Temporality of the Dancing Body

In this paper the authors reflect upon the “ageing dancer” and how high performance thinking may make room for creativity and inspiration

By Mark Edward and Dr Helen Newall
eBook Publication by IDP Publishers


This paper examines and highlights the importance of valuing the body as it gravitates towards maturity (or ‘otherness’) refuting the myth that people do not or should not dance as they get older. It offers, as context, some of the common cultural myths of the ageing and injured dancer, and examines the career reality. It interrogates the shift from performance into dance creation of the ageing performer, and the prejudices that surround this process. Whilst ballet, as a dance form, will always remain subject to the authoritarianism of perfect technique, this paper suggests that issues in dance and the ageing body, physical scarring, psycho physical scarring and embodied knowledge are being addressed in the wider dance community, which appears at last to be moving on considerably in its appreciation of the mature mover and embodied arts practice.

The paper uses as case studies, two practice-as-research projects which examined the cumulative impact of ageing values and practices as experienced across the trajectories of individual life-courses of performers, paying particular attention to dimensions of lived experience, physical and emotional pain and migrating selves. These projects also explored the subversion of notions which discriminate against the ageing dancing body, and highlighted and celebrated work which evolves with the ageing performer through somatic practice, valuing the lived process and the body as a phenomenological breathing Curriculum Vitae.

The subjective nature of this paper arises out of reflexive research which is less scientific and more concerned with observations of a practice which exposes and explores, rather than sanitises, issues like emotion, pain, biography, embodiment and sensitivity.

1. The Cultural Context

The ageing performer is both a potent narrative and a harsh reality. It is a story prevalent enough in show business movies: as Joe Gillis says in Sunset Boulevard: ‘There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.’ And therein lies the problem: much dance technique is about youth. It might dress itself up as having other themes and narratives, but dance is an athletic phenomenon which ultimately celebrates an aesthetic of difficult, and often elitist, corporeal ability which only the young can attempt and achieve; meanwhile ageing, for anyone, often privileges loss of ability.

Ballet, especially, is a world within dance which demands perfection and rejects corporeal difference: the physical and emotional demands are rigorous and damaging, and the world is littered with tragic little girls who failed to be ballerinas because they were growing too tall, or too disproportioned. Here, for the unlucky majority, is the first emotional pain of dance. The next rejection is injury, which cuts short a career.
But if the dancer survives without major injury, there is the final emotional and physical pain of the ultimate and inevitable acquired fault of ageing which brings on retirement at the age of 35 or 40…

These narratives are encoded into our cultural stories about dance. The first is that the dancer must suffer and that this suffering is hidden beneath the effortless beauty: in Black Swan, Nina pulls off her elegant pink satin pointe shoes to reveal ugly bleeding toe nails. The second narrative is that the dancer is prone to tragic, and sometimes fatal, injuries (from car accidents, or leaps from the set): Daisy’s ballet career, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is cut short by just such a car accident, and this is also the fate of ageing dancer Beth MacIntyre in Black Swan; and Nina herself leaps from the set, as does Moira Shearer’s character, Vicky Page, in The Red Shoes. Thirdly, dance is all or nothing: Vicky Page must choose painfully between love and dance, and ultimately between life and death. None of them will ever dance again… and there is something in all these narratives of the ‘deaths’ arising out of perfection. This is the lot of the fictional dancer: there is pain in perfection; there is dancing through the pain, and the pain of not dancing. In real life, the Not Dancing, however, is more banal: it is rarely because of a tragic car accident or a suicidal leap from the scenery, but because the dancer is injured through dancing, or is simply growing too old. Injuries, as noted by Wainwright and Turner, are a frequent hazard of the profession; but if the dancer is lucky and escapes these, the growing old part is inevitable: it is a slow, inexorable and banal decline, but it’s not dramatic and so, in Black Swan, it’s a clichéd subplot which is wiped aside by the suicide/car crash narrative. In real life, for the dancer, it’s the main story: the idea, in Western culture, of a professional dancer continuing beyond a certain age is a social faux pas.

Gill Clarke notes:

The assumption is that once they reach a certain age or stage in their career, dancers will eventually ‘grow up’. This means a move into choreography or teaching, or a management or directorial role, as befitting their ‘adult status’.

Thus choreography is the mythical graveyard: ageing dancers flock to it like dying elephants.

