Do You Want To Dance Forever?

December 26, 2007

Margot Fonteyn danced to 60. Rudolph Nureyev into his 50s. Martha Graham retired from the stage at 75. More recently, in 1999 to be exact, Mikhail Baryshnikov, then 50, and Merce Cunningham, then 80, performed together at the Lincoln Center Festival.


The rock stars of the dance world may be justified in their long career spans, but they are far from mere anomalies. While their sheer fame may have catapulted them into longevity, dancing far past the dancer’s supposed prime, a number of dancers across disciplines are continuing to dance and perform into their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.


Dance and youth are obvious partners. A supple body and nimble mind are required for a profession that demands stamina, strength, and memory. But dancing also requires emotional and artistic maturity, qualities that develop as one ages. And there lies the bittersweet paradox of the dancer’s profession: Just as one reaches a seasoned artistry, one’s physical prowess begins to fade.


Despite this contradiction, several solo performers and companies have begun to prove that this paradox need not end a dance career. Until recently, the Nederlands Dans Theater included NDT III, an over-40 group of professional dancers. The New York–based Paradigm Dance Project, Massachusetts-based Prometheus Elders Ensemble, and Maryland-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange are some examples of opportunities for older dancers. If we live in a culture where 60 is the new 40 and 70 the new 50, then young dancers on the cusp of their professional careers today can anticipate a lifetime’s worth of dancing, so long as they are prepared for several metamorphoses.


“Dance exists in all kinds of forms and realities,” says Diane Arvanites-Noya, 49, artistic director with Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance and the Elders Ensemble. “When one idea of dance is gone, another can manifest,” she continues. Arvanites-Noya’s own career is a testament to this belief. This year marks Prometheus’ 20th-anniversary season. It’s the company with which she still performs in her sexy and soulful way, even post-bilateral-hip-replacement surgery. While she needs more rest, silence, space, and nutrition, she says she listens to her body more. “You learn a lot about your body with age. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it. Now, I have an almost cellular awareness.” This greater awareness is accompanied by the humbling state of being an injured dancer. “You learn so much from what you can’t do. I had to learn different ways of getting to the same place.” While her doctors insisted that her movement abilities would be restricted—no running, for instance—Arvanites-Noya has found this to be something of a fallacy. She is performing a “fast, big, intense” duet, as she describes it, a duet she danced pre-surgery. “I didn’t expect to be able to do it,” she says. But her rehabilitation, a combination of water therapy before the surgery and physical therapy after, allowed her to both keep and regain her strength. She has recently begun gyro-kinesis, which she credits with giving her more movement range.


Valda Setterfield, 70, never considered the longevity of her career. “I don’t know what I thought then,” she muses of her early ballet training, which was intermittent due to being in Britain during World War II. “It was simply the thing I wanted to do.” Setterfield went on to dance with Ballet Rambert before a friend suggested she go to America where there were “other kinds of dancing.” She did just that, dancing with Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, and now (and all along) David Gordon.


While Setterfield has taken up Alexander Technique and Qi Gong, she doesn’t think of her age as being a hindrance to her performing career. “I think of energy, not wrinkles or gray hair,” she says. She does take more precautions though, eating a diet low in sweets and high in protein. And while she no longer takes daily class, she does go to the gym to indulge in long stays in the steam room. These practices, along with herbs and teas such as kombucha (an immune boosting cure-all tea), keep her strong and full of energy. Of course, she admits that her age causes her to have different “frames of reference” from younger dancers. She also discusses younger dancers’ tendency to cheat movement in an effort to have higher extensions or bigger jumps. “I learned a lot from Merce,” she says, “about how to work with what you have and not fake it. I learned how to equalize turnout, strengthen the spine.” This kept her injury-free for many years. “I knew by instinct that overextending myself was not the way to go.”


In addition to her need for silence preperformance, Setterfield also puts on her stage makeup long before the performance call. “Some people view it as old-fashioned,” she says. But this ritual allows her to fully prepare for performance. She likes to spend a lot of time in the theater as well, inhabiting the space and familiarizing herself with it, lying down, practicing her Alexander breathing techniques, and stretching out before the performance. Over the years, she has learned that performance is a give and take, a partnership between dancer and audience. “It’s a conversation,” she says. “And I really learned how to perform from Margot Fonteyn. What’s important is the present moment. You have to be ruthless about it; it means working on the material a lot and then letting it go, all defenses down so that you are ready to give and to receive. Then, you just do it. You get yourself to that point. It’s very meditative. You get rid of all else and realize the material.”


