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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Mind your rhetoric
Animated, Winter 1997. Antony Smith on limited lexicons and the importance of the tea dance
How much do we limit our vision of the role of older people in dance by the language we use to describe them, however well intentioned our choice of words might be? To mind our language is not just to tackle the negative lexical stereotyping of old age, but also to take on the vague and altogether limited terminology we use when attempting to talk positively. In the context of older people and dance we are almost all guilty of using the same small reference book of platitudes at least once when we are asked for our comments. The words go something like: "Older people bring a sense of calm/of dignity/of serenity to dance; they bring a lifetime's rich experience".

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the words they are perfectly agreeable. But they are just not enough, and we do an injustice to older dancers by continuing to be limited by them. Taken as part of our usual terms of reference when describing dance they fail even more miserably, and begin to sound as original (and as appropriate) as that apocryphal 'Twilight Lodge' retirement home.

The problem of this limited lexicon is compounded by the fact that it is so difficult to come up with any realistic alternatives, because before we can expand the way we talk about older people in the dance world it is necessary to expand our terms of reference for describing dance generally. One of the leading issues is that there is no continuity. The visible dancer becomes invisible at thirty something with a string of appropriate adjectives attached to his or her work. If she or he reappears at all, it is as something of a novelty several decades later, when those adjectives are simply no longer appropriate. We can celebrate the fact that colleagues in dance are challenging this state of affairs, but we are still left with a major generational divide - lissom young bodies alongside considerably older ones.

It is astonishing to think how much we have had our vision of a dance aesthetic challenged and expanded in the past few decades. A dance culture that speaks for the late 20th century is more in tune with the realities of the world as a result it reflects all its movements, small as well as expansive, ugly as well as beautiful. And yet we continue to be blinkered in terms of age. Why older people cannot be as expert exponents of this new world of dance as the young is wholly a question of perception rather than ability.

Inevitably, those of us promoting the role of the older dancer fall back at some point on the word 'experience', but how do we honestly translate this word into dance terms? 'Dignity', 'serenity' and 'calm' are at least tangible concepts in movement terminology even though all we may mean when we use them is "tries hard but moves rather slowly". In theatre, music, the visual arts, good artists are perceived to grow in stature as they grow in years and experience. Not so in dance. We may respect dancers' past work. We may marvel that they're still dancing at 40, let alone 60, 70 or 80. But we tend to get embarrassed when we actually see them on stage, because the contrast with what we're used to is so immense. Again we have lissom young bodies on one side and almost nothing on the other until we reach the dancer as novelty age. The importance and value of experience are unquestionable. We are, however, in grave need of a set of working references by which we can judge and assess how successfully this 'experience' manifests itself in dance. We must stop our clutching at the term rather desperately and begin to know what we mean. Let's hope the 'Beyond the Tea Dance' debate can help us build a language for older dancers that is honest, in which we believe, and which expands rather than limits our vision.

In defence of the tea dance (and its cousins)
If we were to make a list with tea dance at the top, we could include underneath it all the folk, national, barn, square and disco dances that are related in their 'social' characteristics, that are extremely enjoyable and enjoyed by millions, but which are not quite art. Of course, to take issues forward, to expand horizons, to develop work that is innovative and challenging we must look 'beyond the tea dance', but we must tread very carefully as we do so. Let us please acknowledge its fun and its status and include it in our discussions rather than imply it's time to leave it behind. Again, it seems to be a question of continuity - we classify as social dances or we classify as art, yet they are not poles apart. There can be overlap and there can be shared experiences. Dance forms have borrowed from each other for centuries.

A particular danger is that if we dismiss the tea dance, we dismiss one of the areas of dance in which many older people feel confidence and pride - even feel they have something to give and share with the rest of us. In countries with strong folk or national dance traditions it also tends to be the old who uphold and preserve them. In those countries, however, those older people often have a valued position as 'guardians' of a unique heritage. Their experience and knowledge give them a status in the dance world that has nothing to do with questions of whether what they're doing is social activity or art.

The ballroom and sequence dances that constitute the classic tea dance can have a similar status if we only learn to value them. If, in doing so, we risk upholding a rather clichéd image of older people dancing, we have only to be sure that they are part of a wider spectrum of opportunities, and that we build on their huge following as a starting point for involvement in many other kinds of dance.

Antony Smith, ActiVAge Programme Manager, Eurolink Age. Telephone 0181 679 8000.

Eurolink is a network of organisations and individuals that promotes good policy and practice on ageing in the interests of the 120 million older people in the European Union. ActiVAge is one of several programmes run by Eurolink Age to promote the active participation and contribution of older people. It includes a growing European network looking at older people, culture and the arts.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001