Dance and Aging

An Interview with Linda Ashley, Ph.D.

“Dance, dance, or we are lost!” Pina Bausch

In the highly competitive and youth-dominated world of professional dance, most performers retire in their thirties and early forties. For a dancer whose very identity is bound up in performance, what more does a life in dance have to offer?

DollyThe following interview with dance educator, writer and choreographer, Linda Ashley, explores both the challenges and opportunities faced by the aging dancer. Welcome, Linda!

Why did you feel a need to coin the term “Youthanasia,” and what exactly do you mean by it?

I haven’t coined a dictionary definition for the term. However, if I were to do so, it would hover around something to do with the historical stereotyping of dance as a youth-driven art form combined with the more recent growing awareness of how dance can contribute to the quality of life for all ages.

At the time I began using the term Youthanasia, I was intrigued by two important factors. First, the students I was teaching on the Bachelor of Dance seemed to have little idea of what they would do in their careers as they aged and saw dance only through a performer’s eyes. Second, I was concerned about the rise of TV shows that seemed to focus on dance as a young people’s art form and little else.

Can a dancer avoid, fend off or battle Youthanasia? What approach to longterm career and life planning would you advise for young people who have a passion for performance?

I don’t think Youthanasia is avoidable per se. If I had to choose one piece of advice for young dancers, it is to take a 360-degree view of dance in the world that includes, but is not restricted by, performance.

For young people who are driven by the image of dance as performance, I flashmobwould suggest first-up doing a university dance degree, if they are inclined that way at all, because studying dance is what prepares and gives one diverse capabilities. Also, the study is the theory and the practice combined. I always tried to teach this way. My books are written from the same perspective, and it was how I was educated in dance.

As a student comes to understand what a vital role dance can play in improving the quality of life for many, many different people, his or her career path can be clearer and elongated, so that one doesn’t necessarily have to give up dance later in life but can still earn a living from it. One may even still be able to perform like I, and many others, do at age sixty and beyond.

The enormous value of a dance education and/or training is that it is a massively disciplined and challenging way to live and learn. It is also one of the things that can prepare dancers to make their way in the world of work. Dancers can do anything!

Addressing the topic more personally and taking emotions into account, can you recall a moment or turning point in your own performance career when your aging body let you know its limitations? What did that feel like and how did you cope?

seasplashPerhaps an excerpt from my solo dance monologue might be helpful here. It captures a conversation that I have with my alter ego Dolly Mixture:

Dolly (rather pointedly): “You’ve peaked!”

Linda (in disarray and panic): “When did that happen?”

Dolly: “Just when you start to realize how to do it, your body packs up.”

Linda (in massive panic): “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Perhaps this captures how injuries become ongoing niggles and muscle power diminishes gradually, making how and what an older dancer can perform an ongoing negotiation with the body.

From time to time, one receives vivid reminders of how one’s performing capabilities have changed. Recently, for example, I performed with dancers who were half my age and really felt the differences between their dancing and mine. We bring different qualities to performances; I brought my wealth of administrative, choreographic and performing experience. It’s not all about performing! Above is a photo of one of my better moments (I’m in pink).

We have heard critics deride such dancers as Margot Fonteyn for retiring too late, or Darcy Bussell too soon. Is there ever a right time to retire?

Good question. I guess it depends on what kind of dance you are retiring from and to. Classical ballet is most challenging for older dancers in its physical demands. However, leading classical dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov made a shift to postmodern dance in 1989 and critics recognized it as a success. In 2001, critics acknowledged that his physical intelligence was still as mesmerizing as his youthful performances once were.Baryshnikov

Personally, I even think that there may be room for ballet dancers to perform ballet but with a different emphasis in later life. In my book Essential Guide to Dance, I write “It is this deepest physical integrity of a dancer in performance which offers dance today a future of great promise and excitement.” I truly believe this, and the future for

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older dancers is only just beginning.

What is next for Linda Ashley? Is there life after Youthanasia?

What’s next is to keep up with some sort of active dancing and choreography. I still occasionally receive invitations to perform Youthanasia of Dance, and I like doing this, because people have fun and it provokes lots of interesting discussion. Also, I hope to work on some more beach dance projects for community and professional dancers to participate in.

