Old Growth: A meditation on dancing and aging

I used to roar into the dance studio and begin by jumping off the walls – becoming sweaty and energetic and frothy. Then I would slow down and shift into sensation. Now, as I’m in my 50’s, I slide into the studio and start slow, steeping in the ale and gradually working up to the froth.

The words “young” and “old” have never made sense to me. But I appreciate now the notion of aging, of time passing and changes in the body and outlook. I live with more physical limitations than ten years ago, when I had more than twenty years ago. I used to identify so much with my physical prowess and agility. As those have lessened I’ve had to adjust how I see myself. And I’ve had to pull back my desires – I’ll probably never do that back handspring again.

The elder dancers whom I respect have each blazed their own way. The image from the tales of King Arthur comes to mind – “Every Knight shall go out and enter the forest where there is no trail.” Dancers like Remy Charlip- in his elegance he’s brought the designers eye from his costume design into the dance. Anna Halpern has ridden the wave of what’s popular, been shamelessly a decade ahead of others. Bill T. Jones has brought the raw edge of human interaction and the emotional body into his work. Steve Paxton rolled a pebble and then got out of the way for the avalanche that followed. They’ve each blazed their own way.

When I look at my wrinkles, the accumulated scars, the skin that doesn’t pop back right away- a reality sinks in. When I started dancing in my early 20’s, I felt immortal, convinced I would never grow old… or conservative. I hitchhiked 25 thousand miles with the full knowledge that I would be safe, and I was.

I don’t hitchhike cross-country anymore – though I still hitchhike locally on occasion to put myself back into that sense of time – standing, not knowing who will stop, or if it will be three minutes or three hours. I don’t sleep on the floor anymore, or futons when I can help it. I prefer a mattress – a pillow-top mattress. And, oh god – I’m more conservative. I support a family. I need to care for myself so that I can care for them.

As I’m less reckless with my physicality, I have also become less reckless and more disciplined with my ideas and language. Now when I teach I rarely toss out ideas just to see the effect they have on people. I hone more so that what I do convey, has the benefit of my experience.

My view of teaching has evolved. I used to believe I needed to be at the center of everything to teach a good class. As my body has changed, I don’t demonstrate or partner as much as I used to. “Teaching” is about showing our students the ways we have found – whereas “cultivating” dancers is about helping them blaze their own trails. Now the role of “mentor” is more important. I see myself nurturing future dancers and performers, and cultivating communities of dancers. The paradox is the more I focus on others and entire communities the more recognition I receive.

When the up and coming, the young hotshot dancers, vault and spring through the studio – I sometimes feel a tinge of envy and loss. Mostly, they keep me fit – I’m moved by them to stay in shape and creatively engaged so that I continue to have something to offer – so the treasury continues to overflow. Contact Improvisation is a magnanimous form. It allows people to teach as they age. The form is not about someone’s abilities, it’s about modeling the inquiry and investigation into what’s possible.

On one hand I’m romantic about the idea of getting older. Rather than considering myself older, I like to think I have more rings in my tree. And then I say – what kind of bullshit is that? It sucks to get older. The body becomes more limited, organs and muscles fall apart, we see more of the insides of hospitals, we lose energy, courage, our abilities. Aging is about loss.

We know the boat is sinking and it all comes down to the attitude we bring to that descent. Do we go down numb, or screaming, or singing? I miss not worrying about my health, the late nights, the excess. I’m glad I fully lived my youth. What is it that King Arthur’s Knights seek anyway? The Holy Grail – the fountain of youth, of everlasting life. Don’t most of us, somewhere in ourselves, want that? Isn’t that why people head out in the first place to enter the woods where there’s no trail? While I feel like I have found my grail through my work, that I’ve created something that will live past my own life, I want to be young … damn it.

I remember being in my 20’s and having a sense of invincibility, of immortality. I was going to live forever and change the world to boot. I cannot say that now. Talking about aging is humbling – it demands confronting that indelible piece of everyone’s life called mortality. I will, sooner or later, die.

