Why we should celebrate the aging body in dance

Beautiful and athletic bodies are all well and good, but senior dancers bring refinement, emotional depth and a wealth of lived experience to the stage.

Dance elder Eileen Kramer, whose new memoir Eileen: Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard is published by Melbourne Books.

Grace, athleticism and artistry take centre stage across four of Australia’s capital cities in March 2019. From Sydney’s inaugural March Dance and Canberra’s biennial BOLD Festival, to the contemporary dance festivals Supercell in Brisbane and Melbourne’s Dance Massive, artists and audiences alike will be watching and talking about dance – and of course, dancing.

But while such festivals speak to the richness and vitality of the Australian dance sector, they also highlight the relative scarcity of senior dancers on our stages.

While many professional dancers expect to continue performing well into their forties, their careers are regularly cut short in their early to mid-thirties, often because of injury. Then there’s the impact of ageism in the dance sector, and in Australian society more generally, which sometimes results in older dancers and choreographers being relegated to the sidelines.

‘Ageism is definitely an issue and then there’s also the practical reality – I’m 48, I’ll be 49 this year, and I can’t do now even what I used to do when I was 44. So I notice the aging of my body – pretty much every six months I’m starting to feel a difference,’ said dancer and choreographer Liz Lea, whose work RED was recently staged at March Dance.

‘So there’s a practical level of what our bodies physically can’t do, particularly if we’ve danced a lot – there are injuries and old issues that have happened with the body so that we can sometimes get a bit weary,’ she continued.

‘But yes, if you’re an older performer and you can’t dance like a 21-year-old there is definitely ageism at play – and I think there’s also ageism in terms of funding. Richard Alston recently did an interview – he’s been choreographing for 60 years or something, and he said “Who’s going to hire an old white deaf man to choreograph?” He’s shut his company down and he doesn’t know if he’ll get any work. So there are definitely those kinds of issues around.’

Lea is the director of Canberra’s BOLD festival, which celebrates the legacies of our cultural elders and the changes that come with age. As part of BOLD this weekend, audiences will have the opportunity to witness 104-year-old dancer Eileen Kramer perform at a special event inside Parliament House. 

‘There is going to be a lot that Eileen’s not able to do because of her age, but she brings with her such grace and integrity in her life experience that she’s just sublime – she walks into the room and you can’t help but fall in love with her,’ Lea said.

‘Eileen is an extraordinary person and does extraordinary things, but she’s a little bit against the norm – there aren’t very many people who are 104 and alive in the world, let alone still dancing. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, our patron, she’s in her mid-80s and she’s still performing. A lot of it is about willpower but I guess there’s also some kind of luck involved – if the funding isn’t around or you don’t have the right support, you have to stop dancing and that’s awful. It’s devastating.’

Read: When the dance is over

According to Angela Conquet, Artistic Director of Dancehouse, ‘Ageism has a lesser impact in contemporary dance and there are many dancers and choreographers who still practice at an older age – or at least at an age one would not expect to still see them on stage.’

What ageism there is in the dance sector more generally is ‘inherited from classical ballet, which orchestrated for so many decades a certain perception and expectation of how the dancing body, and in particular the female dancing body, should be. Contemporary dance traditionally resisted and often undermined such constructions, both aesthetical and political, and proposed different visions of who was on the stage and what for,’ she said.

In Australia, the problem is not so much that older bodies don’t have a practice but rather that space is not made for them on stage, Conquet explained.

‘I am absolutely certain audiences would have an appetite for works dance by older dancers, however the funding system is such that they rarely get any support. Australia likes to celebrate the young and new and that translates all the way up into how support for the arts materialises. A young VCA graduate who sets out to create a first piece would have more of a chance to get support than a senior choreographer with a solid body of work,’ she told ArtsHub.

Non-Western Traditions

Dancer and choreographer Narelle Benjamin is still performing at 55, with a new work, Cella – created in partnership with Paul White – featured in this year’s Dance Massive. She noted that the Australian dance sector’s focus on young and beautiful bodies is by no means the norm in other countries.

‘Traditionally in Western dance it is the younger, beautiful body that is fetishised, whereas as in other cultures the older dancer is looked up to and valued for their knowledge and their maturity,’ Benjamin said.

Recalling a flamenco performance she saw in Spain in her 30s, she said: ‘The level of respect that you could see the younger dancers giving the older dancers, as they watched them perform before it was their turn to dance, it was so beautiful. And it struck me that you don’t really see that in our dance culture. You don’t see older dancers performing and respected like that.’

