How Older Adults Learn Choreography | Judith Sachs

I like to show my 80-year-old dancers examples of performances on YouTube in order to inspire them for the work we’re about to tackle. They are typically incredulous that they can see all that movement on my tiny iPhone screen and also of the opinion that “all those twists and turns are fine, but I’m not 25 any more like you!” (I am 66.)

I learned my choreographic technique from training with Mark Morris’s Dance for Parkinson’s format. The idea is to help my students feel like they are graceful, limber, and accomplished, even if they can’t stand up.

When Morris first thought about crafting dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease, he went back to his own choreography to see what he had done that might be possible for non-dancers to recreate. Seated dancers can  convey a great deal of what the whole body can do (the mourners in a semi-cirlce in Morris’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” for example)—so I always start my dancers with chairs to make them feel secure, even if we end up standing behind them or moving away from them.

Building muscle memory in an older dancer takes time and patience. Students have to be able to imagine the move before they do it. I both show and tell the group what to do (speaking the instructions about a half-second before I demonstrate the step); I use motivating language to get them to try something new; I convey the sequence of a phrase (what comes first, second, or third); and I talk about the musicality of it (“this is a long, slow step so you can take your time and breathe here”). I then put the steps to music and indicate how they go together.

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The Dance for Parkinsons training gives TAs tools that help to chunk up the phrases and teach them one at a time. My strategy is to evoke common images, like “picking up your grandchild,” “sweeping crumbs off the table,” or “stepping out of a bathtub” or (my personal favorite) “helicoptering your hand until the propeller falls off.” I teach it first, with no music, and then, as I play my iPhone or ask my accompanist to start on the downbeat “…and-a 5,6,7,8,” I lead the dancers through the phrase and count it out to supply the rhythm.

Most of my classes meet only once a week, which means that any changes I make in the choreography once I have set the dance have to be very simple. It’s hard enough to remember steps and sequences of movement when you’re 20—imagine how tough this is at 80. What I typically do is build a choreographic vocabulary made up of a few very distinct patterns. Then when I want to alter something or add a few nuances, my students are more likely to catch on. I find that the leaders in the group will go over the latest details with their companions during the week when they get together for coffee or a card game and this reinforces the changes.

They often want to discuss what is going to happen in the dance (as though they were ticking off items on a shopping list) before they actually do it, just to be sure they understood me. We’ll have a discussion about which moves come in which place and when they change. Then we’ll run through. I try not to stop them because I feel the sequence and build of a dance is something the dancer learns from doing over and over. Also, stopping is frustrating. Once they’re on a roll, I want the momentum to carry them!

In the video that follows, the dancers knew that I had studied with Alvin Ailey in the 1960s and had a feel for his choreographic style—several of them had seen “Revelations” when the professional touring company came to Philadelphia in recent years. I stripped down one of the songs in the suite and made this a dance that they could perform physically and which also meant a great deal to them spiritually.

In my work, I also look for songs that have the choreography built right in so that the dancers can sing the instructions themselves instead of listening to me. I was taught a lovely tune from Plum Village (a Zen retreat in France founded by Thich Nhat Hanh) that goes,

When I rise

Let me rise

Like a bird, joyfully.

And when I fall,

Let me fall,

Like a leaf

Without regret,

Joyfully!

There are only 6 words here that I needed to create the dance: “rise,” “fall,” “bird,” “leaf,” “regret,” “joyfully.” As you can see in the video of one of my classes, not only do the words tell you what to do, but when you know the whole song, you can even perform it as a round, with one side of the room rising with the “bird” and the other side falling with the “leaf” simultaneously.

The amount of excitement and self-congratulation in the studio after accomplishing this is extraordinary. And it should be!  I find that the joy, teamwork, and forgiveness for mistakes that go into the learning and performance of a dance mean more in later life when no one—students or teacher— takes anything for granted. We’re dancing; we’re entertaining; we’re having a wonderful time.

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