In praise of the humble hobby

Boy on hobbyhorse, illustration from Little Songs, 1889 (public domain)
Boy riding a hobbyhorse

 

bootcamp2015-small 2(This article is adapted from the original record of my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years.) In which I consider certain peripheral amusements and reject a paradoxical call to regard them all as significant vocations.

 

The fifth item on the agenda of my Boot Camp for the Bonus years was “Commit to hobbies.” Thus commanded my inner Sergeant Major. How strange, I thought, as I wrote it on the list of 12 tasks. Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I struggled to perceive any logical reason for this task, but eventually conceded that the following might be true. As we gear up for the final decades of life, it seems sensible to have hobbies that demand our very best, because hobbies can provide so many of the essentials for a good (older) life. For example, a social life—endless learning—a sense of mastery—inner or outer travel—a weekly schedule—aesthetic or physical or mental satisfaction—self expression—a purpose in life, even. I could carry on all day about the theoretical benefits of hobbies.

Also, while spying on other retirees, I could see that the lack of hobbies could be a handicap. After leaving paid employment, your days and weeks can seem shapeless, lonely or bleak if you have to construct a schedule from scratch. A hobby is often much wider than a personal pursuit: it may involve regular meetings or rehearsals every week, and a role to replace the old one.

Mind you, starting a hobby after retirement is a bit on the late side for some people. Best have at least some hobby-habits set up in advance, I thought.

Hobby: the etymology belittles the passion

I have been rather puzzled about hobbies all my life. Stamp collecting was the archetypal hobby of the 1940s, and as a child I couldn’t see the appeal, not at all. I had no idea about the many pleasures of philately, including a potential income. One person’s hobby is another person’s job.

 

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Le Philateliste, Francois Barraud, public domain

Hobby is a peculiar word. It looks kind of silly on the page. This noun does not invite us to take it seriously. Two dictionary definitions:

  1. An activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Synonyms: pastime, amateur interest, sideline…
  2. Short for hobby horse.

Now, what’s a hobby horse?

  1. A child’s toy consisting of a stick with a model of a horse’s head at one end.
  2. A preoccupation or favourite topic.

With such a heritage, no wonder hobbies have a bad name. A crude toy, a cheap imitation, a childish, pointless substitute for a real occupation, an autodidact’s boring obsession… No wonder I was shocked to see this item on my own agenda: did I even have hobbies, and if so, why was I supposed to take them seriously?

Whenever I think I’ve got it sussed, I am so wrong.

For a retired person, which are leisure time activities?

I am still trying to figure this out. What is my work, now that I’ve stopped running a business, and what are my hobbies? Surely writing is still my job. Wait, I decided that keeping fit is my job. Then again, being the body corporate chair is certainly not something I do for pleasure, so is that an unpaid part-time job?

What’s a job, after retirement? Is it something you have to do whether you like it or not? Is it your top priority, something you were born to do? Is it simply work that you’re paid to do?

As for my own hobbies, should I include reading, watching TV, walking, socialising, Tai Chi, cooking,  travel — the list is endless, the list is life!

My two designated hobbies: singing and dancing

It took me until November of my boot camp year to even consider this particular challenge, but then suddenly, it became easy peasy. I was home and hosed, I’d passed before I even started examining my so-called (sarcastic quote marks) “hobbies”.

That’s because I cheated: I decided arbitrarily that dancing and singing should be my designated hobbies, because I was already fully committed to both.

By November 2015 I had been dancing in the Crows Feet Dance Collective for 9 years and singing in Wellington’s Capital Choir for 12 years. As for commitment — that year we danced a major new work The Armed Man five times in three venues, and the choir premiered a brilliant new work that I’d been heavily involved in creating: Shaky Places: a song cycle of New Zealand poems for mixed voices. Whew, what a year.

So you’d think I would just need to tick the boxes, wouldn’t you? Commit to hobbies?Pass!

The boot camp was a serious short-term hobby

However, my Boot Camp for the Bonus Years was never about ticking boxes. I undertook the boot camp in my leisure time, from choice, but it never felt like a hobby. It felt like a serious commitment that might cause me some pain, and would end after my year of being old.

Which is a bit like what my inner Sergeant Major was calling for. I think she wants me to give my best to every activity that I choose to do for my own amusement. To do each one to the best of my ability, or not at all. It’s about a professional commitment to do my best at leisure activities that I love, even though they are not my life work, and may seem trivial to others.

Tough titties, Sergeant Major! I’m not going overboard just because you say so. I’m not a perfectionist: I’m a very very-goodist, which is better. I’m right, you’re wrong, suck it up!

Aiming for perfection is counterproductive

As I said, commitment is natural for me with dancing and singing. But how about my other possibly-hobbies, like reading and gardening and Tai Chi? To heck with it— I’m letting myself off the hook.