Linda's BookI am keeping up with my writing and conference presentations. Recently, I’ve been peer reviewing for a couple of academic journals, too. I have ideas for three more books that have been floating around in my mind for several
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years, and one of them is currently in the pipeline and nearly ready to go looking for a publisher.

Oh, and I’m still gardening and working on being a connoisseur of the mundane. I can highly recommend that; it’s underrated.

Visit Linda’s Website

A Meditation on Dancing and Aging by Martin Keogh

http://youtu.be/lsp24YCeWv4

32 Responses to Dance and Aging

  1. Ursula Verduzco April 21, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    Congratulations on this wonderful Interview…
    For the last 2 years I have been thinking about this very specific topic…
    Dance and Aging… and I can tell you that even though I am still ( hopefully) far from not dancing, the topic is in my mind, I want to be able to keep dancing forever and I know that to some degree I will.

    Dance is such an amazing way of living and I would not have had it any other way… I am so proud to see so many older dancers still dancing and making their dreams a reality by continuing their journey, I look up to them for inspiration, knowledge and support.

    I think it is important as a society to see the value and honor in all these individuals that have spend their lifes dedicated to this art form and be able to recognize their present contribution to our world in doing what they love.

    • Germaine Shames April 21, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

      Thank you, Ursula, for these eloquently expressed thoughts.

  2. Linda Ashley April 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    A personal and warm thank you to Germaine for the time and work that she has put into this interview with me. Hopefully it will open up some discussion and interest about the topic of ageing gracefully in the youth-driven art form of dance. Also thank to Ursula for your interest and comment. Maybe we can start some questions rolling. I wonder what kind of dance Ursula does and how she might see her path ahead in terms of sustaining her career?

    • Germaine Shames April 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      My pleasure, Linda. I always feel privileged to interact with dancers.

      Regarding Ursula, you may learn more about her here.

      May we all dance to our last breath!

  3. Jennifer Carter April 22, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    Linda’s dance was fabulous, thought provoking and a hilarious performance that is timeless. Well done Linda, it needs to be seen.

  4. Linda Ashley April 23, 2013 at 1:06 am #

    Thanks Jennifer – I enjoy performing the dance monologue and one of the reasons is the responses from the audience kind of make it worthwhile. Laughing is good for us too and just feeling timeless for the duration of the show is very cool too. Thank you for commenting too! Linda

  5. Lou April 23, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    Really wonderful to read this Linda! I wish dance was more accessible, especially to people with illness/disability, as well as mature people.

  6. Mick Barry April 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Linda got me into contemporary dance when aged over 40 and I loved the mental and physical challenge, the introduction to new and exciting music and the infectious sense of fun Linda brought to her teaching for all of which I will always be grateful

  7. Linda Ashley April 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Thanks to both Mick and Lou, both of whom bring back fond memories of my dance past in Brighton. It is vibrant and talented people like these who both enjoy and value dance that are one of the aspects that has made my life in dance really worthwhile and meaningful. One of the things about looking back, and also still current, is how dance is so much about people, people, people. What a privileged life I have had to work with such a giving and fascinating community! Thanks to both for taking the time to comment – greatly appreciated.

    • Clare West April 24, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

      Dearest Linda,

      Its been a long long journey since The Zap Club Brighton but I am still dancing . . . . Friday I launch with the RAD our first international conference on “Dance and Life Long Wellbeing” and have been training RAD teachers in the same subject – ‘dance practice for older adults’ my own work registered as ‘dancing longevity’® – so you see we still move along the same lines . . . ‘one size fits all’ – wishing you all the very best and perhaps catch up one day . . . Clare

      • Linda Ashley April 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

        OMG! Clare West as I live, breathe and dance. So good to hear from you. I still remember ‘One Size Fits All’ vividly. Great to hear that you are following similar lines too on the dance and age issue. How fabulous and so wish I could be at the conference. My dance monologue could have brought some lighthearted yet deeply dark dimensions to the event – tee hee.
        I’m living in New Zealand – not sure if you knew that but it would be lovely to possibly catch up one day. I pop back to the UK occasionally so you never know. Are you living in London? xx Linda

  8. Lou April 23, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I wrote this poem when I was 14:

    My Art, my Love

    My whole body is filled with joy,
    And love is poured into my spirit and overflows.
    Energy sparks from my fingers,
    Touching people I cannot see.
    My hands and eyes become emotions.
    Dance is spiritual
    The spirit is the dance
    The higher being.
    And the body is merely the instrument for it.

