Lessons from dancing “How To Be Old”

4 older women in costume on stage, 3 dancing a pony step and one reciting a poem. (A headset appears to lengthen the poet's nose!)
Performing How To Be Old with my three white-haired dancing friends

I performed a poem without a book in my hand, supported by three mature women dancing How To Be Old.

This was different: I wasn’t on stage alone, or sitting in a row of poets. Instead, I was supported by a team. And I learned some big lessons about dancing, poetry, communication and life.

What was different about rehearsing and performing this time

The occasion was Show Ponies, a poets’ cabaret, performed twice in one evening at Meow. Eight poets strutted their stuff, behaving like eccentric pop stars or burlesque queens. Lights, music, dancers, costumes and smoke machines! Show Ponies was part of Wellington’s awesome Verb Readers and Writers Festival. The sold-out audiences were there to make whoopee, and so were we.

Older dancers on stage changed everything

So the cabaret factor was a brand new challenge for me. I decided to drag my friends into my act and hey, did they deliver. My back-up team of three Crows Feet dancers changed everything. (The photo above catches them in the act of playing on the Show Ponies theme.)

Rehearsing a dance to a poem

As we rehearsed, we discovered all sorts of quirks involved to dancing to the sound, rhythm, speed and feeling of a poem.

  • How literal should movements be? (Answer: in tune with the mood, but alluding to only a few lines.)
  • Poet and dancers: who sets the pace? (The poet, because audience reactions change everything.)
  • What to do with the inevitable but unpredictable audience laughter? (Revert to a default step.)
  • What to do if I mess up my lines? (The dancers figured out a way to prompt me as part of the dance.)
  • How much to move around the stage? (Very little: our model was not Hamlet or Swan Lake but Ronni and the Ronnettes.)

I so loved being part of it and watching my three friends collaborate to create a charming dance that was fully in tune with the poem. After years of dancing together with Crows Feet, they functioned as a seamless creative unit.

Dressing up

If you want to lose your nerves, dress up! Then you sort-of become someone different. And why would that other character be nervous? I can’t pretend I wasn’t a pile of jittering jabbering panic for most of the previous week. But β€” dress up and have a banana!

We all wore mauve net skirts. And we all chose brightly coloured tops. The design plan was to look kind of bonkers and extreme, maybe in a sexy way. The other performers wore anything from silver shorts to a ginormous wedding dress. I was lavender (the skirt) and lace (the blouse) and an orange corset over the top.

The photo above adds one more delightful twist. I used a headset mic (as usual) and it appears to lengthen my nose to witchy Halloween proportions.

Performing, not reading

I know most of my current poems pretty well but until now, I’ve always had a book in my hand. It’s my security blanket. I had never presented a poem off by heart since I was about eight, at school. Dispensing with a script was the one and only reason for my nervousness. But I did it! No problem! (Well, I messed up one line but the dancers never missed a beat.)

So now I know. I’ll never be a slam poet β€” but I can do it!

A new response to dancing How To Be Old

The poem I read is a favourite with audiences and always gets a nice reaction. But at Show Ponies, something special happened. Several young people made it clear that they’d never before thought about old age as potentially a good thing, with benefits, and β€” for whatever reason β€” they really needed that message. They were relieved. There were even some tears.

I was amazed because it’s such a light-hearted, jokey sort of poem. I was also thrilled because that means the poem can be healing and can maybe change attitudes. And under the fun of the poem, I do have a strong secret message. Not only can old age be delightful in its way, a “reward” for living a very long time. But by extension, life is worth living: it’s worth staying alive.

Reason why dancing How To Be Old had impact that night

It’s my opinion that three older dancers on stage with a poet quadrupled the impact of a poem.

I believe that the presence of Crows Feet dancers on stage helped some people to embrace the hidden message of such an un-messagy poem. It wasn’t just me claiming that old age brings many blessings. No! three beautiful mature dancers were right up there beside me, kicking up their heels, having a great time, and proving my point. Communication is mostly non-verbal, we’re told. And Annie, Trish and Liz did that outrageously well.