I love my life, and love life more each year. I feel mostly good about the choices I’ve made along the way. I’ve been passionate, truthful, and I’ve spent my life being true to my muse rather than popular culture. I don’t want life to end – I want to see how history unfolds – that of the world, of my family, and my own.

My body has given me a great life; I don’t want it to end in a slow, painful breakdown. “Aging gracefully,” is a concept I’ve heard about. I believe it has something to do with acceptance. And then there’s Dylan Thomas in his poem to his father – “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

My fear for the earth and humanity grows with each passing year. I look out the window of my study. I see trees. It’s a quiet suburban neighborhood, with trails into the forest at the end of the block. We are in walking distance from the center of town. We have two fireplaces and an above ground pool in a big yard.

We have the American dream. We have our castle and grounds. We live in a safe, wonderful place. But, then I travel and read the news and “out there” the world is a frightful place filled with suffering, environmental degradation, and injustice. What have I done to change any of this? What am I doing now? If I were to tell the truth right now I would say that as I age I’m most afraid of the world that I’m leaving my children.

When I was a teenager we were told our generation was the one that could make the difference – that it was in our hands. God knows we tried, and the world is still a very fucked up place. I want my children to have the opportunities to live at the edges of their potentials and creativity and not at the edge of their personal and global survival. I feel regret that I haven’t done more to make a difference. Then the other voice comes in – this energy I’m putting into regret I could be putting into making a difference right now…

One morning in 2006 I picked up a bag of concrete that had hardened. I did everything right – got low, pulled the bag to my center, lifted from my legs – and still my back went into a spasm that felt like I was being speared for shish kabob.

I immediately laid down on an ice pack with my legs up. The next day I was worse, and the following day worse again. I wept because I couldn’t put on my own pants and I didn’t want to ask for help. My wife took me to the hospital where I was given anti-inflamatories, anti-spasmodics, painkillers, and an MRI. I was told that I absolutely must not pick up anything, including my toddler or his toys.

There was good news and bad news in the MRI results. I had no blown out disks – I can keep dancing. But I have degenerative disk disease, or premature “old man’s back”. The MRI report included lines like: “There is a congenitally slightly narrow lumbar canal due to congenitally short pedicles.”

For a time after my injury I did not visualize myself dancing as much – I used to regularly imagine dances which kept my body constantly in a warmed up state. For a time, the thought of dancing seemed far away from the act of dancing.

I’m much better now. When I do dance, each dance feels like I’ve received an 11th hour reprieve from the governor. I’ve been saved! It feels so enlivening to dance. With each duet I savor the exhilaration, the personal unfolding, and the joy of relating to other people this way. I’ve become re-committed to finding new pathways so that I can dance even when the body grows less able. I want to do the work now, to put myself on a trajectory that keeps me dancing, and experiencing the rapture of Contact Improvisation.

But I am afraid – not so much that aging will keep me from dancing – but that I’ll lose my livelihood. I’m passionate about teaching people to dance. It allows me to travel and see the world and meet people, and bring gifts to their lives. If I don’t teach how will I support my family with even half as much fulfillment and delight? The thought of a 9-5 fills me with terror. That is not what I want to model for our children. I want them to see their father creatively engaged and being rewarded, not for his toil, but for his development and creativity and connection to a community.

I remember a panel of professional dancers talking about money and aging. The subject created a storm of anxiety. One dancer said that when she could no longer work, her retirement insurance policy would be to take her own life. This stunned a lot of us. Later, she confessed that while she thought this for years, she no longer could commit suicide because it would be too wounding for her now grown daughter. She was in anguish about what to do, as she was closing in on her retirement years.

It saddens me that our culture offers little support for the arts. It makes it such a struggle to go forward and blaze – especially when we have to consider details like healthcare and retirement. But on the other hand, I see in countries, where there is more funding for the arts, a certain dampening of the artistic spirit. When you live in a cycle of getting a grant to live on for half the year, and receiving unemployment the other half, there is a certain indignity that accompanies this lifestyle. And yet, when there is little support for dance and the arts, there is a certain hardening of the spirit just to persevere.

