Breaking Stereotypes

82-Year-Old Dance Researcher Judith Lynne Hanna on Starring in Her First Music Video

Judith Lynne Hanna in a still from "Partying Alone." Image courtesy Fox Force

Egg Drop Soup's "Partying Alone" video turns a run-of-the-mill dance team audition on its head with a vision of female power from a mature woman. The panel is stunned when a gray-haired, red-lipsticked 80-something tosses aside her cane and lets loose, flipping her hair—and the bird.

Egg Drop Soup - Partying Alone (Official music video)

Take a second look at that head-banging grandma—she is none other than renowned dance researcher and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna. An affiliate research professor in anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, the author of numerous scholarly books and an expert witness in trials for exotic dancers, she has spent her career getting us to think about dance's relationship to society. Hanna, 82, said she hadn't performed since college when she got a call from a music video producer, who caught a video of her dancing with her 13-year-old grandson. The rockers of Egg Drop Soup loved her energy and flew her out to Los Angeles for a day-long video shoot. We spoke to Hanna about the experience.


You recently starred in a hard-rock music video for Egg Drop Soup in L.A. How did that happen?

The Fox Force producers knew of me through Merrick, my 13-year-old grandson who tells stories through hip hop. He performed on "America's Got Talent" and I was filmed backstage.

Normally I take an hour class a day, maybe two hours. For the shoot, I did the routine about 10 times over seven hours with the camera people shooting from different angles. I was so exhausted, mentally and physically, at the end of the day. I was surprised at the choreography by Alexi Papadimitriou. It had movements from wild rock concerts and burlesque that I had never done before. The video directors wanted me to be an angry old lady astonishing everyone by dancing like a young person, so I just followed directions.

When did you begin dancing?

I was about 8. I studied ballet because I had flat feet and the pediatrician said ballet would make them strong. Alicia Markova's experience with flat feet and taking ballet was different than mine. She grew into an astounding dancer. Well, my feet never got strong, but I got hooked on dance. I became a dance researcher.

Photo by John T. Consoli/Stephanie S. Cordle/University of Maryland, Courtesy Hanna

Tell us about your research.

My research began when my husband and I spent a year in Africa—1963—in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt. In Africa, the dance was incredible in telling people what it was to be a mother, a father, a warrior, a good wife. All of these things are reflected in who dances what, where, when and how. And it was through the dance that people could criticize leaders, often through metaphor, but people knew who the dancers were referring to. The dance is often a libel-free venue.

Photo by Usha Charya, Courtesy Hanna

And you've observed how the sexes encounter one another through dance here in the U.S.

I noticed that looking at dance in America, over time I saw different gender relations: First it was women flying into the arms of men, then you had men flying into the arms of women. Eventually you had unisex partners: men interacting with men and women interacting with women. Sexual representation onstage changed. It's hard to know whether the arts influenced society or society influenced the arts. But some people will see those images for the first time and learn about social roles from them.

Judith Lynne Hanna in a still from "Partying Alone." Image courtesy Fox Force

You've also researched and written about exotic dance and have served as an expert witness for more than 140 cases on trial across the country since 1995. Why is this important?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of expression, and exotic dance is, in fact, a form of dance and communication with its own aesthetic, and therefore it is under the umbrella of the First Amendment. If expression of one group is suppressed, this can happen to another group.

Judith Lynne Hanna in a still from "Partying Alone." Image courtesy Fox Force

Your most recent book is Dancing to Learn: The Brain's Cognition, Emotion and Movement. What can you share with us about it?

Dancing to Learn brings the dance field up to date on what's been learned recently about dance from the brain sciences. One of the important elements about the mind-body connection is that you use the same parts of the brain for dance and for verbal language. Dance creates new brain cells and their interconnections, which help to improve cognition. Research has shown that dance can also help us cope with stress and contribute to improving Parkinson's symptoms and preventing dementia and other diseases.

Judith Lynne Hanna in a still from "Partying Alone." Image courtesy Fox Force

When dance is used in schools, it can improve academic performance because kids like to be active, and dance motivates them. For example, creatively dancing a mathematics concept means you have to know the mathematics to be able to translate it to dance—dance then enforces the concept. A lot of people focus on somatics and the idea of the body speaking. But the body can only speak through the brain because it interprets body sensations to make meaning of them. So this focus on somatics, without acknowledging the neuroscience research of the past decade, leaves out some pretty critical information.

Do you still dance every day?

Yes. I take flamenco and Middle Eastern dance at the Seber Method Academy in Washington, DC. I also do Jazzercise and go salsa dancing.

As an octogenarian, I'm the poster child for dance at any age.

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