2. More Hip Op than Hip Hop: more HRT than R ‘n’ B

My own career trajectory has not been dissimilar. I came into the dance profession at a later age than the average dancer. I sought formal training at the age of twenty when I walked through the dance studio doors of Wigan and Leigh College and was asked, ‘What do you want?’ to which I replied, ‘Well, what have you got?’ Not having had dance classes from the age of 5 like most others, I knew very little about techniques: indeed, I was already deemed too old to start classical ballet dance training. Fortunately, I had natural ability, and even more fortunately, it was recognised and nurtured by enlightened tutors. I was lucky, but the clock was still ticking and there was a countdown running. As I noted in an article for Animated Community Dance Magazine, I am now nearing 40 and I am sitting, as I write this, contemplating a pair of magi-knickers which are a must for any ex-practitioner of the Martha Graham technique. This dancer’s decay is not welcome, but it is inevitable. I have likened it previously to a kind of dancer’s menopause: I am reluctantly undergoing physical and psychological changes, and the aches and pains of my parents’ generation now increasingly belong to me. This is not a mid-life crisis: in the dancing world, I am considered geriatric. So if ballet dancers must at some ludicrously early point in their professional lives hang up their pointe shoes, at what age do contemporary dancers like me wash their feet clean after a final performance? I am more and more aware that I can no longer do the things I used to do in a studio with such ease. So what should I do, while I still have some options? I could seek a younger version of myself to dance my works; I could explore a slower-moving and more gentle aesthetic which would have less impact on the joints; I could ignore the situation and become a parody of what I used to be, like a Norma Desmond of the dance world, with too much make up and not enough arabesque. At this cross roads in my life, do I continue to make dance, moulding my choreographies on younger but less experienced bodies, or is it time for the final curtain call? Or, I could simply change the question from ‘what shall I dance?’ and ask myself why I am dancing and for whom.

I didn’t leave dance totally: I gravitated from stage to page and became the Programme Leader for Dance in a University where, ironically, teaching, writing and thinking about dancing gradually became a way of consciously or unconsciously cutting myself off from physically experiencing dance. On reflection, this was probably through fear of being exposed as too old by the wider dancing community. But in becoming an academic, I found that my passion for dance was exhausted, or rather sanitised, by administration, and the bureaucracy of dance making in an environment where data collection counts. The full time salary, however, for a hitherto freelance dancer, was both lovely and insidious. But, several times, I caught myself observing younger dancers through the dance studio door, and (if I am honest) longing to be ‘let back in’ to the hard core contemporary technique class. I felt I had become a trespasser on a dance territory that no longer belonged to me, and that if I were to participate, I would, at worst, be a dancing parody of my former self, clinging on to material no longer suited to my body and which was thus evermore physically destructive.

3. Alive and Kicking in the Graveyard

In 2007 I was awarded funding from Arts Council England and a matched research grant from Edge Hill University for two dance practice-based research projects exploring the ageing of performers. The aim was to create pieces for public dissemination which negated the myth that mature movers should not dance, and, in the process of making, to explore and find a new aesthetic.

The first of these pieces, Falling Apart at the Seams, set out to destabilise the conventional nature of dance performance by setting at its centre performer rather than performance. The ethos was that technique should accommodate the performer and not vice versa. Whilst I was part of the experiment, I also invited British Variety Circuit veteran, June Sands, to perform alongside me. Ms Sands was 81 and there were several decades of performance experience etched into her body: she had toured British music halls with her renowned father, Fred Brand (who taught Roy Castle to tap dance), and she’d worked with British icons such as Hylda Baker, George Formby, Old Mother Riley, and Arthur Askey. And she could still dance.

The focus of my research was not to answer a rigid set of questions, but to make a practical forum for discourse on the self-awareness and self-understanding the individual performer has in relation to the ageing process, so I decided on a more intimate method of semi-structured interviews followed by a rich dialogue of discussions and debates throughout the making processes. This mode of enquiry focused on the physical being in space and how the body can be a locus for change, looking at multiple embodiments, the lived corporeal, phenomenology and enforced embodied dance forms that can and have resulted in a physical and psychological scarring through time.

This was a period of creative dialogue where cumulative knowledge encountered new opportunity and was disseminated. The result was a rich practice. June Sands was indispensable to the performance making process. The dialogue was both verbal and physical and foregrounded work and/or technique which evolves with the ageing performer. This embodied knowledge was understood through the ‘felt’: the doing and being in the moment.

