Dance and the Genius of Age

Article excerpt

I'm not interested in saying, "If you dance a lot I can help you to stay young." I am more interested in saying, "If you dance a lot, it can help you to become the person you're meant to be when you're older."

-Liz Lerman, artistic director Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Since Liz Lerman first worked with elders a quarter century ago to create a dance in memory of her mother, she has built a renowned professional touring company while reaching into communities nationwide to conduct intergenerational and multicultural workshops that often lead to exhilarating public events. In September, the MacArthur Foundation recognized her for "redefining where dance takes place and who can dance" with one of its coveted "genius grants."

Lerman told Aging Today, "Advancing the art form is not about making dances and putting old people in them in the hope that they will look like young people. What helps the art form is when it shifts, changes, adjusts to let the older bodies, the older people in so that they look as beautiful as they are. For me, they are-we are-beautiful, not only those who look beautiful in the dance but those who are big, little, wrinkled-the older people who don't use botox."


The impetus for Lerman's outreach to ordinary elders as creative partners came in 1975, when she returned home to Madison, Wisc., on learning of her mother's cancer diagnosis. Lerman listened as her artist mother, Anne, reflected in her final days on her life of creative introspection. She also considered the external focus on community involvement of her father, Phillip, a civil rights activist. The two seemingly disparate life views began to converge in an uncertain notion of dance and aging.

The catalyst she needed to activate a new approach to dance appeared unexpectedly: A page-one photo in Madison's newspaper showed an older nun in her habit doing exercises. "It was partly that picture that made me realize I could go ahead and use older people in dance," Lerman said.

Back in Washington, D.C., where she was teaching and earning a master's degree at George Washington University, Lerman contacted the Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens, located not far from where she lived. Initially, she met with the facility manager and offered to teach the residents to dance. "She just laughed;' Lerman recalled. "But she had lost her entertainment for Thursday night and told me I could come in and do whatever I wanted. She'd give me five dollars a week. I marched in without knowing anything about older people."

The Roosevelt included people from a wide range of backgrounds, Lerman found-"low-to-middle class, different religions, different races and a handful with mental retardation, as well:' For her first appearance, Lerman performed a short dance for the 8o elders who came and announced, "Now we're all going to dance together." She began shouting directions-"everybody turn your heads"-but no one responded. "I thought they couldn't hear me because, if you don't know people, you go to stereotypes about them. So I started yelling, `OK, turn your heads!' And nobody moved." Lerman remembers running back and forth in front of the elders "like a tennis ball"-then everyone started laughing. In 1975, she noted, few people of any age exercised, and "most Americans weren't thinking that anybody but an n 8-year-old could be a dancer." Lerman persevered, determined to involve residents of the Roosevelt in the tribute to her mother. Eventually, she said, "we became each other's teachers."


Lerman discovered that both on an artistic and a technical level, the elders "taught me to rethink what's important." She continued, "Instead of merely handing down techniques that I learned from my teachers, I had to question every single thing I was teaching. For example, I asked myself, "Is this movement important to these particular bodies?" In trying to teach them the plie movement of ballet, she found that her older dancers held their backs properly straight-but stuck out their behinds and bent forward. …