    You’re responsible for igniting a life long love of Graham, her movement and choreography will always be sacred to me. We were incredibly lucky to have a teacher like you in a secondary school, and many of the dances you choreographed, little fragments remain with me – like the white coats and dark glasses – radioactivity to Kraftwerk music, my first festival competition, Hot Gossip one christmas time, dancing with Sally, Jeddi, salivating over a visiting Russian dancer [well he sounded Russian] and your sense of fun.
    There was a teaching advert in the UK many years ago with the slogan “you never forget a good teacher” and that’s so true.

    I appreciate what you say about dance and age because I never envisaged doing what I did 6-7 years ago at just over 40, and even though I may never dance again, nothing can take away my 2 films, that choreography which is in part a testimony of a large part of my life was one of my best pieces of work I ever did – and you were the first person I wanted to share it with.

    I do wish there were more avenues for us oldies to access dance and in a wider variety of ways, some people are too intimidated to do even a beginners class [many of which still require considerable skill] because adult classes in the big places inevitably have many trainee professional young dancers attending. I’d love to see a company with older people, disabled people, mad people. I’d love to see dance offered therapeutically but without all the therapy bollocks, I can’t stand the art ‘therapy’, X ‘therapy’, Y ‘therapy’, we don’t need to turn art into therapy! Dance could be so much broader which would offer our young stars more for when high level performance stops.

    • Germaine Shames April 23, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

      What an outpouring of appreciation for a beloved dance teacher! Keep it coming!

      • Linda Ashley April 23, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

        I may say that I am humbled and honoured that people have commented at all! Certainly a delightful surprise to hear from ‘old’ (hah hah) students and also from older dancers sharing their perspectives. Louise’s response is no less than I would have expected she always was an exceptionally thoughtful dancer (my fabourite kind). Mick was a fulltime lawyer when he attended my community classes in Brighton and those classes, as I remember attracted a wide range of occupations, ages, experience including professional dancers. Rich and enriching times back in the 80s/90s.
        Louise’s films are well worth watching and she may find the work of the Green Candle Dance Co in London worth investigating in terms of participation of the more senior, disabled and ‘mad’.
        I would really like my dance monologue to be professionally filmed and maybe one day I’ll find the time, finance and someone interested to do so. As Louise reminds me dance can indeed be an effective way of ‘writing’ personal life narratives.
        I ‘m lovin the responses thank everybody! Linda (and my alter ego Dolly).

  9. Lou April 23, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Graham said, “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion”.
    This is true, take Nureyev, sure he had a fantastic body and technique but that’s not what grabbed you when you watched him. He was pure sex in ballet shoes, he only had to stand on the stage and flare his nostrils and you were swooning.

    I think each dancer [irrespective of being trained/professional] has a certain ‘essence’, or quality which draws us in. Malavika has a quality no other Bharatanatyam dancer has – majesty. Maya Plisetskaya had this fluidity, the most beautiful arms you’ve ever seen, not human, they’re bird, Graham – deep angst-punch in the guts.

    What’s yours?!

    • Linda Ashley April 24, 2013 at 1:33 am #

      I’m not sure I’m the one to comment on ‘mine’ that may be best seen through the eyes of others. Nevertheless here goes – these days my ‘essence’ is possibly being able to take and express a humorous, yet deeply dark, look at myself as an older dancer and see the possibilities that this could lead to.

      • Lou April 24, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

        We need to see your dance in film!

