Liz Lerman Dance Exchange: Superheroes and Everyday Dancers, Old and Young

By Borstel, John | Generations, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange: Superheroes and Everyday Dancers, Old and Young


Borstel, John, Generations


Over the past thirty years, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has touched thousands of lives and won acclaim for many reasons, among them an intergenerational approach to dance, which in fact inspired the founding of the company. In my twelve years on the start, I've often had occasion to tell how the company got started. I like to call it my Origin of the Superhero story. Remember Peter Parker getting bitten by that irradiated spider, endowing him with the special powers that make him the Amazing Spiderman? Out of a transformative crisis came a sudden new capacity for big deeds and good works.

The year was 1975. Liz Lerman was a young choreographer still seeking an artistic path when her mother died of cancer. Knowing from experience that dance can heal and clarity, Liz decided to choreograph a piece about her mother's struggle and death. She wanted to present the spirits of departed ancestors welcoming her mother into the hereafter, and she needed old people to dance these parts. The tack that most contemporary choreographers would have taken-young performers using abstraction or theatrical deuce to offer a counterfeit of age-simply would not do.

But where to find the older adults to play these roles? The question sent Liz to the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens, a city-run residential facility in Washington, D.C. Starting there as a dancer providing an evening's entertainment, Liz soon established weekly dance classes for the residents. She brought the older people together with the college-age dancers she was then teaching at George Washington University. Before long, Liz was noting the remarkable benefits of dancemaking for senior adults: Stiff limbs became flexible, brooders became storytellers, and passive residents in a facility became active citizens of a community. Meanwhile, the young dancers on her team were benefiting too; they were performing better, gaining confidence as teachers, and discovering new connections between real life and their desire to dance. Liz also achieved her original goal: She found her elder cast members for Woman of the Clear Vision. The dance won raves and led to the founding of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange a year later.

This dance company is now regarded as the standard-bearer for intergenerational performance and the source of myriad techniques for teaching, collaborating, and choreographing with older adults (among many other credits).

I tell the Origin of the Superhero story a lot. It conveniently positions thirty years of innovative work as flowing from a single inspiration. The story demonstrates how artistic intent and human benefit can go hand-in-hand, and it shows how our mission-to pursue the questions of who gets to dance, where dance is happening, what dance is about, and why dance matters-was present at the start.

But in boiling our origins down to an eloquent essence, we can miss many of the more subtle points about what dance means for older people and what older people mean for dance. And the story doesn't explain why we continue. We are dancers, not social workers, and the everyday miracles of improved physical, mental, and social functioning-remarkable though they are-aren't enough to keep us invested in the idea of multiple generations dancing.

There is more. Herewith, my top four reasons why we continue dancing with older people:

WE CAN TELL MORE STORIES

We can tell a lot more stories with older dancers. It can be a startlingly emotional experience to watch a dancer 25 years old partner with a dancer who is 60, 70, or 80 years of age. …

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