Age-old questions: Choreography in the Community program challenges assumptions about young, not-as-young

Apr 1, 16 • 5enses, Moving ArtsNo Comments
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Delisa Myles. Photo by Deborah Ford.

By Delisa Myles

What’s it like to be your age? What assumptions do you make about people who are 10- to 12-years-old? People 18- to 24-years-old? And what about people 55 or older?

Those were the first questions we asked ourselves as we began an intergenerational performance project with Prescott College students, Skyview School fifth and sixth graders, and members of the larger Prescott community who were 55 or older.

The impetus for all of this was — and still is — Choreography in the Community, a course I’ve taught at Prescott College off and on since 2000. This year’s culminating performance, “The Web of Us: Past, Present, and Future,” is coming up on Friday, April 29 (more info below). I’m directing it with Breanna Rogers, the dance teacher at Skyview School.

Looking back to that first year, before the participants first met as a group, Breanna and I invited them to make a few assumptions about the other age groups they’d be working with.

Be honest,” we challenged them. “What do you really think about people in those age groups?”

Here are some of the thoughts that came to light:

People in fifth and sixth grade are … imaginative and adventurous, insecure about themselves and their bodies, worried about being cool and fitting in, worried about how they dress, worried about how they wear their hair, worried about how they act and speak, worried about who they hang out with, and worried what they spend their time doing. Moreover, they … do not feel heard by the world outside their peers, are dramatic and frustrated, like little bombs ready to explode, and are loud and fast and have tangled hair.

College students are … inclusive and welcoming, hip to a fault, technologically oriented, always leaning against buildings, trying to find themselves, and able to do whatever they want. And they don’t comb their hair.

People 55 and older are … wise, stuck in their ways, impatient, and conservative. Moreover, they … have physical limitations, have life figured out, bruise easily, have fragile skin, like to tell stories, have gray hair, are peaceful, and are less likely to be spontaneous or try something new.

There was a sense of anticipation, a little nervousness, and maybe a little awkwardness on our first day together.

One of the first explorations we did together was an activity called diamonds, where we work in groups of four and stand in diamond formations. The person in the front of the diamond is the leader and those behind follow with exact timing. The leadership is subsequently passed off to all members of the group. This exercise gives people the opportunity to try on someone else’s movement, to get close to feeling what it’s like in someone else’s skin. I encouraged people to pick up details of not only timing, but the quality or effort involved in the movement, and even the emotion of what they perceive from the leader. It also gives each person the opportunity to lead, create movement, and feel supported by the fact that the three people dancing behind them are doing their best to replicate their movement.

When all the diamonds moved at the same time, it was like seeing a slow motion flow of animals migrating. Some groups moved creature-like near the floor; some groups moved higher above, arms floating, as if free of gravitational pull. In other explorations, a 60-something-year-old man and a 10-year-old girl partner with shifting shapes, negative space, and stillness. In another, a college-age woman and a 12-year-old boy dance a fierce expression of mechanized quirky robots.

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Choreography in the Community 2014. Photo by Delisa Myles.

Seeing 35 people doing this at the same time with sensitive group awareness creates a kaleidoscopic landscape of bodies in motion. There’s a sense of choreographic order with the unison movement and a quality of surprise and controlled chaos with all of the variations unfolding. It’s as if you can see how the intelligence and momentum of the universe forms swirls of galaxies or how an ecosystem draws on all varieties of diverse life forms to make things click.

After a few weeks of dancing together, mirroring, sculpting, and playing with the shapes and patterns that emerged from each individual and from within the group, something happened. The vulnerability and awkwardness of the new situation melted away. It felt as though a huge blanket of acceptance and equality enveloped us. We moved through a sea of smiling faces and dancing bodies. We became a web of people — just people — the assumptions faded and an ageless quality emerged. Everybody danced in a way that was true for them. We seemed to collectively and individually rise to higher potentials.

The 12-year-old boys became less cliquish and more group focused. A 60-year-old woman was more energized and less timid. We forgot who was supposed to be cool and who was judging.

As I write this, this year’s participants are three weeks into the 10-week process and there’s a sense that we’re bonding. I’ve heard from a few of the community members that it’s the highlight of their week. In our most recent session, we watched each other dance. Half the group danced and half observed, and then we talked about what we’d seen. The fifth and sixth graders are the first to volunteer to talk, eagerly raising their hands. Many of them comment with a sophisticated eye for composition and detail. Some just comment, “That was fun.” And they’re right; it was.

We listen to each other and the web of us materializes. The invisible connection that we are creating is growing in each person. But what exactly is it? Confidence? Trust? Boldness? Softness? Vulnerability? Bravery?

At the end of each session, we gather in a circle for a short sharing, and there’s always something special — dare I say, holy — in the group. It’s a relaxation and an energized exaltation that’s in the air at the end of each class. Part of it’s that we’ve all gone beyond ourselves, included someone new in our dance, and into our world. Through stepping into the dance of another, we’ve rubbed off on each other, and our realities have expanded a bit. The group has become more unified through our shared movement, and our individuality has become more honored and seen. This shimmering end-of-class quality is … hard to describe. It’s a feeling inside each of our bodies, but it’s also in the room. There’s something tangibly interconnected about the group. It’s the eye contact, the little touches, the listening and paying attention in new ways that creates the web.

We’re all a little out of our usual element, doing things with people that we ordinarily wouldn’t come in contact with. This seems to create small changes in the way we look at ourselves and each other. Maybe it’s okay to approach someone not your own age and talk to them — dance with them, even. Maybe our assumptions get in the way of seeing each person as they are in the present. When we go around the circle and say one word for how we feel or how we experienced the day, the words are often excited, fun, proud, energized, grateful, surprised, awesome, and impressed.

Yes, it’s the physical exercise that provides an endorphin boost, but I wonder, are these positive feelings more pronounced than those derived from a romp at recess or a workout at the gym? My sense is that it has something to do with the mix of ages that makes the feeling so special. It has to do with going beyond assumptions and prejudices, about being surprised that things are not always what we might assume.

Older people do want to try something new. College students can do more than lean on buildings. Fifth and sixth graders do have something to say that adults want to hear. There’s a feeling of wholeness and a special kind of nourishment we get by being around the spectrum of ages.

If you’re curious to see this process in action, our culminating performance for the public, The Web of Us: Past, Present, and Future,” is 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 29 at the Prescott College Granite Performing Arts Center. It’ll include nearly 60 people performing choreographed, improvised, and spoken word pieces. Please join us for an evening of creative intergenerational art.

There aren’t many settings or situations where people of mixed ages can get to know each other; where we have the opportunity to counter the stereotypes and separation that our culture breeds; where we have the opportunity to create together as equals.

This is one of them. We hope to see you there.

*****

Delisa Myles is a dancer, choreographer, and professor of dance who’s been central in creating Prescott College’s dance program since 1994. She is founder and creative director of Flying Nest Movement Arts in downtown Prescott. Find out more and contact her at FlyingNestStudio.Com, DelisaMyles.Com, and Info@FlyingNestStudio.Com.

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