Why Dancing Transcends Age
When the dancer and choreographer Liz Lerman turned sixty-nine, she was looking for a change of creative scenery. She joked to her husband, “I’ve got to change my job, change my house, or change my husband.” She kept the husband, but switched the other two, moving across the country from Baltimore, Maryland, to Phoenix, Arizona, where she became a dance professor at Arizona State University. Since then she has been thinking about, engaging in, and helping others find their own creativity. Liz went on to clarify that we don’t need to make a major life change to activate creativity; we can change or expand our connections to people.
Liz, who won a MacArthur “genius award” for “redefining where dance takes place and who can dance,” epitomizes the synergy of positive age beliefs and creative activity. She started dancing with seniors soon after graduating from Bennington College, and first choreographed a major piece for older dancers during the period of enormous loss that followed the death of her mother. Funneling her grief into the dance, she envisioned old angels welcoming her mother into heaven. She had older dancers play the angels. “I didn’t know it was going to become a thing,” she told me. “I just thought I need to do this piece, and I need old people to be in it.” Once she started choreographing for seniors, though, she never stopped. She founded a dance group in Washington, D.C., called Dance Exchange, which became world famous for its reliance on personal story, public participation, and intergenerational dancers. In contrast, due to ageist pressures, most professional dancers in Western countries retire by age thirty-five.
Since then, Liz has gathered countless people of all ages to dance—including seniors who have never danced before and people who never stopped. It’s not so much teaching them perfect technique that she is after: it’s the loose, primal, joyful thing dancing does to people’s bodies and self-perception. “Often, it’s like, ‘Oh, my god. Look what I’m doing!’ ” Liz says with a joyous shout. And for both kinds of dancers, Liz believes intergenerational dance helps them strengthen their age belief that older people meaningfully contribute to society.
“Older dancers have movements unique to their age,” Liz ex-plains. “When a person moves in harmony with an idea or an emotion, with a vocabulary of movement that is inherently personal to their body, the result is something staggeringly beautiful.”
Thomas Dwyer is an eighty-five-year-old dancer who has been a member of Liz’s company for the last thirty years. A lifelong conservative Republican, retired navy veteran (he was a Morse code operator on ships for most of his career), and six-foot- tall man who describes himself as a “string bean with no muscles,” he is the first to admit that he is an unlikely dancer: “When people see me dance, it helps them see that anybody can do it.” His first dance workshop took place at the urging of his brother, who’d accidentally signed up for an earlier workshop, thinking that it was an exercise class. Both were soon hooked.
Thomas’s favorite dance, “Still Crossing,” is about immigration. It opens with old people rolling slowly across the stage, which Liz describes as “the ghosts of my grandfather—all those immigrants present in each of our imaginations,” and ends with dancers of all ages, including a dozen seniors, onstage. The first time it was performed was at the Statue of Liberty. In another dance, Thomas does a set of sixty push-ups in his underwear with his feet on a chair. Invariably, people come up to him afterward and tell him they were surprised to see someone his age do that.
In Tokyo, while participating in a residency that brought together younger professional dancers and older Japanese people who were dancing for the first time, Liz noticed that when the older dancers entered the studio, they didn’t instantly diminish themselves, the way she’s seen countless older Americans do. In the US, “the messages diminishing old people are everywhere. They turn old people inward the way leaves turn inward.” She held up a hand and curled it inward, and then curled her body inward, like a leaf shriveling in fast motion. “But once you get them dancing,” she said, they bypass all the negative messaging, and a change occurs. She held her hand
up again: “Picture the leaf again for a minute. Instead of being brown and brittle, imagine the water moving through it, nourishing it; watch it soften, open up, and move outward.”
But it’s not just by rethinking their relationship to their bodies that dance transforms older dancers; it’s the intergenerational component that alters their sense of potential as older people. One of the reasons intergenerational dance works so well is that people in their sixties and twenties actually have quite a lot in common, Liz says. “In a way, that’s because they are at similarly transformative stages in their lives, thinking about the big questions. ‘Where am I going? What will I do with the rest of my life?’ And those questions hit hard.” Younger people are completing high school or college; older people are rounding out a career, or changing their living arrangements. And when they dance together, “they become so close,” Liz tells me. Negative stereotypical conceptions of old age break down.
Most people hear “intergenerational and immediately picture kindergartners and grandparents,” Liz says, but she thinks there is a particular affinity between younger and older adults. Many young people are searching for sources of love and support, whereas many older people are searching for ways to share these things. Liz has seen countless young people find themselves transformed by the physical company and collaboration of older people, “because they felt loved in a way they were just yearning for.” Liz believes that the beauty of intergenerational creative activities is that they give people of different ages the permission and framework to work together in a way that feels welcome.
Now seventy-three, Liz finds herself in the midst of the most generative period of her life. While continuing to teach, she recently designed a free online creativity toolkit (“The Atlas of Creativity”), choreographed a dance about stereotypes of female bodies (“Wicked Bodies”), and is working with the Urban Bush Women, an African American professional dance group, on a project called Legacy of Change. Her mastery and originality have only deepened, she feels, as a result of her decades of experience. Between teaching and performing and collaborating, she also wants to bring dance to ever-increasing numbers of people who have never danced before. As she grows older, she is constantly thinking about how to help those who come after her: “Legacy isn’t just looking back, it’s also looking forward.”
To go forward, it is important to consider the barriers preventing older persons from becoming as creative and generative as they would like. This is the aim of our next chapter. As author and social critic James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”