  • I love reading, and I do it all the time; but I don’t write reviews or join book groups or read scholarly journals.
  • I like gardening, and I like to do this about four times a year.
  • I love Tai Chi, and I do it for 7 minutes every morning.

Enough. If I gave the same level of dedication to every hobby, what a mess my life would be. First to suffer would be dancing and choir.

A modified version of the boot camp task

Commit to one or two leisure activities, and enjoy others without commitment or guilt. And blob out whenever you need to, OK?

What are your thoughts? I’ve got a lot to learn and I hope you’ll help me!


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How dancing has improved the function of an aging brain

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Antique dancers’ brains benefit from dancing antique Greek dances

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(Written in 2015.) In which I perform a scientific analysis of the effect of dancing on an aging brain: three out of four cognitive skills have shown a marked improvement.

 

I belong to the Crows Feet Dance Collective. We rehearse once a week for 90 minutes and every year we perform a brand new contemporary dance show. “New”: that means every rehearsal is a learning session.

Any sort of dancing must surely be good for you physically, improving balance, flexibility, strength, and the cardio-vascular system. And let’s take it for granted that dancing is usually a social activity, which is also important for older people.

But how about the brain? Does dancing really make you smarter, as some research seems to suggest?*

I began dancing 9 years ago, aged 66, and I’ve been reflecting on certain cognitive changes that I can attribute largely to dancing. So consider me a walking, talking, fully subjective before-and-after case study.

Three cognitive skills have become much sharper: orientation, proprioception and kinaesthetic learning. I know: I was there. For my first four or five years I blundered around the floor in utter confusion. But eventually the truth emerged: yes, even at an advanced age, even with an incompetent driver, my brain was capable of benefiting.

Alas, I still give myself a Fail for focus, on which everything else depends. I understand that concentration does tend to get more difficult with age. But the other three areas of my dancing brain have improved so much that I will not give up.

Orientation: much improved

In the everyday world, I’m pretty good at knowing north/south/east and west. Provided you remain in the same hemisphere, sensing the compass points is not too difficult (hint: look for the sun).

But in a dance studio, orientation is not so simple. You’re whizzing around rapidly, occupying different areas, changing directions, spinning, turning left, right and upside down, told to face upstage or downstage or left or right or this corner or that corner, and you’re surrounded by other rapidly moving dancers. For the first few years, yes, years, I was constantly confused about orientation.

My sense of helpless confusion has passed. If at times I do get confused about orientation, I get it sorted pretty quickly.

Proprioception: a new era of awareness

It’s hard enough to pronounce this word, let alone actually do it. Proprioception is the sense of where each part of your own body is in space. Precisely where are your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your back, your head at this moment? At what angle is each leg, each arm?

Maybe I needed this skill more than most. I used to live in my head. I functioned OK, but in fact I had hardly any awareness of my body at all. I was aware of my busy little brain going 90 miles an hour, but as for my body, it was a kind of blur that came along for the ride. It was attached to me, but what it was doing—who knew?

Without good proprioception, you would never learn any choreography—your body would always be doing its own thing. You have to know how a certain position feels in your body: you can’t keep checking up, glancing at your limbs while you dance.

Happily, my propriocentric awareness has rocketed.

Kinaesthetic learning: damn fine

I learn so much faster now than before. Only a few years ago I would spend the whole rehearsal blundering from one move to another, copying the other dancers, thinking step by step in a dislocated juddering sequence of events.  Bend this bit, now flick that bit, right foot first, triplet, stop, run, stretch right… And I would use every memory aid I could concoct. Drawings. Diagrams. Videos. Narratives. Lists.

In those early years, learning choreography was horribly slow and horribly painful. Even when I could remember the moves, I was never really dancing. Still, by the time we performed I could stumble through my stuff more or less in the right place most of the time.

To be fair, learning new dances is pretty demanding on the brain. You’re watching and listening, and integrating oral instructions with your body, the music, other dancers and the geography of the dance floor. It’s not easy, which is why I like it.

Let me be blunt. I will never learn at a fraction of a young person’s pace. We all notice that. But when I compare my 75-year-old self with my 66-year-old self, the difference startles me. My muscle memory is stronger, and sometimes I even get that magical sense of flow.

Focus: must try harder

The one cognitive skill that I’m not happy with is my ability to focus.

It’s embarrassing to realise that I often look as if I don’t know the dance—but I do know the dance! I’ve just lost my focus temporarily.

In rehearsal, loss of focus is a nuisance and slows learning down. On stage, loss of focus can be a disaster.

Admittedly, it’s more difficult dancing in performance. The space is completely different, the lights are bright, you have to dodge obstacles, the auditorium is pitch black, and tension is high.