So Show Ponies has provided an intricate lesson for me on many levels. It will take me a while to digest, but I hope I will never forget.

Is my work on How To Be Old worthwhile?

This experience has reassured me that I’m doing something useful. Often I have doubts. We are struggling with a climate crisis and other massive global problems. So why do I spend my time indirectly encouraging better health and quality of life for our future (old) selves? I’m speaking to a cohort of people who will become privileged, merely by virtue of reaching old age. The kind words of some audience members calms my guilty fears. If my small body of work can relieve the fears or the pain of a few, that is still worthwhile. We have to do what we can do.

What do you think about this? And have you ever had a similar moment, with multiple “Aha!”s? (Yeah, I’m the punctuation queen today.)

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22 thoughts on “Lessons from dancing “How To Be Old”

  1. Your poem and the dancers were fantastic. I loved reading this post, and it made me long to see the performance live. Wow! What am impact you had! I’m sending you bushels of admiration.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you, Anne. We all inspire one another — thank goodness for friends xx

  2. Oh Rachel, you are just absolutely inspirational. I love reading about what went on behind the scenes and the success of your performance.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s so useful to analyze what went right, and why πŸ™‚

  3. cedar51 says:

    agree with Maggie – thanks for sharing.

    (I had a big aha moment this weekend, when I changed the printer settings for a moment, and something magic unfolded which will be useful in my art making)

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, you understand how exciting this process can be πŸ™‚

  4. Sadje says:

    This is really awesome work that you’re doing Rachel. I love growing older and telling young people the benefits of growing old/older is good.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Keep it up! We forget that many young people only hear one side.

      1. Sadje says:

        Very right.

  5. A wonderful, inspirational, event

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It was special!

  6. Cathy Cade says:

    I like rhythm in my poetry, but I’d never thought about dancing to it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And it’s not a thumpy dumdedum poem, either.

  7. Timi Townsend says:

    I would love to have been there! The photo and my knowledge of the poem combine to make me excited even at a remove. Brava to all of you! And I’m so happy that younger audience members got so much out of it. I love the skirts! Keep on inspiring us, please, Rachel!

  8. Please tell me it was recorded and you are issuing a deluxe edition DVD/download which will be available in time for Christmas! Looks like you all had a great time, both audience and artistes. Well done all.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      A friend recorded part of it but alas, we won’t be going commercial for now.

      1. I’ll have to wait for the comeback tour!

  9. First off, you had me at banana! That’s the performer’s secret defense against performance anxiety – plus it’s all organic & natural. I have a timed routine of when I munch on each banana (mine is a two banana process!) before a performance/presentation! πŸ™‚
    What you describe is familiar to any of us in the performing arts – at all ages. However your clear descriptions of being the performer at an older age in the realm of newer contexts is spot on and also a revelation for people in general.
    This post of your very recent experience came at the most opportune time for me personally – I’d even posit to say it’s synchronicity at its best. Many doors are beginning to re-open in a more public manner with my music. I’m confident but know many things have changed since I last performed/taught a masterclass/presented a project/etc face to face. Without bogging down in more details – I’m meeting with the director of a nearby city Arts Center this week by invitation!
    Sooo MILLE GRAZIE for your trailblazing ways which give me huge amounts of encouragement in my own ‘aging’ journey as a creative (he)artist!
    You are way cool, lady.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Laura, lovely lovely lovely! This is so good for me to read. I’m excited about the door that is opening for you right now– and your ability to kick it down if you happen to feel like that. Go go go.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    You are braver than I, but I loved reading your account. I think we do the world a great service countering the myths about old age. I refer to myself casually as old and interact as such. What a relief to not be having to pretend to be “young at heart.” My heart is old, comfortably so, just as I am.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Comfortably so”. I like the sound of that.

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