Steve Humphrey, a short muscular dancer with a lively personality onstage, has danced with Garth Fagan Dance for all of its 37 years. At 55, he still dances four or five pieces a night during tours and home seasons in Rochester, New York. He admits that the daily discipline has gotten harder. “Coming back from the few vacations that we get, it’s more difficult to get back into shape.” But like an athlete in the off-season, and having done track and wrestling in his youth, he stays in shape with bike-riding, hiking, kayaking, swimming, snowboarding—“something that constantly keeps the heart pumping.” That way, he says, “I’m a lot fresher when I come back.”


Before performances, Humphrey warms up for about two hours, sometimes using exercise balls that are small enough to bring on tour. “My muscles are short,” he says, “so I spend a lot of time stretching the hamstrings, my back, doing arching and side bends.” In the morning, he says, before doing anything else, “I do some demi pliés, to lubricate, so to speak.” This might help explain his still-powerful jump—unusual for a middle-aged dance man. He also stays away from sugar, dairy, and, having recovered from asthma as a child, cigarette smoke.


Since the company tours at least half the year and the physical demands can be punishing, Humphrey finds ways to conserve energy onstage as well as off. “I like to give the audience something like a flash and then let it go.”


Sara Rudner, 63, has lost none of the delicious quality she had when dancing with Twyla Tharp from ’65 to ’74 and from ’77 to ’85. She cites those years as being “intense and immediate”—so much so that it didn’t occur to her to think about her dancing future. “It was more like, ‘When can I stop? This hurts!’ ” she laughs. In her second tenure with Tharp, Rudner changed the way she approached dance. “I was much more hyper-aware.” When a hip injury ended her career with the company, she knew she needed a break from dance, both “physically and emotionally,” she says. Rudner, who now directs the dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, often choreographs collaboratively these days. “When we work we ask, ‘What can we do now?’ instead of ‘What did we do then?’ ” And she does enjoy dancing now. Her preperformance ritual consists of 45 minutes to an hour of warming up. “I walk backwards, lie down, work my body as thoroughly as I can so that I’m hyper-mobile, so that my muscles are active. I don’t go out every night after performances like I used to. And I need physical therapy tune-ups.”


Sachiyo Ito, a 58-year-old New York–based, Tokyo-born performer and teacher of traditional Japanese dance, says that for her particular genre of dance, it’s all about being in the present moment. “We are constantly changing,” she says, “and the dance is constantly changing.” Unlike most of the Western performers interviewed here, when asked if she knew she would be dancing well into her older years, Ito says, “Yes, of course. Dance is lifelong learning. It is good to have a beginner’s mind throughout life.” Such a resounding “yes” points to the Eastern respect for the aging process. “Maturity is required in order to express the beauty of the dance fully,” Ito says. “There is a flowering of performance that happens when one is young, but the highest flowering is in old age. Like snow in a silver bowl, that quality shines,” she says. However, she acknowledges the reality of the aging body. “I can no longer jump the same way. I have pains in the back and knees. And now I need to be more careful, stretch more, rest. But the body is a tool of expression and just one simple movement or gesture can be filled with inner emotion one gains through maturity.”


“Why not?” Carmen deLavallade asks when musing about dancing at 76. “I’m not one to give up that easy, so why not?” As a solo performer who is still one of the world’s most glorious dancers, she is also part of Paradigm, a group that includes Gus Solomons jr and Dudley Williams. She is accustomed to change, embraces it, and seems to have an insatiable appetite for new things. “The form is always changing. I don’t know where I’m going, but if there’s a door open, I’m going to walk through it.”


DeLavallade’s dance career has been enhanced by her acting experience and training. She’s learned to not only rely on her body, which gets its occasional aches and pains, but as a dancer and choreographer who works with movement and text, she is well aware of when she may need to allow the words to take over. She cites one example. After a day of film-shooting during which she was required to walk up and down a set of stairs for take after take, she woke up the following morning finding her legs just wouldn’t move. “They were dead, and I thought, what am I going to do?” She finally accepted the fact that she would not be able to perform the piece with the physicality it normally demanded. Instead, she’d need to change the work a bit, relying more on the text. “Before, the piece was more about the body, but it changed shape when I had to let the words speak, and the words became richer. It was a new way of doing it, but it was just as effective.”


“If it doesn’t work, Saturn isn’t going to lose its rings,” deLavallade declares. That healthy dose of perspective only comes with experience and, dare I say, age.

Vanessa Manko, former dance editor of
The Brooklyn Rail, is earning her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College.