Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Ageing and Dance

  • Susanne MartinEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_257-1


Dance holds an interestingly multilayered position in relation to age and ageing. Western theatre dance, in particular, has often focused on youthful physicality and, as such, takes part in an unquestioned marginalization of older bodies (Dickinson 2010; Lipscomb and Marshall 2010; Schwaiger 2012). However, artistic dance, specifically contemporary dance, is also a site for inventing ways of experiencing and presenting human bodies in movement beyond the normative understandings of beauty, prowess, and youthful virtuosity (Benjamin 2010; Brayshaw and Witts 2014; Hoghe 2005). As such, contemporary dance has a unique potential to question or dismantle stereotypical body and age-related images and values that are not only a part of dance but also our everyday culture (Cooper Albright 1997; Nakajima and Brandstetter 2017; Ross 2009).


The number of “age-critical” (Martin 2017, p. 14) or “anocritical” (Maierhofer 2007, p. 23) publications within dance studies is still small and it is the work of Australian researcher Elisabeth Schwaiger which stands out in its long-term and substantial scholarly engagement (2005a, b, 2006, 2009, 2012). However, more recently age and ageing have also been critically addressed by practice-based dance researchers such as Mark Edward (2018), Jacky Lansley and Fergus Early (2011), Susanne Martin (2017), and Hilde Rustad (2017). These scholars argue that contemporary dance and improvisation, as a crucial practice within contemporary dance, can contribute to a critical age discourse by exposing, questioning, and subverting stereotypical concepts and representations of different age groups, of the process of aging, and old age (hereinafter referred to as age(ing)).

Key Research Findings

Improvisation or Practicing Age(ing) in Dance

Influential traditions within current Euro-American artistic dance such as contemporary ballet and many other contemporary dance styles are organized around the traditional hierarchical division between choreographer (author) and dancer (interpreter). Their top-down defined working structures and aesthetic values leave few possibilities for the individual age(ing) dancers to keep changing and adapting aesthetic goals and ways of working within their dance careers (Schwaiger 2012; Wainwright et al. 2006). Accordingly, dancers working within such hierarchical dance company structures stop dancing professionally on average in their early to mid-30s (Baumol et al. 2004; Dümcke 2008; Dickinson 2010; Levine 2005; Schwaiger 2012; Wainwright and Turner 2006). They are, thereby, unable to critique or actively influence concepts and representations of age(ing) in dance through their continuing artistic work and visibility.

Improvisation-based practice, however, breaks with such hierarchical division of labor. Improvisation is always bound to one’s own body; it cannot be delegated or transferred to a younger body. Defined as “composing while dancing” (Buckwalter 2010, p. 1), there is no other way to improvise than to deal with and work with the (physical) reality of the given moment. It is the central feature of improvised dance that the roles of choreographer and performer always coincide, as do process and product, and the practicing of dance and practicing of the self (Albright and Gere 2003; Benoit-Nader 1997; Bormann et al. 2010; Da Silva Junior 2017; De Spain 2014; Kask 2012; Lampert 2007). To theorize improvisation-based practice strategies as critical to dominant understandings of age(ing) means, with reference to Michel Foucault to recognize them as ways to actualize the dancing subject’s relative agency and “the art of not being governed quite so much” by detrimental age norms (2007, p. 45). Or, with reference to age researcher Miriam Haller, it means to recognize them as intimate and practical ways of “undoing age” (2010, p. 216).

Furthermore, recent dance history shows that there is currently a significant number of dancers who in the 1960s developed improvisation as a source of dancing, as an inquiry into composition, and as a performance practice, who are still performing today. These dancers are now well into their 70s or beyond and include famous artists such as Simone Forti, Anna Halprin, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. It could be argued that their practices allow them to keep testing and exploring dance through and for their own bodies, thus freed to a great extent of any static idea of an appropriate dance body or age limit. These dancers – Schwaiger calls them “drivers of change” (2012, p. 139) – are just some of the most well-known within the currently fast growing number of dance artists who continue their artistic work and stage visibility beyond their 40s and 50s.

Their engagement in proprioceptive awareness and sensation-based research into the moving body and in composing and relating to the reality of the here and now allows such dancers to deal with their shifting physical constraints within and through dance practice. (For further research, see also the literature on somatic practices, e.g., Hanlon Johnson 1995 and Bannon et al. 2018.) Negotiating, balancing, and integrating ambiguous states and multiple and shifting physiological challenges implicitly critiques oversimplified or static notions of health as well as linear decline narratives (Gullette 2004). Such practice actively supports artists to make dance an open-ended, potentially lifelong mode of art making.