        What’s your favourite dance? [mine is Errand into the maze]

        • Linda Ashley April 24, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

          Well yes I’d love people to see a film of the show too – sigh. My favourite dance is possibly the last great one I saw which at the moment is Babel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Jalet. Toured here from the UK last month- stunning. Also there is some lovely work down this part of the world that is quite different from that of the northern hemisphere with its Polynesian influences – quite stunning and sometimes very very amusing too.

        • Germaine Shames May 1, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

          This tangent just in from Josie Neglia (josieneglia@me.com):

          So many people fall in love with me but every relationship ends in
          disaster. The intrigue of dance is great but somehow when the men get me to fall
          in love with them, they do not know what to do to keep it alive.
          lso, I can never see myself with someone who does not dance incredibly
          well, no matter how handsome, rich, intelligent..etc.
          Dance and love don’t mix!

  10. Lou April 25, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    I also love the tap dancing of musicals like Singing in the rain, and adore the Troc’s

    I see on Youtube Russian kids on point at 6 and 7 years of age, I do question whether their bones are really strong enough.

  11. Jennifer Nikolai April 25, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    Linda, you were the most amazing, enlightening colleague I happened to discover and become dear friends with! We met when we were young, and now, we are younger…. your “Dolly” and all that you share with her, charges us when we are young – and old.

    I hear your voice throughout this interview. Your voice is so strong for so many of us needing reminders of what we do and why we love what we do – dance, and all that it entails!

    Thanks for inspiring me and the students we were fortunate to work with for so many years on “our” degree: The Bachelor of Dance at AUT. We now share that degree with fantastic men and women who like you, are inspiring tons of dancers of all ages. “We are all dancers”…. you first told me that, now I believe it.

    Jennifer xo

  12. Sally April 28, 2013 at 6:29 am #

    Dear Linda,

    your interview is the culmination of a wild weekend I have had giggling through Sussex with a pair of older girlfriends both of whom trained as dancers. One does line dancing the other has a spirit which dances through life, all of us apply the dance background to other aspects of our lives.
    I do a ballet class once a week now and the kitchen and living room get treated to the odd burst of me prancing around!
    I think the interesting point for me was the one about a dancer being able to do anything. As a learning disability nurse I know just how to approach people I also think I observe subtle changes in peoples bodies well.For me dancing is a great leveller I think it means I look at people as equals and with an idea of how they feel and what their potential and possibilities might be.
    Many of the people whom i help to support attend dance classes and discos from Zumba, to ballroom to chair dancing as well as some contemporary. The local music sessions are a riot as as all of the guys who attend end up dancing
    or being totally not bothered that others are dancing.
    It was lovely to see pictures of you dancing, I also think you should get it filmed!

    Love from

    Sallyx

  13. Linda Ashley April 29, 2013 at 12:54 am #

    And I thank Germaine (again) for posting this interview as I am thrilled about hearing comments from many people with whom I have had a close working / friendship. Some of my closer colleagues have responded personally on emails to me directly and I’m trying to motivate them to post their thoughts more widely. Nevertheless, as more people include their personal experiences and thoughts this discussion becomes richer by the moment. Maybe I should grasp the initiative and organise an international dance and age symposium here in NZ… it’s not a half bad place for a holiday and so maybe people can make the most of a very long journey here.. Would be delightful wouldn’t it? Strange things have been known to happen. I wonder what the interest might be?

  14. Lou May 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    Great idea Linda, talk, discussion, film, performance

    • Linda Ashley May 2, 2013 at 1:42 am #

      Yes sounds great. Just wondering if there would be enough support and of course the inevitable funding razzamatazz. Sigh.

  15. Germaine Shames May 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    From Marcie Mitler
    mmitler@yahoo.com

    Message:
    I produce and dance in a yearly show in Cambridge MA “Across The Ages
    Dance Project” which features an inter-generational ensemble of
    dancers as well as an inter-generational group of Bostons best
    choreographers

    • Linda Ashley May 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

      Thanks for the information via your email too Marcie. I love the look of your project and wish you the very best with the work. It would be good maybe to hear from some of your dancer/collaborators on this site about their experiences in the project. Great work!

