Our reprinted essay in this issue of A Blade of Grass Magazine is by choreographer Liz Lerman, who in the mid-1970s lost her mother to cancer and felt such a need to be with older women that she created a dance company with women ages nineteen to ninety. She is among the pioneering artists who have integrated people into their professional work for reasons of their lived experience rather than for technique per se.
My life changed when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Only in my mid-twenties, I was able to go home to Wisconsin and be with her. The end was swift. I was propelled into an emotional period of loss and reflection. Although still fairly new to choreography (I had at that time made one formal piece for the concert stage and many informal works for my high school students in a Maryland boarding school), I realized that I needed to make a dance about what my family and I had gone through. I was interested in finding older people to be in that dance.
This was in 1975. It was the same year that Robert Butler had written his book Why Survive: Being Old in America, which was the beginning of the aging consciousness movement. It was before people were jogging in the streets. It was before any broad awareness of the possibility of aging well or being physical late in life. In fact, the idea of old people dancing was quite outlandish to most people. But for me it was the only choice I had.
The problem was that I didn’t know where the old people were. Returning to Washington, DC, I began calling around and discovered a retirement residence that was within a mile and a half of my apartment. Officially titled the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens, it was known as the Roosevelt Hotel because the building had started life as a grand hotel back when the neighborhood, now a little shabby, was an elegant embassy district. I went to the Roosevelt and told the manager I wanted to teach a dance class. She actually hooted with laughter as I explained that I meant it to be for the residents of the building. But she’d lost her entertainment on Thursday nights, and she needed somebody to fill the slot. She said I could come in for five dollars a week. I accepted.
When I arrived on the first night, the residents who gathered were all seated in chairs, facing me. I danced a little solo for them. Then I said, “It’s time. We’re all going to dance together. I want you to start by turning your head. . . . We’re going to warm up . . . just turn your head.” Nobody moved. I thought they couldn’t hear me. My own experience with older people had been so fragmentary that I immediately jumped to the stereotype and assumed I was addressing a room full of people who were partially deaf. I started yelling, “We’re going to turn our heads!” Still nobody moved. Then I began to run back and forth in front of them, and finally they began to turn their heads left and right to follow me.
In that moment, I realized that I had stumbled into a weird and wondrous laboratory. Suddenly, everything I believed in was called in question—especially everything that I believed about how to train a person to become a dancer. What exercises did these folks need? How and what could I ask them to achieve? What would good technique mean on an eighty-year-old body? What made them look beautiful? In fact, I began to question accepted notions of who and what was beautiful. As the weekly classes went on, usually attended by twenty to fifty people, I found each one a struggle and an inspiration.
The residence was primarily for frail older adults, people trying to stay out of nursing homes. It was mixed-race, mixed-class, mixed-everything. Several younger retarded adults also lived at the Roosevelt because the city had no other place to assign them. Everyone was lumped together. I was astonished by the things I noticed and then began to think about as I spent time among these people. For example, some of the residents were labeled senile by the staff. This surprised me because I saw these people in dance class and they didn’t seem senile to me. I began to muse about the nature of dance and its present-time usefulness. Maybe it was a way out of the symptoms of senility, depending on what definitions people were using for that illness. Of course, I thought to myself, I would be senile too if I had to live in the conditions and isolation of so many of the residents. We were at that time doing a good job of warehousing our elderly. The simplicity and cost-effectiveness of art as a natural intervention seemed all too obvious to me then. It still does, all these years later.
It was also interesting to see how people responded to touch. You can’t teach dance without touching. Sometimes I would ask residents if I could touch their backs and then worked on their spines a bit as they unrolled from a forward bend. At the start of one class a woman approached me and said, “What did you do to my back?” I wondered if I had hurt her and asked what happened. She said, “I cleaned my apartment, I vacuumed, I did stuff I haven’t done in years.” She was so happy. I was the first person to touch her in five years.
I discovered new ideas and new processes at every moment. Slowly I realized that my own teaching was changing, and I brought these changes with me back to the academy, for I was at the same time pursuing my master’s degree in dance at George Washington University.
As I began to spread the word about my work at the Roosevelt and invite friends, colleagues, and guests to visit and observe the classes, I was struck by the number of well-meaning people who would pat me on the head and say, “Isn’t that good for them?” Now it certainly was good for many of these older people. The physical range of their bodies increased as they found the joy in moving, their imaginations became animated as they learned new mind/body connections, their trust in each other grew as they partnered in dance, and their self-esteem blossomed as they made works of art. They were strengthened as a community as well: when the residents of the building staged a rent strike against the management, it was the dance class regulars who organized it.
