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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Like planes waiting to land
Animated, Summer 1999. From Rambert, Mantis and Second Stride... to life as a solo artist. Ann Dickie's poignant account of how her career has come full circle as she resumes training with her first teacher Roger Tulley. Still dancing at 53
I am often asked: How? Why? Words not quite uttered - more suggested - by a slightly raised eyebrow of disbelief. Similarly, when a stranger asks me what I do for a living, I reply, dance, and can feel the confusion because so many people are still unaware that it is a bona fide profession - believing it to be a rather frivolous thing to do for a living... Not a proper job, let alone for an older person. After all, it is also associated with youth and vigorous physicality... I do not mind a bit of frivolity though and at 53, having been a dancer for around 30 years, I am only now beginning to touch on what it is all about. I suppose it is easy to feel like this about life in general, as time-passed seems to highlight how little one knows, because so much more is revealed with experience. To dance is a rich and diverse activity, a form of expression initiated internally and communicated through movement and therefore available to anyone interested, regardless of age.

I did not particularly plan to dance to eternity, it has just evolved that way. Similarly, I never consciously made a decision to be a dancer, or to choreograph, I just danced from an early age, with a natural and unquestioning knowledge that it felt right. In my bedroom I would dream up extravagant flights of fantasy, sweep back the curtains, and perform to an 'enthralled' audience of house bound and elderly neighbours in their back rooms, in need of something to help them pass the time.

So, for years I enjoyed a performing career that I could never have imagined. However, in 1994, circumstances dictated my making a sideways move - to retrain in education and outreach coordination - when I became in need of two new hips. What a ghastly thing to happen you might think, and clearly it was.

Nevertheless, thanks to the invaluable support and sustenance provided in a variety of forms by The Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund and subsequent financial aid from The Dancers' Trust(1) -it was to lead to a number of freelance management assignments, one of which eventually landed me back on stage. Also, thanks to the extraordinary advances of medical science and several chance encounters occurring in the same week - all pointing me in the direction of Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon Mr James Scott, from The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, I am now all the better for it. Not only did I receive marvellous treatment, but found myself recovering amidst the beautiful and inspiring architecture and art of the hospital. I have returned several times - to dance, and most recently, to produce, By Design.

The Arts Project at The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital was established in 1991 to serve patients, their families and all hospital users. The arts are viewed not only as part of the healing process, but as a major feature of the hospital's identity, and encompass visual art as well as music, dance, mime, puppetry, storytelling and the world's first opera in a hospital. Quite naturally I wanted to put something back, and so with funding from The Arts Project and The Baring Foundation's Arts in Education and Community Programme, I devised By Design, a residency with video documentation, culminating in a performance. Four dancer/choreographers, two singers, a musician and a video artist were involved, plus numerous passing patients, staff and visitors, whose comments, expressions and movements were integrated into the creative process in various ways. One patient who came to watch briefly every day remarked: "The doctors have been trying to sort me out for ages, but you make me feel better every day I see you dancing." Many intense and intimate encounters occurred during the project, some captured on film, others too delicate to record, and we were frequently asked probing question, as our presence caused much interest, comment and sometimes great mirth! Audience and performers were on several floors of the vast atrium of the hospital - patients wandering, or attached to drips staying to watch the remainder of the performance, and even a baby during our week was also brought along. I became aware of the transient nature of life, mortality, and a need to participate fully whilst it is still possible.

Waiting to go on-stage for the first time after my operations was great! I had never in my wildest dreams imagined it would be possible to experience that again, and was content enough with being able to shuffle around pain free, (or so I thought). I suppose during those years when I could not do very much and I thought that creativity had deserted me, it was really just on hold, ideas stacking up like planes waiting to land, waiting for the right moment, and the right moment was there... in the wings.

