Discipline, dance and dangerously high expectations: what a way to treat old people!

At TEDx 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand, the remarkable Billie Jordan explained how and why she formed the Hip Operation Crew, the oldest dance troupe in the world, average age 80.

Her dramatic story highlights the unwitting cruelty of agism: society has extremely low expectations of old people. You’re expected (required?) to slow down and pull out of the flow of life. Your useful working life is over, and your reward (or punishment) is to retire from living, out of sight, out of the way … without actually dying. This may be meant kindly, but it is totally demoralizing and a kind of abuse. “We should increase the pace, turn it up full throttle,” says Jordan.

Why Jordan cares about how older people are treated

Traumatised by the Christchurch killer earthquake, she moved to Waiheke Island where she felt isolated and depressed, and worse: she had an intense fear of dying. Nobody expected anything from her. She felt worthless. She saw no future for herself. It was like being … very old.

She empathised with the old people she saw, rounded them up for flash mob duty. Then she decided to set an impossibly high goal. She announced boldly that she would form the local old people into a dance group and send them to the world championships of hip hop in Las Vegas. And by gum that’s exactly what she did. “We made this pact. If anyone died during a dance, we would step over them and carry on dancing.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies in action

Her demanding style and high expectations horrified the locals at first, and transformed the dancers. They stopped talking about the past and all their talk is now about the future.

Of her 22 dancers, four use mobility aids, five have had open heart surgery, all have arthritis, six are deaf, one is blind and five have dementia. “It’s manageable,”says Billie drily.

Do watch Billie Jordan, once, twice, three times. She may transform your view of old age. This is compassion in action: relentless. And funny.

The Hip Operation is not a casual class, it’s not passive entertainment, and not everyone can stand the pace. It’s a sort of boot camp for the elderly. As for the dancers who commit and carry on, their doctors say they’re happier and healthier than they’ve ever been.

How about you? Do you think society expects too little or too much of older people?

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19 thoughts on “Discipline, dance and dangerously high expectations: what a way to treat old people!

    1. How interesting to find that you’ve been in a similar role and shared the attitude of Billie Jordan. That’s great, hello! I do find it unnerving, the way old people’s statuts can crash from capable human being to someone who needs cosseting like a baby. Handling the transition must be hard for both carers and carees.

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  1. Interesting post, Rachel. I don’t know how society views my age group, but I do think too many of us believe we are no longer capable and interesting and up to meeting challenges. On the other hand, I also know that in my case my body, particularly my knees, has slowed me from a run to a walk independent of my will and determination; and I think we have to face this reality and adapt no matter how motivated we are to be what we used to be.

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    1. So true! We need to find a path between challenge and compassion, especially for ourselves. One oddity from my family: Dad was 84, with some dementia and physically not strong. One of my sisters took him on a nostalgia trip to the Chatham Islands, where she was born — a fascinating place, and a challenging one. They had robust arguments and the whole trip was far too ambitious, we others thought. When they returned, it was obvious that Dad had been stimulated, even excited, by these difficulties and disagreements and I caught myself thinking, “I’m far too nice to him. He thrives on intellectual debate.”

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  2. I, too, have spent the past many years working with the adult population from young to old, older and oldest. Strongly agree with Billie Jordan’s perspective. Thanks for sharing.

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