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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Burn and Rave at the close of the day...
Animated, Summer 1999. "I would rather 'pop-off' when I am in the dance group than lie alone in my room waiting... to die..." Rose's words encapsulate the ethos of the impact of an extraordinary 18 month Lottery initiative based in three sheltered housing units and a residential home in Bristol. Run by the Bristol Area Dance Agency, this radical project has embodied a high degree of risk and generated intense commitment from all whose lives it has touched. Sara Houston ponders the politics it raises
Burn and Rave named after the Dylan Thomas poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night(1), has been applauded, not only by Social Services and the project team, but crucially by the participants themselves for its innovation, enjoyment, integrity and benefits to health: "It has brought us out of ourselves" (2), says Jean, a resident of Butterworth Court. Yet despite each of the four groups performing their individually devised movement pieces in front of one another, the word 'dance' still does not feature prominently in conversation. Rather, many participants refer to the sessions as 'keep fit'. "Dance? I would love to call it dance! But I mean, people who cannot move obviously think differently."(3)

Some of the group members have arthritis, some cannot stand for long, one is in a wheelchair. Jean's reservation is typical of many who believe that they have to be in good physical shape to be able to dance maintaining that those who 'cannot move' - can participate in an exercise class to retain their fitness. Yet, at the same time, there exists an overriding perception that it is difficult for them to dance...

This is endemic of a widely held perception in this country that dance is the preserve of the young and athletic. Many professional companies do nothing to prevent this. Dance is often associated with extreme physical movement. Older people are assumed to be slow, stiff, immobile and uncreative.(4) In fact, there is a prevailing stereotype which defines old age as a time of universal and certain infirmity. Although surveys have shown that there is an increase in the prevalence of health problems with age, they have also proven that it is by no means inevitable. Indeed, with dance now being offered on prescription, it points to a realisation that not all illness in old age is debilitating and that dance can actually play a positive role in the lives of older people.

Jean's anxiety over her fellow group members whom she perceived could not move, who therefore could not be dancing, ought to have been alleviated by the sight of every one, even those in wheelchairs, charging round the room, rapidly swapping places under a parachute. Later, legs started twirling crossing and kicking as each group member devised their own dance patterns for a seated version of the Can Can. And bodies defied their habitual, bound patterns as silk and muslin scarves undulated in response to the swaying hips of the dance group at St Martin's Close, inspired by the North African rhythms and melodies. In all instances, the emphasis on the creation of very different styles of movement, points to the more imaginative and versatile activity of dance whilst challenging physical limitations.

Indeed, the association of dance with youth was apparent, and yet contradicted, when three of the Bristol groups talked about their informal sharing of work, each remarking on how youthful the fourth group looked compared to themselves. In fact, they were all in their 80s and 90s. Perhaps what made the fourth group look youthful was the fact that they had danced and dance was the word used to describe the activity - 'a slinky number with glittery top hats'. The step-kick and shimmy and coordinated dress seemed reminiscent of Bob Fosse chorus line. This association with sexy Broadway dancing connected to a feeling of youthfulness. Sex is often perceived as the preserve of the young, but also has strong links with the brash chorus dancing of Broadway and venues such as the Moulin Rouge. This display of youthfulness had erased the assumptions in the minds of the others as to what it is to be someone living in a housing complex - an institution where all other experiences which make up a person's identity tend to be hidden under the term 'old person'.

Stereotypes of old people pervade the social structures that make up society. One repercussion of this is the adoption of these attitudes by older people themselves, thereby relinquishing activities they might have done and even self identities they might have had before retirement, or, for example, before entering a residential home. In this way, stereotypes become enacted for real, even though possibilities still remain open to enjoy activities such as dance in all its facets.

The image of youth glazes the exterior of dance, yet surely it is youthfulness that ought to be recognised instead? The reticence of Jean and her fellow Burn and Ravers to categorise their sessions as dance, is to do with an idea of dance as an activity belonging to the young, rather than the idea of it as youthful. There is a strong sense of fun and play in the sessions. It is a space where participants are encouraged to express themselves vocally as well as physically. The informal environment allows a licence for spontaneous improvised movement where the imagination can 'free wheel' as participants are presented with an array of props or different music genres. All of this is not exclusive to youth, yet it characterises the idea of 'youthfulness'.