But it puzzled me that while observers immediately recognized the social good of this practice, they never conceived of the possibility that my work at the Roosevelt was also good for me as a person, as a teacher, and as an artist—and ultimately not only good for me, but good for the art form of dance as well. These benefits were most observable when I brought my undergraduate dance students to the senior center. I encouraged each of them to move around the room before the class actually began, meeting the older people and learning their names. They were greeted with great smiles and often with direct, outspoken comments about their looks, such as, “You are so pretty,” or, “What a great body you have!” I had become used to this type of conversation, but I was unprepared for the positive impact it had on the women students. I also warned them that, because of the hearing and vision impairments that affected some of the older people, they might have to exaggerate their presence to make connections. I noticed that some of the shyer students were laughing, talking loudly in order to be heard, and in general participating at a very high level. The older people made it so easy to extend oneself, converse with strangers, and be big about it all. I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled into a way of teaching dancers how to project character onstage. If dancing is primarily a mute form, perhaps we had found a way to evolve performance personality that was both authentic and larger than life.
At the Roosevelt, I taught a modified technique class. We began seated in chairs and worked our way to standing while holding onto the chairs as a kind of barre. Eventually we would gather in a circle in the middle of the room and do some kind of extended improvisation with the goal of keeping the older dancers on their feet for as long as possible.
The older people made it so easy to extend oneself, converse with strangers, and be big about it all.
I made sure that everyone could and did participate at the beginning of the class. But I also made sure, as the class became progressively more physically demanding, that those who had reached their limits could become encouraging observers, able to reenter the movement whenever they saw fit. I also encouraged all to keep adapting the movement so that even as many of us stood up, others could continue seated.
I realized that the participants were learning theme and variation in this way; when I posed all of this as artistic practice, the participation level soared. What became evident to me is that conventional technique classes assume that every student’s body will work at the same pace as the teacher’s. (For example, I’ve known many dancers who come to a class early to warm up so that they will be ready for the teacher’s warm-up, making clear the inaccuracy of this assumption.) At the Roosevelt, I was learning a way to allow for many levels of achievement as well as capacity. And at times, this diversity contributed to something quite beautiful and unusual.
Toward the end of class we would sometimes use an improvisational structure composed of a free-form dance done in the center of the circle with each person taking a turn to solo. I found a way to “shadow” the soloist by allowing plenty of room for him or her to move while remaining available to each in case of imbalance. Sometimes, in the excitement of the music or the audience’s appreciation, the older dancers would find themselves close to falling. I wanted them to stay aware and be responsible, but I also found that shadowing them was an interesting form of partnering.
So often a structure like this has multiple outcomes. In this case, the undergraduates who came to class to help also had to take their turn in the middle, and this is when I noticed how the circle of older adults affected their dancing. Taking their turns, they danced more freely and more beautifully than I had ever seen in their university classes. On the way back to campus they were full of excitement: “I was never able to do triple turns before. What happened?” or, “My leg has never gone that high and with so much ease.” This happened so often I began to wonder why.
I decided that they were dancing so well because they were so loved. The dance environment in which most of these students had grown up was harshly judgmental. It was a liberating experience for them to perform for an audience that offered such unreserved appreciation of their dancing and admiration for their bodies. Instead of reinforcing their own feelings of self-loathing about their physical imperfections, they danced with people who were free with their appreciation. That affected the dancers’ technique, so they danced better. I found myself telling my friends, “Older people are an underused natural resource, literally dying to give their love.” I wondered how many people were just sitting out there waiting for some kind of interaction. That’s when I began to see that not only is dancing in and of itself fantastic, but it is also a way to bring isolated people together.
I began to experiment. What happened when my students started from a place of positive feedback? What if they had a way to appreciate what they had accomplished? I observed that if they could name something particularly meaningful for themselves in what they had done, they could more easily take the next step, isolating a particular technical problem they wished to work on. It wasn’t just a global “I need to be better,” but rather an “I want to work on the way I swing my leg in my hip socket.”
But my larger concern as a teacher of dance was how to get my students to be human as they worked on their technical deficiencies. I have heard the same thing from other teachers, not just in modern dance, but in ballet and in classical music too. Just recently I had a conversation with a ballet master who said, “We train them to be phenomenal technicians, and then we damn them because they have no passion or personality when they perform.” I had tried numerous approaches in college classes, mostly various partnering schemes in which students had to accomplish difficult physical tasks while facing each other. It seemed they could handle either seeing their partners or working on their technical assignments, but not both at the same time.
So back to the Roosevelt we went. (An interesting aside is that when I brought my students from George Washington University with me to the Roosevelt, the number of older participants sometimes doubled. It was as if the residents could smell young people in the building. Perhaps many came just to socialize, but eventually they were all dancing, which led to wild events with as many as a hundred people cutting loose.) I began to push the older people more in their physical prowess by expanding the idea of shadowing. I paired everyone up early in the class, reminding my college students that they had to keep dancing while keeping an eye out for their partners’ health, balance, and technique. As the exercises became more demanding, problems for the young dancers increased. If they stopped dancing in order to be sure their partners were okay, they found their partners quit too. So they had to find ways to be externally involved with someone else while maintaining their own physical work.