Performance Making or Representing Age(ing) in Dance

Defining performance as the moment of showing dance in public raises the question what kind of bodies and which age groups are invited to become publicly visible on the dance stage. However, probably even more interesting than the pure presence and quantity of older dancers on Western stages is the question of how to create images and narratives of age(ing) that explicitly question age stereotypes and allow alternative representations of age(ing) to gain visibility. For if the publicly staged performance works continue to reiterate stereotypical narratives of age(ing), then implicitly critical practices and individually sustainable working structures, such as those developed by improvisation practitioners, only have a limited ability to inspire changes in our understanding of age(ing). If an age-critical personal dance practice is one that allows a dancer to reflect and adapt to the constant process of bodily changes through lifetime, then an age-critical performance practice is one that publicly questions dominant ideas about age, such as the opposing of youth and old age as fixed categories, the linear progress (peak – decline) narrative, or the narrative of old-age wisdom (Berson 2010; Woodward 2002).

Age-critical dance performance develops representations that collide with, resist, or complicate normative expectations of age(ing). It articulates shifting perspectives and experiences, creates ambiguous meanings and disjunctive narratives of age(ing). It is important to understand that contemporary stage works in which age(ing) becomes a subject matter and an object of critical enquiry do not necessarily depend on the advanced age of the performers on stage. Even though many artists and artworks mainly cover an age range of 50+, it is possible for performers of any age to make cultural conventions of age(ing) explicit and, in turn, to critically play with the scope of possibility and variation therein.

Innovative Performances and Performers

The following list of works and artists that focus principally on debates about age(ing) is meant to be diverse, incomplete, and inconsequential; it is no more and no less than a hint towards the richness of artistic work happening since 2000. The works can be roughly divided into two groups: pieces choreographed for a special cast of older or intergenerational performers and pieces in which performers/choreographers produce works that address age(ing) by using their own continuously ageing bodies. Noteworthy examples that fall into the first category include the following works: The Elders Project by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion (2014); enfant by Boris Charmatz (2011); Gardenia by Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke (2010); du printemps! by Thierry Thieû Niang (2014); and Lisa Thomas’ choreographies for the company Zartbitter (2019). Performance makers who explicitly and critically address their own age(ing) realities and fantasies on stage and use their own bodies as performance material include: Liz Aggiss in The English Channel (2014); Silvia Gribaudi and Domenico Santonicola in What age are you acting? The relativity of ages – Le età relative (2013); Anna Halprin in her piece Intensive Care (2000) and in Still Dance in collaboration with Eeo Stubblefield (1997–2000); Kilian Haselbeck and Meret Schlegel, Cie zeitSprung, in Orthopädie or to be (2019); Thomas Langkau and Yoshiko Waki in their duet Schwund (Atrophy) (2004), taken up again in 2011 under the title Forever Young; Susanne Martin’s works JULIO (2006), Rosi tanzt Rosi (2008–2009), The Fountain of Youth (2013), and The Fountain of Age (2015); Yvonne Rainer in Trio A: Geriatric With Talking from 2010 (see also Rainer’s related publication The aching body in dance from 2014; Marc Tompkins in Song and Dance (2003); and Wendy Houstoun in her solo performances 50 Acts (2011) and Pact with Pointlessness (2014).

Future Directions of Research and Practice

Scholarly and practical articulations of rethinking age(ing) in and through contemporary dance are currently gaining momentum. Together they show that contemporary dance artists of any age can intervene implicitly and explicitly in our age(ing) culture when they make dance a practice of creatively facing the ambivalences of living through time, when they make it part of their practice to reflect the cultural preconditions of their own age-related values and preferences, and when they strengthen ambiguous and deconstructive narratives and images of age(ing) on stage, rather than reinforce simplistic, linear, and dualistic concepts of age and life course in their works. For future research, the categories of implicit and explicit age-critical dance practice could function as a starting point for similar or opposing categories within non-Western dance lineages and/or within other geopolitical contexts. Such research could reveal the diversity of cultural norms and attitudes to age(ing) in and through dance. Another area of possible investigation is the notable gap in research considering dancers who do not continue their dancing careers past midlife or studies that illuminate specific paths of life and careers through an age-critical lens. Each of these directions would flesh out understandings about the effects of different perceptions of age(ing) in dance. Moreover, the precarious financial conditions that characterize the field of professional artistic dance in general (Baumol et al. 2004; Dümcke 2008) need to be addressed, as these conditions frame dance as a field exclusively of and for the latest generation. As individualized strategies for sustaining one’s practice are extremely volatile and limited in their scope, there is a need to rethink the macrostructures of dance and encourage an active societal interest in dance as an art form that covers the full spectrum of age. It would imply creating, as a consequence, new support structures for dance that encompasses all ages.


Contemporary dance has a twofold potential to question or dismantle stereotypical age-related images and values that are not only a part of dance but also our everyday culture. First, dancers who practice and train through improvisation-based strategies highlight the implicit age-critical potential of dance, because they maintain and nourish an ongoing creative practice beyond early midlife and they prove that a potentially lifelong dance practice is possible. Second, performers of any chronological age who address on stage the complexities and ambivalences of living through time and who deconstruct the stereotypical expectations they are dealing with offer an explicit critique to the still dominant youth orientation in Western artistic dance. Together these practice and performance strategies show that contemporary dance can be a site of doing age(ing) differently and of representing age(ing) differently.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.École Polytechnique Fédérale de LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sarah Falcus
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Music, Humanities and MediaUniversity of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK