By Kym Woodford of Dance Informa.
Some time ago while interviewing Dr. Katrina Rank, Education and Training Manager at Ausdance Victoria, we discussed the fact that she was interested in developing a contemporary dance class for older dancers. Questioned about whether she was interested in working with professionals or adults with an interest in dance, Rank was unsure – “either, both” was the reply. So when sometime earlier this year Fine Lines was advertised at Dancehouse as a class for “mature dancers”, I was curious enough to go and see for myself.
Little did I know that this dance class was to become an integral part of my week. In a relatively short space of time, I found a new community of fellow dancers ranging in age from their thirties to their sixties. Half of us have previously been professional dancers with companies ranging from Meryl Tankard and Dance Works to Northern Contemporary Dance (UK) to Dance Theatre Etc. (US). The other half are simply passionate about dancing.
So what is it about this class and this group of people that is so appealing? Well, for a start, although I’m still involved in dance as a teacher, in this class I have space and time to totally concentrate on my own body guided by someone other than myself. For me and other dancers in their forties and beyond, this is a rare opportunity. Here, I am able to reconnect with that part of myself that found full expression through dancing. It’s as though I am able to embody a memory of my younger self at the same time as acknowledging my life experience and who I have become.
While dancing in Rank’s class I notice that although my body is older, more worn out, less able to do what it used to, I don’t think about this while I’m participating. Technical exercises and sequences are beautifully crafted and take all this into consideration, although I do notice I am less fit. Rank’s skill is in enabling each of us with our different levels of experience and training to feel like dancers, at the same time as working within our own capabilities.
As an older dancer, I allow myself to be more patient and less demanding; to make choices about how I move depending on how I feel that particular day. Sometimes I push myself physically to the limit, but on other days I dance gentler and smaller, exploring subtleties in time and energy. I remember why I love to improvise and find freedom in my own movement.
Given that Rank leads the class on her day off, it’s possible to understand the depth of her commitment to this project. She believes that “one remains a dancer at any age or after physical change. The impetus to move, interpret, create and be with other dancers in a class community remains a strong need.”
Fine Lines evolved in response to the fact that she was unable to find a suitable class for adults passionate about contemporary dance in Melbourne – particularly one that blended contemporary technique and improvisation. Rank said, “The older you get, the less class content is available to you. Contemporary dance classes are styled around the physicality, capabilities and choreographic interests of the dance teachers who are often in their twenties or thirties. While these classes are often really wonderful, it is generally up to the individual dancer to modify the movement to suit their capabilities. When the percentage of the class that you have to modify is greater than the material you leave alone, there is a question about safe dance and a slow ebbing of the ‘mature’ dancers’ confidence.”
Trudy, a dancer in her sixties, has always danced and agrees that Fine Lines is special because it is designed with care for older bodies in mind. She is fierce in her conviction that we should all be able to continue dancing no matter what our age and that we should have a space and time where we don’t have to try and keep up with the younger dancers.
While it is clear that Rank has definite intentions for what she hopes to address with the class, each of the participants brings with them their own history. For Michelle, Fine Lines has been the first dance class in her experience where she “ feels free to explore her body as it evolves, changes and ages (hopefully gracefully), without needing to aim for perfection. It is also a place where every eye that is cast in my direction is filled with a respectful knowledge and understanding.”
Encouraging a supportive environment and a sense of community is intentional and is another of the reasons the class is so successful. And while I can’t say that I was looking for a community, I have to admit that I have come to enjoy the sense of camaraderie that has developed. Our post-class coffee at the local café is almost as much an event as the class itself. Here, the supportive atmosphere continues and we discuss everything from choreography to writing to children.
For Penny, also in her sixties, the experience of Fine Lines is at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine. It’s not so much about remembering who she has been, but about learning something new and different. She believes that dancing is helping to keep her young by enabling her – “ to learn a new physical language; to struggle, persist and gradually progress; to promote a nimble mind and a mobile body; to belong, share, lead, follow, learn and laugh,” she said.
There is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that dancing is beneficial for us as we age, but there is a need for more opportunities. Rank says that for a generation of older adults ballroom dancing was and continues to be popular in community halls across the country, helping to keep people healthy, vibrant and connected. She wonders what will happen when her generation, who grew up with jazz, contemporary dance and ballet want to keep dancing. Fine Lines is a step towards addressing this concern.
Jenny writes, “Older people hold such experiences in their bodies. Moving those bodies, I think, can be a way of delving into those experiences and using them in creative ways: for oneself, with dance-class colleagues and for the wider world. I intend to defy the limiting tendencies of the aging body and mind; there are certain moves I am unlikely to do and certain skills I am unlikely to achieve. However, I can find other ways – creative and exciting ways – of moving and sounding and that is what I plan to do.”
Dancing is for young, strong, beautiful bodies, isn’t it? Well, I wonder. I am astounded by the beauty, strength, humour, lack of self-consciousness and wisdom that is embodied by my fellow dancers and a sense of abandon or a “who cares?” attitude to just getting on and doing it. We also have a lot of fun. On more than one occasion proceedings have threatened to come to a halt due to convulsive giggling.
Finding a dance class that successfully caters for the older dancer, both professional and amateur is rare, so I’m hoping Fine Lines continues for a long time. Whatever your age and experience, it is quite simply a wonderful feeling to dance and to share the experience with other like-minded people.