As Sands herself noted in rehearsals:

when I returned to the studio I was united with something that was still deep inside but seemed to have been buried alive only to slip back (although slightly changed) onto the bones the moment I started to move. I suppose what we bury alive eventually will come back to surface or even haunt us if it’s strong enough.

Sands’s reflection on this somatic architecture draws upon knowledge gained through connections to the living body over an extended period of time. The dance making was a phenomenological process foregrounding movement experience which has histories, ‘meat presence’, endurance and a physical knowledge, or what might be termed a lived encyclopaedia of dance practice which can be given back to the next generation of dancers through embodied arts experiences.

The second piece Why Can’t Martha Graham Just F**k off and Die?! was a dance theatre performance presented at various showcases throughout the UK. The work explored the politics of dancing past(s) and present by examining socio-cultural dancing forms that somehow become psycho-physical imprints/scarring as the dancer migrates into older physical realms. It is not for nothing that some dancers are rueful about their pelvic floor musculature after extensive exposure to the Martha Graham technique, or that one of those cultural dance narratives previously mentioned privileges the hidden deformities of a ballerina’s feet. Since some of the participants had become ‘lost bodies’, decentred through physical and psychological changes, the project encouraged a balance between a shape-shifting capacity for the ageing performer and a re-connection with the self through the process of re-languaging the movement of the body. Technique was refocused, and bodies re-centred. Thus the work interrogated dance forms and their currency, and, more specifically, the emotional and physical (ill) effects past embodied forms can have on the dancing body as it matures. Each dancer explored individually the application of taught techniques and skills in shifting contexts and thus the development of workable solutions that permitted an engagement with a dancing past but which liberated the body from what it could no longer accomplish. The aesthetics of ageing bodies were debated, and discourses of the ‘ideal’ dancing body, body fascism and what constitutes ‘best’ dance practice challenged. Debates emerged as to who sets these dance ideals and how these polemics might be reflexively examined and challenged. This was a performance process which re-embodied lost material into flesh which, in re-accommodating it, acted as the site of representation of the emergence of new dancing freedoms and dance forms for a more authentic older self in space.

The performance thus debated notions of repertory (learned work inflexibly disseminated from dance maker to dancer and which discriminates against the ageing body) versus the individual performer, and foregrounded for its audiences the illusion of the persistent notion that a dancer’s ability is effortless and pain-free: the reality it showed is that the ageing body leaves ability behind, but experience, which cannot be gained in any other way than by ageing, fills this absence with a lived richness. In other words, the performance privileged performer rather than performance, and the piece moved to the performer as opposed to the performer moving to the piece. As Sondra Horton Fraleigh states on just such lived embodiment: ‘my dance cannot exist without me, I exist my dance.’

4. Conclusion

It is increasingly apparent that engaging with dance is beneficial to athletes and older people alike: many recent studies affirm this (Sofianides, 2009; Gayvoronskaya, 2010; to name but a few). The issue, then, of older dancers leaving the profession becomes even more nonsensical. Fergus Early, cited in Gill Clark, states: ‘I see the premature retirement of dancers as a colossal waste. In no other sphere would your career end at 35’. What changes is why dancers engage with dance, and as previously stated, I think it becomes less about the presentation of a set piece and more about the individual performer. Ageing dancers who gravitate to choreography don’t necessarily have to be the older puppet masters of young flesh. Pina Bausch’s 1978 and 2010 work Kontakthof demonstrates that the aged dancing body should and can be culturally visible with no ill effects: dance performance can accommodate age, and this accommodation need not be matched by the pain, shock and effrontery of its spectators. This is the celebration of a physical presence, hitherto gagged by a Corpse de Ballet tradition of dance studio authoritarianism, which may now freely express itself. I offer the penultimate thought to dance artist Scot Smith when he says,

There is something about the accumulation of experience that emerges in performing that has very little to do with technique … As time goes on, dance becomes less about technique and more about somatics, about the uniqueness of the individual body, rather than having to conform to a set of practices and ideas.

As an ageing performer and dance maker myself, I am developing deep seated beliefs that our bodies belong to us, not the dance: the body is constantly shifting and evolving through space and time. Thus, I seek to promote an environment where the notion of a mature body can be visible and interrogated to allow for an individual journey that celebrates both the physical and psychological marks of time, and a physicality that has experienced beauty and pain, and which is valued and openly embraced for what it is, not what it once was.

Mark Edward and Dr Helen Newall

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