One night during our last season, I performed a brief involuntary solo. Inside, I was mortified, but I bluffed my way back to the gang. The stage was very busy at that point with at least 20 dancers in action, so I pretend that nobody noticed.

Next step: mindful dancing

Thus I give myself a 75% pass, which leaves room for cognitive improvement in the last 25% of my life. That’s great, because my motto is: Don’t peak too soon.

This is my boot camp goal: to focus on the dance consistently. In other words, to be mindful while dancing. To notice when my mind wanders and bring it back to the task at hand… and not to be too hard on myself.

The joy of dancing is immense. I want to carry on learning and growing and stretching myself body and mind and soul until I drop. And I don’t want to disappoint myself or my fellow dancers, who are all dear to me. For all these reasons, I will do my uttermost to focus on focus.


 


Use it or lose it: dancing makes you smarter, longer

Robert Powers of Stanford Dance summarises relevant research and its implications for us.

Image from The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures (1916) Emmanuel, Maurice. In the public domain.

Dancing with aphantasia

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Right, in half an hour I’m off to the Crows Feet Dance Collective dress rehearsal for our new show, Hakari. And because I finally grasp the fact that I have Aphantasia, I will be dancing with some new insights into how I learn the necessary choreography compared with how others learn.

At last I understand why I’m the one who needs the following aids to learning.

  • I take videos of each dance for learning purposes
  • I keep a notebook
  • I make little diagrams of our placement on the floor at the start of each movement
  • I create little stories to remember the order of things (don’t ask — they are crazy)
  • I give labels to movements or poses (tai chi, swish, tiptoes, Peter Pan, tootsies, windmill, Krishna and so forth)
  • I silently recite little mantras like 1, 2, skippity hop.

When I rehearse a dance in my head, I feel it in my body.

And all this is not because at 76 I’m the oldest dancer on the floor. It’s because I cannot picture the dance in my mind’s eye.  I can feel with my mind’s body. And I can hear the accompanying music in my mind’s ear. But I cannot see it with my non-existent mind’s eye.

Clever little brain, ay? Who else do you know with this fun condition?

Crows Feet Dance Collective on Facebook

 

 

Jo-joy of dancing: how to dance better

crows-rehearse

This week, I discovered something wonderful: the simple act of smiling can make a difficult learning task easy and fun.

The Crows Feet Dance Collective is at that scary moment, ten days before the first performance of a new show. Our sub-group is a wee bit fraught as we struggle to clean up technique on two new dances, both of which are difficult in their way. Secretly we fear that the show cannot possibly be ready for opening night. OK, that’s normal and it happens every year.

Anyway, at Sunday rehearsal I looked around and saw many anxious faces. That seemed reasonable: most of us are not able to smile on stage until we have mastered the choreography. It is surely false to smile when you feel as if you are bumbling around, that you’ll let the side down, that you’ll never get it right.

Or is it?

A Jo epiphany: if you love dancing, show it!

Then I thought about Jo, a star of our group and a dear friend, our lovely Jo who had just left town to live in another city. Jo is charismatic on stage: you can’t take your eyes off her. This is partly because of her beauty and grace, but also because a transcendent joy of dancing shines out of her face.

Then I thought, Rachel, you love dancing too. That’s why you’re here! Why not show your delight instead of exuding strain and effort? You have plenty to smile about. If messing up on stage is your worst worry, you are living the dream.

So I decided to smile. I began to smile on purpose. And immediately, two marvellous things happened.

Marvellous thing #1: joy squashes worry

I felt the muscles of my face come alive. (Perhaps they were dancing.) I felt the joy of dancing rush back into me. I truly truly enjoyed every minute of the next rehearsal. Faith, hope and charity returned. Charity? I felt my smile was a gesture of loving kindness towards myself. I forgive myself for bumbles and failings — let them go! If I’m dancing and doing my best, that’s enough.

I did expect this when I turned on the smile: that kind of effect is pretty well documented. But I did not anticipate the next marvellous thing.

Marvellous thing #2: joy improves technique

Who knew? At last night’s rehearsal I made fewer mistakes. I recovered faster than usual when I did make a mistake. I absorbed corrections faster too: I made nice progress with some tricky bits.

Of course I don’t know the reason but I can guess. I didn’t waste energy straining or beating myself up. I remembered why I was dancing: not because I want to be a prima ballerina but because I love it. And so I had a happy evening with my friends.

I’m learning two lessons again. Smiling heals, if you can do it. Dancing heals, if you let it.

When we perform, I’ll be the one spaced out on the joy of the dance. If I get out of step or do an involuntary solo, I’ll forgive myself and I hope you will too.

————-

Photo of rehearsal by Crows Feet Dance Collective
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