped into the empty floor and the music began. I moved, and as I moved, I felt that inexpressible feeling I have known for 60 years. The performance was a joyous occasion. The sun filtered through the grungy hall windows and I sensed a spotlight on me. I was dancing again. I had found my light.

Keep going!