Here's to maturity!

Sanjeevini Dutta, Artistic Director, Kadam

[From Pulse Dance Issue 16 - Spring 2007 - Pulsebeat, p5]

Liverpool-based south asian dance organisation Chaturangan and Hope University Liverpool jointly organised a conference on dance and ageing entitled "Marks of Time". Taking place on 12-13 January, it drew a capacity attendance of 130 national (and some international) participants, including dance professionals and amateur dance practitioners, researchers, funding administrators and policy advisers - catching the mood of the times. The conference arose out of an honest, personal need of dance artist Bisakha Sarker to question, debate and reflect upon the validity of the dance experience that a performer of advancing years can transmit to the audience. Through speeches, discussions but equally through participative workshops, dance presentations and artists' showcases, the issues of aesthetics were debated not merely by 'jaw-jaw' but were decided on the dance floor. The contribution from Bisakha herself, which summed up the theme of the Conference, left not a dry eye in the house as the audience rose spontaneously to its feet to applaud an extraordinary spirit of the dance world.

The two-day conference was focused along two broad themes: first, how dance could contribute to the physical fitness as well as the emotional and mental wellbeing of an ageing population; and second, the performance prospects of mature dancers and ways of supporting and nurturing them.

On day one, Diane Aimens (Freedom in Dance) who has done pioneering work in taking dance into the lives of older people, reported that through dancing, participants grew in both physical and emotional confidence. She offered us case studies that shone with optimism, including the example of the 80-year old woman who had confided to Diane that after attending the dance group she could not only cross the road on her own but that she had also had her ears double-pierced!

Amongst the delegates were elderly members of various community dance groups who confirmed their first hand experience of the positive benefits of I dance as exercise ("Our friend can now button his shirt!"). Dance professionals working with | Fall Prevention Units in hospitals gave further substance to the claim. Panellist Dr Shymal I Mukherjee, OBE, of Wirral Health Authority suggested that a business case could be made for dance with the elderly and that in his Health Authority, weekly 'chair exercise' was mandatory in all residential homes. He advised dancers to apply to the Health Authorities, using a cost-benefit analysis to unlock funding.

This led to the next part of the discussion: the need for partnership between Health Authorities and Dance Agencies to enable this work to go forward. The issue of funding is always thorny as Julia Taylor from Liverpool Healthy Cities confirmed, for often the funding for initiatives came from trusts and charities, and was not additional Governmental funding. This point was also effectively made by Ken Bartlett, Director, Foundation for Community Dance.

In the evening of day one, the temperature of the proceedings was raised as dance writer and critic Donald Hutera, took the Keynote spotlight to conduct a debate on the Aesthetics of the Aging Dancer. In his inimitable way, he threw the question to the floor and was offered several images of 'age'; my favourites were" a ripe brie'^tree trunk", and "the wrinkles on the face of a beloved mother"! Donald shared his view of what constituted great dance: "taking pleasure in moving, nakedness, contradiction, complexity, stillness, being nervous, ugliness, resilience, evoking reality and evoking magic." If these qualities were present in dance, then did the age of the dancer matter? he appeared to infer. The evening's performance showcase bore out Donald's contention: five mature performers from diverse backgrounds and dance styles showed us dance that was capable of moving its audiences.

On day two, the proceedings delved deeper into the heart of the mature performer and surrounding issues, through focused panel discussions (e.g. on marketing the mature performer) and individual presentations. Among these, Debbie Lee Anthony (Winchester University) quoted from her interviews with various artists on whether they had changed their movement content to accommodate the shrinking of their body's capacity. Liz Agiss had responded to the question with the observation that to her the content and context was everything; Fergus Early had a similar view that the simple act of communicating a story was lost by much of the contemporary dance world which was too wrapped up with the physical aspects of dance. Keeping wrapped up when me physical aspects or dance, neepmg to the same theme, Chitra Sundaram remarked that audiences actually recall not by what they have seen but really by how they felt when they saw it.

A powerful case was built by the proceedings for how and why the mature dancer had so much to offer audiences and others. Yet, we were gently cautioned, it was not by dint of their age that the performers were to be respected but by their character and by the journeys that they had made. For that concluding remark I am grateful to conference convener Francois Matarasso whose quiet and reflective presence permeated the conference discussions.

From Liverpool, Sanjeevini Dutta, Artistic Director, Kadam.

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