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Dancing Over 50: Documenting Aging Performers

Mira Katz | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Mira Katz. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

If you ascribe to today's cultural mores of a dancer's career; it's fleeting, and predominantly defined by external presentation of movement -- the grand leaps, endless pirouettes and high extensions. After all, aging dancers are at the mercy of their bodies' diminishing capacity to perform dazzling physical feats to a rapt audience.

Or are they?

With her new project: "Dancing Over 50," Emmaly Wiederholt, a 29-year-old dancer and journalist, rejects the notion that dancers have an expiration date and that the acme of their careers only occurs when their technique is at its finest. She has collaborated with photographer Gregory Bartning to capture the voices of 50 professional dancers ages 50 to 95 along the West Coast who have transcended the physical limitations of their bodies and continue to contribute their artistry to the dance world in meaningful and fulfilling ways. The ongoing interviews and photographs can be seen on Wiederholt's website Stance on Dance, though they are hoping to produce a coffee table book if their current Indiegogo campaign generates enough funding.

Wiederholt, a classically trained professional dancer who performed in San Francisco though is now based in Santa Fe, sat down with Artbound to talk about what she learned on her journey and how she plans to use her website to continue to explore the narrative of dance.

Naomi Gedo Diouf. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Naomi Gedo Diouf. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

First tell us about your website Stance on Dance and how that played into your project.

As a dancer and someone who writes about dance, I felt increasingly frustrated at the kind of dialogue that was happening around dance. It was "review and preview" oriented and very popularity focused; all about the IT girl, the IT company and what was big and happening.

There's this whole class of dance artists who put work together; many are self-funded and do Kickstarters or work in Pilates studios year-round so they can pull off a two weekend show here and there. There's this very beautiful community and I wanted to hear their voices. The publications I was writing for were not asking me to write the stories I wanted to write. So I decided I was going to start interviewing folks in my own dance community. The website is almost like an ethnology project. I have well over 150 dance artists who have contributed on a variety of topics.

For your current project, "Dancing Over 50," why only focus on West Coast dancers?

It was actually very much a prosaic consideration. Gregory and I were both living in San Francisco when we started it. I moved to Los Angeles to go to grad school, Gregory moved to Portland, and my sister lives in Seattle. So it seemed like "OK, we have access to these dancers over 50 in four cities that maybe aren't famous for dance like New York but they have a lot of great dance and span a variety of dance cultures."

Valerie Baadh Garrett. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Valerie Baadh Garrett. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

What was your artistic process in identifying and understanding each dancer's experience?

In order to answer that I want to share an anecdote about how the project came to be. In 2013, I saw Eiko and Koma perform an incredible piece called "Night Tide" in the Japanese Butoh dance form. This is a type of dance that evolved out of the westernization of Japan after World War II, and is characterized by very slow movement, and often of a dark nature based in natural surroundings. Eiko and Koma are in their 70s and have been dancing together for 50 years. Eiko started out on one side of the stage, and Koma on the other, and they rolled toward each other, and he put his hand on her chest and they rolled away.

And the piece took 30 minutes.

I was beyond moved. At the time I was doing dance criticism and performing and I was starting to feel a bit numb to it all. It all started to feel the same. And this piece really struck a chord with me. All they did was roll! I was holding my breath the whole time. Of course that kind of show isn't for everybody, but I felt that because of their life experience in the dance art form, Eiko and Koma were able to transcend the limitations of their physicality and show me their life experience.

Laura Elaine Ellis. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Laura Elaine Ellis. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

I began really thinking about what an older dancer can bring to the table that I can't access at 29 with my body at full capacity. When this all started, I had seen this Butoh show and was fascinated by this concept of older dancers. Instead of having this mindset of: "It's gonna get worse and I'm going to be losing all my physicality," why not look at it as something you could actually look forward to and say, "I can only get more experience and my capacity for expression is only going to grow. Sure my body is going to be less capable from a technical point of view, but have more artistic capacity."

If we judge dance like gymnastics based on how quick, how fast and how many turns a dancer can do, and use that as our barometer, then I'm not really sure what dance is. If you can bring something else to the table that isn't necessarily something you can judge but has a something we can all experience because we are living this thing called life, then dance can be something artistic and transcend its physicality.

Gregory and I approached the project by looking at the full capacity for this art form; not from a limiting, waning point of view. Of course there's something truly beautiful about seeing a really technical dancer but... Margot Fonteyn is Margot Fonteyn because of her incredible port de bras and its emotive capacity, not because she could do 40 pirouettes.

What about from an audience point of view though? Can they be conditioned to think about dance differently?

It's a question worth considering. Do audiences want to see older dancers? I don't honestly know if the world wants to look at dancers over 50. I can complain that no one looks at older dancers or thinks about it, but then I feel like it's my responsibility to start that conversation.

Anandha Ray. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Anandha Ray. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

Did you find that the dancers learned to value different aspects about themselves as a dancer and performer and also was there any kind of bitterness when you spoke with them?

Oh yeah! It's been interesting doing this project at my age. How some of these people process what they are going through, and others who are bitter about it, is something I've taken in consideration about how I want to age as a dancer. Some are certainly tired and feel defeated. This dance art form is not a nice art form for the people who practice it. You get ahead a little bit, you get behind a little bit, you get injured... you don't get your grants. Yet these older dancers are doing it whether we pay attention to it or not. Ultimately it's not really about dance, it's about getting older and still having much to contribute and say. Dance is simply how we live in our bodies and use them as a form of expression on a very fundamental level. This is about consciously growing older in that body and having the ability to look at where you've come from and where you're going.

One woman we spoke to last week was very, very self-conscious about having her picture taken. First she said she was going to move slowly, and then she just started going off the wall. I thought, "My gosh look at her go!" She couldn't even help herself and she was quite good by any standard. There's this interesting thing where sometimes they feel self-conscious but they are still dancers. Once you have this thing in you, it's always there -- this dance expression.

Cynthia Winton Henry. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Cynthia Winton Henry. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

Did any one story inspire you most or change the concept of dance for you?

Absolutely. When we interviewed Anna Halprin, she threw my interview out the door. She said, "Why are you asking if I'm still dancing when I'm breathing?" She talked about the "So You Think You Can Dance" concept. The question itself is absurd. By the very merit of having a body, you're dancing. That's a concept I want to push in my more general dance writing practice. Dance isn't technique; technique is an element of dance. You can practice technique or not, but it certainly does not define dance nor can it be a means to judge dance. To engage in your body on an artistic, expressive manner with your community is as central to being a human as breathing, eating or loving. I don't know what else there is if you can't inhabit your body and tell your story. We're dancing and it's awesome because we're living.

To contribute to the "Dancing Over 50" book fund, click here. To learn more about the project visit the Stance On Dance website.

Kathryn Roszak. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Kathryn Roszak. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Naomi Gedo Diouf. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Naomi Gedo Diouf. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Stella Matsuda. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Stella Matsuda. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Stella Matsuda. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Stella Matsuda. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Mira Katz. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Mira Katz. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Hae Kyung Lee. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.
Hae Kyung Lee. | Photo: Gregory Bartning.

 

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