The body has its losses that need to be grieved, but there is another loss that comes from living in a youth focused culture. I know, as a man, I only feel a sliver of this. I’ve heard from several older women that when a woman loses her looks there is a way in which she is not seen, she’s looked over, not consulted. The attention goes to the young. If an older woman dancer is not in her role as “master teacher” she has to work hard to be seen and noticed.

I’ve made a practice of watching older athletes as they compete. People in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s playing tennis, basketball, volleyball, and other sports. I sit at the edge of the court and watch them with a question – what do I need to do so that I can dance full out when I’m their age? What steps can I take now to be on that trajectory?

I’ve noticed in older athletes, that their rib cages can freeze up and this limitation leads to less mobility throughout. So part of my training is to have attention on an increasingly released rib cage. I consider this my practice, my “dojo” work.

I’m often struck by the vitality and glow with which these athletes leave the court. I’ve sat in on numerous conversations where they grumble about their current ailments. This is often accompanied by their gratitude for ibuprofen for sore muscles, and herbal concoctions for aching joints. I listen carefully. My intention is to join this clan.

I still take pleasure in adrenalized dances where I sometimes finding myself moving with my head below my pelvis, my feet somewhere up in the air, not quite knowing what will come next. But along with this pleasure I recognize I have less resiliency and less capacity for recklessness. To safely have adrenalized dances I’m finding that I need to dance with less muscling. Being ready for this kind of yielding and potentially high energy dancing means being willing to expend less effort and will.

Rather than use muscle when I’m dancing with someone who brings a lot of vitality to the dance, I’m trying to develop a body that is porous like a living sponge in the sea. The strong currents move the sponge but can also simply pass through the permeable interior.

I’m surprised that my investigation so far into long term dancing has not suggested more control, but a body that is more awake to the possibilities of the effortlessness of abandon.

As I age, it’s easier to be still. My capacity for noticing details increases. I can sit in nature and be alone for longer periods. I’m less driven to be creative, to entertain, to receive adulation. I can lie down and observe a square foot of forest floor, seeing layers upon layers of life, with less self-consciousness.

I’m less driven by my hormones. While I sometimes miss the energy that the amplified sexuality brought into my life, I don’t feel as compelled by them now. I love my sexuality and I’m glad that I’ve had a wonderful big canvas to express it on. Now, I’m less driven, and the dissolution in lovemaking is more full.

When I’m dancing I bring over a quarter-century of body investigation that informs the movement. When I’m in a duet I might not be as recklessly acrobatic, but I can create a sense of listening in my body that is contagious.

I miss the ability to do full splits and fall from great heights. What I don’t miss is the self-doubt and chatter that used to rankle me part of the time. I’m not saying that my flexibility is completely gone, and certainly not saying the chatter is all gone, but both have diminished over the years.

What about legacy? The dance is ephemeral. When a person creates a movie or a piece of art, it goes into the world accompanied with a name in the credits, or painted into the corner of the canvas. Each dance dies as it’s born and only sends out a diminishing ripple of what it once was. A dance might change us, and the resonance might live on, but it is not signed. My legacy carries on through my writing, and somewhat through my teaching, but even these are fleeting.

We sometimes hear about the beauties of old age – but I’ve noticed that the old age that is beautiful, is the one a person has been preparing for by living a beautiful life. Each one of us, whatever our years, is right now preparing for our old age. The beauty and reach of our questions in the end, determines the beauty and reach of our lives.

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7 thoughts on “Old Growth: A meditation on dancing and aging

  1. anina marcus

    ah yes…. I am so much more self assured in every way and that makes up for my bodies loss of flexibility.. I continue to stretch and my patients and i stretch together and I believe that is a huge part of getting older. Stretching and deep breathing.. After all Martin, you and I were doing Yoga long before it was hip on a mountaintop in san miguel and look at you.. Is not that where you are again?

  2. John William Johnson, CEO, LMT, MFCC

    I appreciate your ability to express yourself Martin.

    I am 67, and i certainly concur with much of what you say. The piece i am most aware of is the notion of life stages. Most of my life, i did as wild and crazy as i could just because i could. I can’t say that i actually experienced much, a lot of it was just pure energy flowing through me, with little consciousness.