A close friend died in performance... falling from a great height... his last dance. I am sure he would have thought it a good way to go, although untimely, as he had just revived his performing career at 50, with much success, and had a schedule jam packed well into the future. Yet more circumstances came into play; as we had recently renewed our friendship when I was managing a show in his venue in Germany. We talked about working together, he asked me to choreograph something for him (he had instigated my first tentative ventures into choreography), and I had returned to London to think it over. A couple of months later an idea came to me incorporating a stick, which had naturally become a part of my life (and was sometimes hated, but mostly felt like a magic wand) without which I would not have been able to walk. That was to be my starting point and I rang my friend to tell him and arrange a rehearsal schedule. I discovered that he had had the accident the night before, uncannily at the same time that my idea had taken form. For his memorial many of his friends from around the world were invited to dance a solo to the same piece of music - Erik Satie's Vexations, at a performance lasting 12 hours. This was to be my return to performing - dancing the solo meant for him, and now choreographed by Charlotte Hacker. Since then I have danced it many times, including most recently at the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast, where I shared an evening with poets - a stimulating and interesting change.

I also taught an extraordinary workshop in a day centre. When I arrived most people were wandering off to mass. I considered combining the two, but thought better of it. However, some mavericks remained, and we naturally veered towards each other. I do not know whether it was this particular group or something associated with age increasing confidence and releasing inhibitions, but these participants were certainly vocal about what they did and did not like, and what they wanted to do. The most simple, yet faintly ironic request emerged - to practice breathing techniques - which initiated and increased their movement possibilities. They could never imagine how much they had inspired me, contributing ideas to the session that I plan to incorporate into future choreographic pieces.

As with much work done in a community setting, communication is direct, and people are clear about what they enjoy (or do not), and the benefits they feel they have gained (or not). Predictably, these are to do with physical health, but go far beyond the obvious need to exercise - in particular, self-esteem and confidence can be greatly increased by their feeling a part of something and through contributing ideas and movements. Creating is being fully engaged in living. Dance and Music have all immediate and therapeutic effect on us, they exercise the parts that nothing else can. Many older people say they experience feelings of isolation. If that is a natural part of becoming older, a withdrawing in preparation for the next stage so to speak, that is fine. But, if it is because of being shunned by society then that something badly needs to addressed.

I suppose it is inevitable that as an older dancer you ask a lot of questions, like: Why older dancers are not integrated into dance companies? Or: Why many choreographers do not seem to have an interest in working with dancers across the age range, or even an awareness that they exist? Of course there are exceptions, mainly at the cutting edge of the profession.

The Mature Dancers' Project was initiated in 1997 by Nelson Fernanadez, to create amongst other things, opportunities for older dancers and for choreographers to work with them. Although the company; Advance, never got off the ground, (excuse the pun), the education work, for which I had responsibility, did, and much of what I am involved in now has evolved from it. Shropshire Dance set up an over 50s group, and a residency was instigated at The Dance Xchange in Birmingham for three existing groups. In order to gain an understanding of their work I joined in a session and was immediately propelled along by their energy including those women who were in their 80s and 90s - they were so impressive. It is a fallacy that older people are not as energetic as their younger counterparts, and these women certainly proved that, throwing themselves into the workshops with openness, interest and vigour. In fact, I have witnessed great armies of older people who are very fit, lead busy and active lives and enjoy learning new things.

As age is something that affects us all, the ideas and opinions of young people are crucial to the debate. Remember when you thought that 30 was past it, although now it is more likely to be 20. I am curious to know why, not only in dance circles , experience can be so undervalued. I think that we are at a turning point - poised on the brink of discovery - of taking dance into maturity. In no other art form do artists stop producing work so early in life, and because of it, dance lacks something (leadership perhaps?) by not having a rich and extensive input from older artists. It also means that past a certain point younger dancers have no example ahead of them to aspire to, or rebel against. There is presently not a true sense of history, or continuation, nor an exploration of ideas between generations of dancers. Of course, there are older dancers who are performing, making and creating, but what I am envisioning is a situation where it is the norm for performers to range from 18 to 80 and beyond . There are some things that are only acquired through experience, and they should be shown, shared, and passed on. Importantly, dancers would not have the terrible pressure of having to give up something prematurely which they love, and which is integral to their life.

Ann Dickie, Independent Artist and Choreographer. Contact +44 (0)20 7928 0441.

1 The Dancers' Trust retrains independent professional dancers for a new career

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001