We had spent time both at the university and at the senior center talking about what we meant by a safe environment. I had become convinced that a safe environment meant not just a nurturing place but also a place where people were challenged to do better. The older people didn’t want to be commended just because they could raise their arms at the age of eighty. They wanted to learn how to do it better, bigger, in unison, with dynamism. They wanted to improve. The older people took pride in the fact that some of them were able to do push-ups, dance for a full hour, turn, or jump. I didn’t realize how important this was until I brought the younger dancers to class.
I also noticed that the older people danced harder, with more investment, if they understood the source of the movement. For this discovery, these older dancers and I began to develop what would become a methodology of text and movement encompassing talking and dancing, storytelling and research, information and feeling, and the means by which these elements could be integrated into a choreographic whole. When I also engaged my more sophisticated college students in these processes, they too discovered a new investment and curiosity in their dancing.
My young students began to develop real skills as they partnered the older dancers. They learned how to dance fully while remaining aware of someone else. They learned how to be in support roles and how to step forward into leadership roles, whether partnering or taking a solo turn. They learned how to focus outwardly even as they listened to their own inner stories. They figured out how to read a room for space, for personality, to spark new movement ideas. But above all, they learned how to be themselves, to be human as they danced. I began to talk about the work in senior centers as a training group for professional dancers. I talked about how it was like money in the bank: the experiences we had at the senior center could serve us later in so many capacities in the dance world.
Beyond the benefits for the seniors and the students, we also discovered the power for everyone in bringing together unlikely groups. Pursuing my intention to make a piece about my mother’s death, I held a gathering to explain my plan to the Roosevelt residents, and eight of them agreed to be in the dance. They were joined by local professional dancers and a couple of my students from George Washington.
We were to have a cast dinner at one of the student’s homes the week before we opened. Given the social standard of 1975, the student who was hosting got nervous because she was living with her boyfriend. She was afraid that the older women would disapprove. Hardly! What happened instead was that the older women, so happy to be out of their institutional environment, spent the whole evening talking about sex, who had done what and when. It was an eye-opener for everyone.
It was then that I began to see that from an artistic point of view, we could change people’s lives, and from a community point of view, we could change how people interacted. And the evidence kept coming that from a personal point of view we were changing people’s physical beings. Every week I got reports from women who could once again zip the backs of their dresses or from men who could get in and out of the bathtub again.
After the premiere of the dance about my mother, Woman of the Clear Vision, a regular performance group emerged from among the Roosevelt residents. We made short tours with this group, and I engaged them in a project supported by a Baltimore presenter in which I explored my Eastern European roots. In my research about dances done in the Jewish ghettos, I learned about the “angry” dance. At Jewish weddings the soon-to-be mothers-in-law did an “angry” dance at each other, which would end with them making peace and embracing. What an idea for a community to think about! (It might have helped my first marriage.) Two of the older women danced this. I could not have imagined it any other way.
In this Baltimore project we also worked with young people from the inner city. This was the first of many Dance Exchange projects that I would describe as either cross-cultural, cross-racial, or cross-class. We did the wedding dances with young people and invited them to make their own celebratory pieces. So in the midst of all this Yiddish dancing, the kids came storming through in a fabulous street dance. The kids and the old people came to love each other in the few weeks we were together. Their thinking about what ghettos are and what ghettos mean created an amazing image and raised questions about culture and identity that I would keep revisiting for many years.
Since these first ventures into dancing with older people, the Dance Exchange and I have conducted many other intergenerational projects. The presence of senior adult dancers in our core ensemble has continued to provide a particular grounding to our work as well as a distinctive look to the dances. Who is old and what old means in our society have also changed. Embedded in the perspective that “sixty is the new thirty” is an enormous amount of upheaval, a multitude of new understandings about the biology of aging, and a generation that refuses to retire, myself included. Thus, it is still surprising to me that when the company holds post-performance discussions, almost always the first comment is about seeing the generations together onstage. I wonder why it is still so new, even though it has been thirty-five years since I made Woman of the Clear Vision and first considered the fact that older bodies make for great storytelling, beautiful movement, and a curious form of courage.
Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator, and speaker, and the recipient of honors including a 2002 MacArthur Genius Grant and the 2017 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. Key to her artistry is opening her process to various publics, resulting in research and outcomes that are participatory, urgent, and usable. She founded Dance Exchange in 1976 and led it until 2011. Her recent work Healing Wars toured the US. Liz teaches Critical Response Process, creative research, the intersection of art and science, and the building of narrative within dance at institutions such as Harvard, Yale School of Drama, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her third book is Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. As of 2016 she is an Institute Professor at Arizona State University.
Liz Lerman, “The Roosevelt, Dancing,” from Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer © 2011 and 2014 by Liz Lerman. Reprinted with permission from Wesleyan University Press.