    Now, my dances are much, much slower. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can still go manic with the best of them, but it just doesn’t feel as rewarding. And i can’t do it for long even, if i wanted to. But i feel so much more.

    And my experience is that i am a haven for younger people who don’t want to always dance full out. I often am thanked for the space i hold to move slowly with full body awareness. More flow and less effort. More letting the dance happen and less making it happen.

    As far as legacy, i think a lot of that conversation is just ego making its effort to be heard. I don’t think it matters if i leave anything. I have been thinking lately about how many artists who left amazing works of art were terrible people. Maybe their art makes up for their abusive nature. I don’t think we are capable of truly knowing the answers to such questions. it is what it is. And that is all that i know is true. The rest is pure conjecture.

    I feel blessed that Emily Conrad has been a mentor since 1976. She is one generation older than me, and she still demonstrates. And I’m in awe of the aliveness i see and sense in her cellular movements.

    I am convinced that the dance is not about agility or physical prowess. It’s about my inner experience. Even if i end up bedridden, i will still be able to move. It doesn’t take that much effort to turn my head, to move my pelvis. But just a few inches this way or that gives me so much pleasure.

    I take refuge in the story that Hijikata, the Butoh master, who gathered his close friends around his bedside just before he died, and did a dance for them in his bed. That’s what i hope for myself and for you and for al of us lovers of movement. Although for you Martin, one of us would probably need to jump in bed with you!

    Much love….
    john william johnson

  3. Leisa Rich

    Lovely rumination on aging…can be applied to most anyone doing creative endeavors they are passionate about. I feel these same feelings as a visual artist. I especially fear any day that I can’t do art….if that day comes I will do walkabout (or wheelchair-a-bout!) and go to my next destiny. Those of us who live, breathe and love our work have a harder time, I think.

  4. Lee

    I have to say that I was brought to tears by your words. I recently reconnected with an old friend as she was planning to ran away to Japan to because she was in love with a butoh master, I was one of the few who told her to go.

    I am 33 and have recently recovered from a combination of disk issues and kidney stones. This happened in December of 2011 and is now repaired, I hope. I love to fly and am hoping that I can find ways to keep doing so into my 90s. When I watch Andrew Harwood dancing, I have hope. The skills that I have from Aikido are now the only thing that can save me from the shaky nervous pain that I can get when dancing with a young dancer in their 20s. I spent a lot of time trying to be soft thinking it was about talent or skill. I now know it is not. One can lose softness when a magnifying glass is put to it. Being soft all the time can injure you as simply as being hard all the time.

    The last two years have been hard, I have grappled with suicide. Unfortunate events with employment have made the struggle difficult. It is difficult, even in Canada, going from job to job as I have throughout my 20s. Now I have found a wonderful job that saved my life in an Italian restaurant that has kind artistic people, where just maybe, I belong.

    I used to always teach under someone else, I am now starting to teach on my own, from my what I have learned from my study/traveling: love you NYC, Montreal, Vancouver, Boston, Jacobs pillow, and Northampton/earthdance. I have abandoned positivity as it demands ambition. I have no ambition for the future only hope. I hope with all my heart to one day have the pleasure of dancing with you martin. So that I may learn as a humble student, and share soft flight with you.

  5. Julia Clarke

    Beautiful words Martin and exceptional teachings. Thankyou for the amazing workshop here in Bristol and your deep humilty and depth of practice and wisdom, I say it again….Shaman, Witch Doctor and one final thought for some of the future years of your life, did you consider studying Dance Movement Psychotherapy?
    Greetings from Julia Clarke Bristol UK

  6. Megan

    Worn out garments are shed by the body.
    Worn out bodies are shed by the dweller within the body. Aging is humbling, yet beautiful–even for those of us who dance through life. Maybe especially for those of us who dance, for we have touched the infinite–we are the dance. And the dance we share with others brings joy. How fortunate are we to help bring joy to a hurting world–even if only in some small way. Peace be with you.


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