What is your primary artistic medium?
My primary artistic medium is dance — I am a modern dancer and choreographer. I am also a visual artist and have known myself to be passionate about both these art forms since the age of three. As I get older I am focusing more on my painting, but I’m still involved in dance as a teacher and performer.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I define Teaching Artist broadly to include all the teaching I have done in various venues. I began teaching dance with very young children in the parent co-operative daycare center where my children were enrolled. Then I began an after-school arts program that started with two dance classes and now, 31 years later, offers after-school classes in dance, theater, drumming, circus arts and puppetry in most of the elementary schools in Cambridge MA. I loved teaching dance from the first moment but it took me many years to become the teacher I wanted to be, and I continue to learn.
What led you to Creative Aging?
I became fascinated by the work of choreographer Liz Lerman when she first began teaching dance to elders and included older dancers in her choreography. I took a workshop with her and afterwards met up with her for a long walk that changed my life.
I began by bringing a group of older women to my dance class of 9-13 year old girls to create a piece about grandmothers. I really didn’t know how to approach it. I gave up on that project but the next year I lassoed my colleague Vicki Solomon and we pulled together a diverse inter-generational, inter-racial group of 15 women from age 12 to age 68 (including 5 professional dancers) for a three month dance and oral history workshop series. That series was extended to create a performance about our lives and experiences and that group became “Back Porch Dance Company” (1990-2001). Folks in the company began demanding a modern technique class for folks over 55 and I began one in 1992; the teachers have changed but the class continues and has provided a way for dozens of Boston area older dancers to keep dancing. Back Porch Dance Company was invited to perform and teach at many elder venues and I was the teacher — and right from the start I knew I had found a fit, a place where I could really make a difference.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
I was quite surprised by how older people who were initially wary of moving or doubtful of their abilities became empowered by dancing, and especially by integrating movement with oral history — using their stories and memories to inspire their movement imaginations.
Much of my teaching has been in single sessions in elderly housing projects; sometimes it’s been short series. I have occasionally had the opportunity to work over time with a group of elders. The difference in people’s attitudes, even after one session is remarkable. Feeling capable, active, alive, successful in a dance class translates into energy and courage to take other risks in the lives of many elders. Dancing with a partner or in a small group has the power to create connection and connection is often what is lacking in the lives of elders, especially in institutional settings. I was surprised also by how important the music I choose is. I try to find out about the group’s background and ethnicity before I plan my class and choose music that may be meaningful to them and that makes a huge difference.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
Dance is really engaging for both school children and elders because it involves the body, the mind and the spirit — and that’s a powerful combination. In both groups there are folks who are reticent and others who are ready to jump right in. Both groups respond to an approach that focuses on the group rather than on the teacher, so offering activities that help them to get to know each other is crucial. Both groups need to be given structures that are accessible, fun, and easy at first with challenges coming later. They need their efforts to be valued and validated right away so they can throw themselves into dancing. One huge difference is physical — older adults need to ease into warming up their bodies. It can be challenging to help older adults trust themselves and believe in the artistic validity of their own work; that can be less of an issue with kids, depending on the age.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
My biggest challenge is being able to stay with what I’m doing even if it doesn’t have a positive response immediately. I have to remind myself to trust the process, to sit with the quiet or the discomfort and wait and see what develops. Another challenge I have faced is being able to think quickly. If I have planned a class for able-bodied elders and five folks arrive in wheel-chairs, I need to be able to quickly adapt my material while communicating to all that this is a special opportunity for us all to create dance together.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
The most satisfying aspect of this work is to observe how much people’s affect changes from the beginning of class to the end. I can enter a room full of elders who are subdued and pretty expressionless and when I leave they are all animated, laughing, talking, smiling. Or if I’m teaching a series of classes, how much more open, responsive and creative they are by the end of the series. And how much of a community has been created among the participants. I leave knowing this work has made them healthier and
What have been memorable/funny moments?
Another time I taught a long series of classes in a housing project with a group that all knew each other well. They would try anything! They loved laughing at themselves and trying on other personas. They helped me enormously to go beyond my own boundaries and try more adventurous things. If you look at the photos, you can see how playful and devilish they were. That class taught me to never underestimate people or judge them by how they appeared.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
You need to take your work seriously, but not too seriously. To remember that your purpose is to see how your art form can serve the needs of your students. You need to be able to solicit honest feedback, because that feedback is going to determine where you need to go next with your teaching. You need to be able to value the lives and experiences of your participants and their creative contributions. You need to be able to pay attention to everyone and draw out the shyest, who given the chance may have the most amazing contributions to make. You need to be able to communicate with your body language, your smile, your attitude that everyone has value and every person has a contribution to make to the whole. You need to be able to think on your feel.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
Teaching provides me with amazing inspiration. Every time I teach, something happens that later manifests in my choreography, in my performance or in my painting. It might be a movement that someone makes, an experience a student relates or a configuration of bodies in space. Teaching dance with elders reminds me of “beginners mind”, helps to free me of preconceptions and fills me with images that later find their way into my work.
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
I have just retired as the Artistic Director of the Back Pocket Dancers, the inter-generational dance company I founded, but I am still one of the dancers. To my delight, I continue to lead the workshops that often follow our performances in older adult housing complexes.
I am preparing a 2-person show with my artist husband, Bobby Brown, from July 5 through September 9, 2016. “In Close Proximity”, at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, will explore how working close to each other impacts our work.
With dance, my greatest delight is to create choreography with groups of older adults, especially making dances that draw upon the dancers’ personal histories and I hope to have more opportunities to do this.
Thank you Joan for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.