If the opportunities for older people to dance are to be recognised and used to their full potential, so that such an activity is seen as commonplace, then perceptions of who can dance and what is 'suitable activity' must be broadened. This includes challenging the participants perceptions as well as those 'outsiders' such as funders and the populace at large.

Ruth Sidgwick, project coordinator for Burn and Rave, believes implicitly that group members will, as she puts it, "become ambassadors for the work" by speaking about themselves and their dance experiences in a public fora, such as conferences, as well as for their peers. The success of the project has enabled people to experience not just dance, but a seemingly new sense of worth, a sense of risk and a sense of sharing and support. This has precipitated a certain pride and a consequential enthusiasm, by the leaders and participants alike, in talking about the experience and even developing the work with other people. One particular group is very keen to go into a local school to share with the pupils what they have learnt. In this way, "dance for the older person" would cross that boundary that segregates the activity and participants from dance enjoyed by other generations. By encouraging intergenerational contact and a variety of experiences of dance in different contexts, it would negate the assumption that retired people constitute an entirely distinct category of person. It would refute the idea that they differ from the rest of society, whatever their circumstance - age, gender, ethnicity or cultural background - and that they require a different movement experience from the non-aged.

Certainly, when working with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s there are particular considerations to be understood that will probably only manifest as issues in this specific context. For example, it is necessary to understand aspects and issues connected to gerontology and to care needs when working with fourth agers, who are often very frail with degenerative conditions. Indeed, Bristol Area Dance Agency has set up a training scheme for dance workers to address the issues and skills concerned with working with a variety of older people - in particular, anatomy and physiology, first aid and gerontology.

Similarly, there may be much younger members of dance groups who are having to cope with mental or physical distress, illness or bereavement and exclusion. As a consequence, it must surely be important that dance facilitators are sensitive to the needs of individuals in a dance group, whatever its make up, be it members of a residential home, a primary school class or a cross-generational community club. By classifying certain dance groups into, for example, post code areas or pensioners and non-pensioners, it is easy to forget that these participants may not define themselves by these categories, or only consider them to be one small part of their self-identity

Dance brings a group together - surely, it would be appropriate to call its members dancers, rather than, old people who live in a residential home. For dance in its variety of forms to attract wider interest and become an acceptable activity for anyone, regardless of age, then age must become a secondary issue. The distractions that ageism brings to dance will often deter people from trying it themselves.

The participants on the Burn and Rave project have performed in front of one another, will soon create work to show to family and friends and one group has already taken part in the St Paul's Carnival in Bristol. These dancers are proud of their work, they enjoy what they do and want to share the experience. Whether they are professional or lay is not the point. Neither is it relevant that some are in their 10th decade. What is important is that they are dancers who have experienced something that they value. Perceptions connecting to ageism, cloud this point, watering down dance to physical jerks, by-passing the wealth found in a project with dance at its centre.

In challenging perceptions that dismiss the older person's capacity to dance and create movement, Burn and Rave is a radical project. Its radicalism is in its insistence that it is about self-discovery; about experimenting with the unfamiliar, pushing-out boundaries. In Sidgwick's words: 'The project is political in that it is showing older people that they do not have to accept what society thinks older people are about... People who are older still have the same opinions, ideas, hopes, wishes, desires and, above all, the same rights._

Sara Houston, PhD Researcher, Roehampton Institute London. Contact +44 (0)20 8392 3372 or email s.houston@roehampton.ac.uk

References
1 Thomas, Dylan, Written for Thomas' dying father: _Do not go gentle into that good night /Old age should burn and rave at the close of day'
2 Jean, a participant of The Burn and Rave Initiative
3 Ibid

Authors note
4 There seems to be a value system in dance that places movement into a hierarchy of types. As a consequence using the word 'dance' to convey only one particular movement scheme denigrates other forms thereby excluding those people who practice them.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001