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Skilled and experienced in their craft, but with their physicality threatened and changed by time, what does it mean to be an older professional dancer? Stella Lyons has been exploring this question.

Image of dancers in ‘Once upon a time in the dark, dark wood’
Dancers in ‘Once upon a time in the dark, dark wood’

David Heke, Quetzal Photography

Recent articles in the press have reported the overall health benefits of keeping the body moving. As a result, a wealth of groups offering dance opportunities to older people have sprung up over the last few years. The majority of these are primarily dedicated to community dance. But what about the professionals? Should these seasoned performers stop contributing to the cultural scene?

Traditionally, a professional dancer comes to the end of their career sometime in their forties. There is a definite lack of opportunity for the mature and experienced dancer to develop further as an artist, as performance and employment opportunities start to become far less frequent as they age. This does not happen to others in the creative world. A writer, artist or actor can continue to develop as an artist, but generally for a dancer the chance to 'grow' their art, to discover new and different ways of working that both challenge them and harness their experience, is denied them.

It’s not about trying to make people look younger on stage but about working and creating with the ‘here and now’

Caroline Lamb, Artistic Director of Striking Attitudes, wants to challenge this dated convention. As one of the key figures in dance in Wales, she has a wealth of experience working as a freelance choreographer, movement director and dancer. She is a strong believer that the older performer has something unique and compelling to offer: “As a choreographer it is a joy to work with the older performer. They have a wealth of experience and physical knowledge to draw from and there is a depth to their performance that is generally not to be found in the younger performer. The older dancer is not about being 'less' of a performer but about being a ‘different’ performer. Every movement an older dancer makes is underpinned with each individual’s own life story and experience. These experiences are etched into us as an emotional and physical memory and they inform each dancer’s performance in a unique way. Because of this life experience, older dancers often have a more potent physical energy despite having less actual stamina and flexibility.”

In April this year, Striking Attitudes embarked on an ambitious project, ‘Once upon a time in the dark, dark wood’, funded by Arts Council of Wales, Coreo Cymru and Gwanwyn. Set within the dark forests of fairy tales and legends, the work was a daring venture that saw the fusion of older professional dancers with younger choreographers. Along with Caroline’s choreography, three younger choreographers worked with nine older dancers aged between 52 and 67. The work was an opportunity to test but ultimately celebrate the mature performer. The project raised powerful questions: How would the older dancers deal with the physical demands of the young choreographers? How would the young choreographers unearth the hidden abilities of the older dancers?

One of the objectives of the project was to offer growth for all artists involved as they engaged with each other and transferred their knowledge. This unusual opportunity to work with older professional dancers allowed young choreographer Catherine Young to develop her skills. “It’s not about trying to make people look younger on stage but about working and creating with the ‘here and now’. People, artists in particular, get better at their craft as they grow older and it has been a privilege to be able to work with artists who are a great example of this.”

The production successfully challenged the public's perception of the older dancer. It was clear that these performers were still viable and vital. The project was felt by both old and young audience members to be a life-affirming experience. Geoff Moore of Moving Being Productions commented that it was a “great pleasure to see such experienced performers bringing maturity and meaning to the stage”.

This pioneering work reassesses what it means to be a dancer. As Caroline Lamb says: “The young, lithe, athletic body will tell us one story, but the mature, experienced and graceful body will tell us another – a rich and profound tale, deep and full.” The older dancer is a courageous being, carrying on doing what they love despite physical limitations.

The company’s mission is to continue to provide a platform for the older professional dancer by pushing the boundaries and developing new criteria for dance as an artform.

Stella Lyons is PR and Publicity Officer at Striking Attitudes.

Trailer: Once upon a time in the dark, dark wood

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Image of Stella Lyons