Dance is a medium that is strongly associated with youth. When we speak of professional ballet dancers we tend to think of young people with strong and supple bodies, whose movement makes them very watchable. However, professional dancers often retire from the stage in their mid-30s and the process of ageing is commonly believed to make bodies ‘unwatchable’. Age and dancing (unless it’s tea dances at the top of Blackpool Tower) just seem incongruous in our society. We are constantly bombarded with young and agile bodies in popular culture and older bodies are considered ‘unsuitable’ for public viewing.
Justine Coupland decided to explore this further in a very interesting and unique investigation in which she joined a contemporary dance class comprising fifteen females, aged between 42 and 74 (average age 55). She was keen to find out whether dance could somehow help people to escape from socially imposed negative ideas about ageing and attempted to answer this through studying the language that they used to talk about their classes. During the series of lessons, Coupland collected data through interviews conducted with the class members and their teacher and ‘dance diaries’ that the participants wrote.
Coupland also participated herself, building up a relationship of trust with the women which enabled her to prompt certain discussions. One of these invited the class members to write diary entries about the use of the mirror in class. During the first lesson, the teacher had closed the curtains over the mirror, causing much audible relief. Coupland felt that this indicated that the students were accepting their own ‘unwatchability’. On analysing their written language, she found that this seemed to be true. For example, one participant, Sarah, disowned her own reflection by using definite articles (the) instead of possessive pronouns (my), writing All I see are the lines, the ageing face and it gets me down. Another, Linda, objectified her age-stigmatizing hands: I find I am hiding my hands – they look so old!
However, it seems that not all the participants feel this self-conscious. Jude felt quite cross about not being able to see her body in the mirror. She used the first person I many times in her writing and clearly shows a strong sense of self: When I was young I used to look at myself in windows and outside (I was gorgeous). I hardly look at myself in shop windows anymore, not that I have a problem with the way I look, but I don’t feel the need to continually check. I feel more secure in who I am…
Coupland then asked the dancers to sum up how they felt after a class. One dancer, Nia, volunteered the adjective elevated and continued this metaphor explaining that dance builds you up and has an emotional and spiritual side. Analysing this, Coupland surmises that the movement of dance somehow seems to ‘remove’ these women from their bodies and embue them with a sense of empowerment that they do not experience in other aspects of their lives. This sense is also reflected in the metaphor and following adjective used here by Susan, when I’m dancing I feel I’m in my own little bubble, invincible.
Coupland concludes that whatever culture we’re part of, we live in and through our bodies. Our society is prejudiced against the ageing body but, as Coupland found in her data, dance can be a way for women to reformulate how they think about themselves in the midst of such prejudice. There is no denying that the women in her study still regret the passing of their youth and feel unwatchable at times. However, they also seem to be able to contrast the ‘look’ of ageing with deeper feelings that dance gives them. It is fascinating and enlightening to consider not only the fact that dance offers a way of escaping from the restrictive sense of ageing in an increasingly young society but also that it is the dancers’ language that reveals their true, often subconscious feelings.
Coupland, Justine (2013) Dance, ageing and the mirror: Negotiating watchability. Discourse and Communication 7(1): 3-24.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle