Dancing into my future: How I learned, at 50, to embrace becoming an 'older' dancer
Sara Porter: 'The body's best before date has been extended — and dance extends with it'
The New Year is coming, but mostly I mark the passing of the old one. Time, for a dancer, is something we count quite precisely. Each year on our feet is a small miracle: a blend of fortitude and good fortune.
I am driving through Death Valley in need of a place to stay. Along the dusty road of Joshua Tree National Park, I pass a dodgy-looking motel with a large sign advertising "U2 stayed here" and keep going. Next stop, I stand beneath a white-washed painted archway, the entrance to a decrepit spread of buildings: "Amargosa Opera House." Posters in the foyer advertise a nightly show: the hotelier — a 70-year old ballet dancer from New York City — performs on pointe shoes at 8pm. Solo. Even in January, desert heat can provoke hallucinations so I read it again. I check in.
It is a small but remarkably substantial theatre. We, the hotel audience of 12 live people, are outnumbered by our fictional counterparts, painted brightly on every available surface. A robust audience in Renaissance action on walls and doorways: half-draped over railings, arguing, wrestling with each other, playing musical instruments. As promised, the dancer enters on time, en pointe, shimmering her way across the stage in white tulle, slowly. She is old.
My sympathetic young dancer's body senses her every stretch, each plié as she bends. Luscious, tender, careful. I watch her, and lurch between being transported by the spectacle and feeling mildly embarrassed.
Dancing — as well as demanding great physical prowess — is a feat of imagination. And here in the desert, imagination and reality vie hard for top billing...
It is 1993. Many things have not yet happened.
I remember this journey at the beginning of 2018.
I tell it shortly after seeing ballet legend Baryshnikov — age 70 — dance in Toronto. He enjoys a large theatre, a real audience, substantial legacy. He lifts an arm, tilts his head...and something magic happens. It's hard to put your finger on it. His body is saturated with years of its own experience. His movement evocative, replete with imagery. The audience bathes in his mastery. His age is noted in the program.
Dance is an art form that favours the young. Or used to. Dancers retired to "save their dignity," not wanting to experience their own decline onstage.
But the older dancer is becoming all the rage. Vimeos, videos, photos fill the internet with stories of active older performers. The body's "best before" date has been extended — and dance extends with it.
New York City is home to Douglas Dunn, who performs at age 78. In Paris, Caroline Carlson dances at age 75. Canadian modern dancer Peggy Baker is regularly onstage in her mid 60s. Across Canada, Toronto choreographer Claudia Moore produces performances of over-50s dancers to full audiences in her popular "Older & Reckless" series.
My third child can now feed himself. I think about dancing again. About building a new show — prompted by the question of whether I am still a dancer after all these years, after having three kids. I meet singer Mary Margaret O'Hara at a small party. I recite my poem as promised. She sings a song. We duet, improvising together and around each other, adding texture to space. Imaginary birds twitter against the ceiling as I lunge deep into my left knee. Swoop, curve. I'm not dressed for this, I think, through the gentle haze of my third gin. I walk home, down and up the hill of Ossington St. at midnight. I realize I am dancing again. I am 48. I go home and begin to build a piece.
The piece I choreograph requires me to improvise. Make it up as I go along. Dance in the present tense.
The show goes well. It tours: Vancouver, Calgary, New York City, San Francisco, Newfoundland and more. Three years, I tell the same stories about returning to dancing after years away, asking myself whether it's over. Whether it's time to do something else.
I am now an Older Dancer.
The math is stark. 30 years into my profession, I am less than two decades from 70.
Surprisingly, it's easier — not harder — to dance in this older body. I am fortunate it works well. Yes, there is pain, but there always was pain. I have to be judicious with my energy, can no longer throw myself around carelessly as I did in my 20s. I pay closer attention to the specifics of what I am doing. I know better how my body works, am kinder to its idiosyncrasies. Inhibitions evaporate. Dancing is more about "how" and less about "wow."' There is pleasure.
I am just hitting my stride.
Stories of the past in today's body. I am awarded a Chalmers Arts Fellowship to explore a performance project I call Memoir & Movement, blending storytelling and dance. My upcoming project for 2019.
I teach a weekly class in Memoir & Movement to five regular students. Four of them are in their 60s and one man, aged 80. I watch them improvise, dance — fully — in their older bodies. Abandoned, elegant, dignified. Saturated with their own experience of moving. They tell their stories. Sing. I watch them move. I am moved.
It seems I am still too young to be an older dancer.