  16. Gaye Hemsley May 18, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Wonderful reading the comments from all you talented dancers. I decided many years ago that I wanted to be a dance teacher and was inspired by my incredible dance teacher to follow my passion.I am in the process of writing a journal ‘Journey of a dance teacher’ here is the little poem on the opening page.

    The life of a dance teacher has been such a pleasure.
    The fun and the laughter no scale can measure.

    Sixty years I’ve been doing it now.
    Friends sometimes say. ‘When will you retire?’
    I ask them ‘Why! When there’s still desire.

    How can you give up part of yourself?
    I’m not quite ready to put my shoes on the shelf.

    There may be a time when my body will say.
    ‘Time to give up.’ But until that day.

    I’ll go down to the hall where my little ones meet.
    With smiles on their faces and flight in their feet.

    I now live in a small town in New Zealand and teach children’s classes a few hours a week, no exams just a chance to perform. I organise local concerts getting various groups together to promote their dance style. I have a group of ladies I call on to put together fun items like dressing up as 1920′s beach bells and dancing to ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’

    ‘May the Dance Never End’ and Linda can I borrow your word ‘Youthanasia’

    • Linda Ashley May 20, 2013 at 3:27 am #

      Thank you for your creative and valuable comment Gaye. It is so good to hear about such a valuable and no doubt valued career such as yours. I reflect on how much of the value to communities that such careers bring can be easily overlooked in the bigger picture and how little research has been conducted that includes this work. Bringing dance to a wide range of ages and abilities can play an important part of the vitality of communities and your work sounds as though it is an example of such functionality.

      Now yes you may borrow my term “Youthanasia” but first I need to know how, where and why (in what context) before I can give a final OK. If we agree as to how it can be used I would then probably just ask that you give me a mention in some way please. Look forward to hearing from you.
      Linda

  17. Gaye Hemsley May 25, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    Hi Linda Thanks for your reply. One of my other passions almost equal with dance teaching is writing. I have published several children’s picture books including a “Dance a Poem’ set which come with CD’s for children to act out. Here is an article I have created which I’d like to post on one of my writers web pages. Would you be OK with that.

    A New Word
    I’ve just discovered a new word. You won’t find it in any dictionary but it does apply to people who follow their passion until the end of their days. Mine is teaching dance mainly to children. How our future generation can keep the youthfulness in one’s life.
    Dancers are amazing. They entertain us with their exceptional talents.
    Teachers are essential: They train the future dancers or audiences.

    However it does apply to all accepts of passions and dedication. It brings to mind my ninety four year old mother-in law who recently had a fall and broke her hip and fractured her shoulder. Many her age would have given up, but not her. She returned to her own home and with lots of help from health expects she is getting back to her passions. Asked what she would first like to get back into she said.
    ‘Making my home brew’.
    So with the help of her care giver that’s exactly what she’s doing.
    Baking and gardening will be next on her list.

    My advice is to have a list of no more than five passions. You may find now and then you’ll shift them around. Careful not to over indulge, your passion could turn into a chore. It’s a bonus if your passion involves you with mixed age groups. I think we all know people who are old at thirty because of their attitude.
    Think young and you’ll came across as youthful.
    Oh! the new word is: ‘Youthanasia’ borrowed from Linda Ashley who had an interview published on http://germainewrites.com/2013/04/dance-and-aging/.
    May the Dance Never End

    • Linda Ashley May 30, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

      That’s great Gaye! I love your advice about the five passions and will definitely give that a go. One thing I would include, again following your lead, is to try and keep in touch with the graduates from AUT University of Bachelor of Dance. Sometimes I still work with them on choreography and performance and these projects include young children as well. So that’s on the list… and gardening… and writing. Oh! I only have two left… will have to think about that. The home brew story was hilarious! Ah! Number 4 -cooking the stuff that I grow in the garden.I also like the way you’ve used Youthanasia- go ahead with that one it’s just the ticket. Maybe you could put a link to your writer’s web page on this site so that others can enjoy? Thanks again for your contribution to the site. I notice that the site does not notify when a new post has been made so I guess it’s easy to miss people’s ideas, but I’ll pop back from time to time and see if you or anyone has some new ideas to share. Cheery, Linda

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