Aesthetic Passageways: The Aging Dancing Body in Western Performance

Aesthetic Passageways: The Aging Dancing Body in Western Performance

by: Sarah Ashkin Arts Administration Intern

On the evening of February 27th a group of forty or so members of the Bay Area community met at CounterPULSE to engage in the Dance Discourse Project: “Dancing and Aging”. Dance Discourse Project is an “on-going series of artist-driven discussions organized by Mary Armentrout and co-produced by Dancers’ Group and CounterPULSE”. “Dancing and Aging” consisted of a three person panel consisting of choreographer+ Jess Curtis, activist+ Petra Kuppers, and educator+ Dr. Albirda Rose speaking from their first hand experiences of aging in the dance field, as well as an audience participation portion where all attendants we encouraged to contribute their perspective. As a young dancer and new intern at CounterPULSE, I entered this conversation as an attentive listener to my elders that speak from an understanding of time and its effects on the dancing body that is much greater than my own. From this place of listening and reverence I write this post to share some of the wisdom that was imparted to me.

Below is a list of the Aesthetic Passageways- those frameworks that have opened doors in Western performance for the aesthetic of the 21st century aging dancer. The quotes were noted during over the course of the night, and are just a small sampling of the insights shared.

Aesthetics of Somatics:

“Spirit speaks to spirit”-Dr. Albirda Rose

“We are hungry for gentle mastery” – Audience Participant

Somatic theory advocates for the whole being. It insists that a person is not divided into a mind and a body, but that the body, mind, and spirit are inseparably linked in each being. This translates into the dance performance, and dance pedagogy by encouraging dancers to turn to their inner sensations and move not from an external, image driven place dictated by the mind alone but from an internal embodied place that is lead by personal inner knowledge of the self (Hanna 1988, 20). This modality of movement opens the door for all types of movers who have honed their internal knowledge of their own body. Not only does this make dance available to anyone who fosters their attention to the sensation, but it can prioritize dancers who have a more developed relationship to their bodies, minds, and spirits.

Aesthetics of Performance Art:

“Dance pursues the successful body and performance art pursues the body on the edge of failure.” – Jess Curtis sharing the work of a colleague at UC Davis.

If perfection, strength, and virtuosity can be released from our expectations of ‘dance’- a body experiencing uneven difficult and awkward or taboo performative tasks can emerge. Young highly trained dancers need not be the only dancers to perform “on the edge of failure”, but anyone of any age who is willing to take a risk.

Aesthetics of Dance Theater:

“Pina Bausch was all around me. Her company opened the door for me as a disabled dancer.” – Petra Kuppers

“Anna Halprin, she’s 94- enough said.” – Mary Armentrout

In the hybrid space that dance theater occupies, bodies of all ages and types perform inline with the realist tradition of the theater, and these bodies of all types and ages do extraordinary things inline with abstraction of the dance tradition.

Aesthetics of Post Modern Dance:

“The way that her body tremored was unpredictable, un-replicable, and breathtakingly beautiful” –Jess Curtis

“My technique carries me.” – Petra Kuppers speaking about why it she feels powerful performing as a disabled dancer.

Post modern theory asserts that truth and beauty can be derived from anywhere (Banes 1980, 17). This ideology not only encourages all bodies to dance, but values bodies who offer diverse answers to questions of truth and beauty. Aging bodies are wise and beautiful.

Aesthetics of Respect:

“Dancers love their teachers. It would be sold out, standing ovation every night if the bill was full of master teachers.” –Audience Participant

“What if we went to performances to support the dancing of our parents and grandparents?” –Audience Participant

“The elders are treasures. They are keepers of lost songs.” – Petra Kuppers

Aging describes the progressive tense verb of a being in process. As many choreographers engage in body-based, process based art making, it is no surprise that the realm of aging is constantly of interest, concern, embattlement, and embrace within the dance performance. However the aging body has always been behind the scenes. It is common for dance teachers and choreographers to work well past 35. In many cases, the masters and mentors are older than their dancers. This has created an under current of respect, awe and love for the aging dancing body from young dancers during the private performances in the studio and classroom. What has emerged from these aesthetic passageways is this under current has come to the surface and become potable to a larger audience. Let us not erase the aging and disabled from dance performance, but celebrate their risk taking, wisdom, and power as the elders of our community.


Works Cited:

Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance. Boston: Houghton

Mifflin, 1980. Print.

Hanna, Thomas. Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement,

Flexibility,and Health. Perseus Books: Reading Massachusetts. 1988. Print.


One Comment

  • Jessica Robinson Love

    Thank you, Sarah, for this thoughtful and beautifully-crafted reflection on that evening’s conversation. It was a remarkable gathering of minds and bodies.

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