Lea agreed, noting: ‘What is interesting is that in classical Indian dance, which I’ve done a lot of, generally awards are not given until you’ve turned 50 – because you can’t truly imbue all the different range of passions and emotions that one might want from a dancer when you’re young, because you don’t have lived experience of it. And we’re talking professional practice here – there is a huge area of community dance practice for elders who’ve never danced before or who are coming back to dance.’

Respect for the ageing body is also the norm in Asia, Conquet told ArtsHub, noting that the great butoh masters such as Kazuo Ohno, Hijikata and Akira Kasai all danced, and still dance, up until their late 80s or even 90s.

‘Similarly in the USA, all the iconic figures of post-modern dance not only still perform and teach (Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer) but are given the attention and exposure they deserve by being presented on some of the greatest stages in the country,’ Conquet said.

‘Europe has its own senior choreographers and they have always been presented and often entrusted with running large choreographic centres which allows them to solidify their practice and pedagogy. There, it is somewhat of the reserve problem – younger choreographers struggle to access funding and visibility and one can be considered still emerging at the  age of 40.

‘It is interesting to note that Europe has also made space in the past 15 years for “non-conventional” bodies (e.g. larger bodies, untrained bodies, bodies trained in another discipline, bodies in general that defy the expectation of the young and beautiful body that has been so revered in the more classical terrain) and connecting us perhaps with more diverse and relatable representations of the body,’ she continued.

A RICHER AESTHETIC

Mature dancers bring refinement, emotional depth and passion to the stage, Benjamin said, making it all the more regrettable that there are so few opportunities for more senior dancers to perform in Australia. ‘When I was working with Paul and I saw the Pina Bausch company, it was so wonderful to see dancers from 24-years-old to 70-years-old on stage. Because dance is about the human experience, so it should be expressed through bodies of all ages, you know? I’d love to see a professional dance company like that in Australia – it would be wonderful.’

Not only do mature dancers bring more depth to their performances than dancers fresh out of WAAPA or the VCA; they offer new opportunities for aesthetic exploration, Benjamin continued.

‘As you get older – I’ve got a really bad hip and so I’ve learned to work around that. And though those injuries and through those limitations that’s where you find new ways to work and new qualities to work with – there’s just so much more to explore than just the athletic,’ she explained.

Read: Fatigue & overuse identified as injury risks for dancers

Conquet added: ‘An older body will always bring to the stage the sedimentation of many, many layers of embodied kinaesthetic knowledge and somatic intelligence accumulated over decades of practice and this is often very visible when these bodies are placed on stage with younger bodies. This is not to say that young bodies can’t embody a particular score, it is more to do with the density of presence, and of course, a specific choice or statement made by choreographers to have a dance performed by a senior body.

‘A more senior dancer or choreographer would most likely be more adept in the transmission of this embodied knowledge and in finding the tools or the words to guide younger practitioners. And on stage, they would bring a particular texture to the choreography which would most likely be hard for  younger bodies to emulate. I am thinking in particular of Russell Dumas who has been training generations and generations of young dancers and I have seen these young bodies grow and inhabit the space with a precision acquired only because of the rigour and precision with which Russell can teach,’ she said.

Benjamin believes the dance landscape in Australia is slowly changing, with new opportunities opening up for older, even senior dancers.

‘In March Dance, my friend Julianne Long is a mature artist and she’s making a solo now and she’s in her 60s … And with Dance Massive, Paea Leach and Alexandra Harrison – they’re probably only in their 40s but they are mothers with children and they’ve come back to make more work, dancing their own work – so in both Dance Massive and March Dance in Sydney there’s more representation and more older artists and mature artists doing work.

‘I think things are slowly changing and I hope there’s an audience for that experience as well, rather than just people wanting to see the ballet or the beautiful bodies in the ballet or Sydney Dance Company and all the athleticism there. So it’s about changing the public’s perception too; giving them an experience which I think they would really enjoy,’ she said.

But as well as changing audiences’ tastes, it’s also important that we better acknowledge and celebrate our senior makers by supporting them financially, as well as investing in the continuation and transmission of their practice, and by giving them the exposure they deserve, Conquet said.

‘Our Dance Massive program this year is definitely a statement in that sense – we are presenting four iconic senior choreographers: Russell Dumas, Jill Orr, Hellen Sky and Rosalind Crisp and we are extremely proud to be able to invest in these works and bring them to the attention of many local and international audiences. One should not forget that dance is the most ephemeral of art forms and once its makers are no longer with us, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be able to pass on the nuances and complexity of embodied knowledge,’ she concluded.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. In 2019 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021.

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