I Joined A Dance Company at Age 41

As a child I wanted to become a dancer, but, as happens to so many people, life — in the form of three children and a stint in the Army — got in the way.
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Jennifer Webster
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As a child I wanted to become a dancer, but, as happens to so many people, life — in the form of three children and a stint in the Army — got in the way.
Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

As a child I wanted to become a dancer, but, as happens to so many people, life — in the form of three children and a stint in the Army — got in the way. When my oldest son started college, I decided it was time to put on my slippers again.

I was lucky enough to stumble across a group of people studying improvisational dance with Ann Law, choreographer, dancer, performance artist, impresario and mad genius of the Chattanooga dance scene. 

We were mostly artists of some kind; not everyone was a dancer. Some students were children. Others were long retired. We didn’t wear slippers; we danced barefoot.

Most times, no music played. We listened to our breath. To our footsteps on the floor. To the rustle of big swaths of fabric we tugged or caressed as we moved. Sometimes, to a live drummer-accompanist. We looked at video and imitated. We spent three weeks modeling choreo on Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance, an earthy, feminist piece. 

As Ann’s program evolved, I looked for a more regimented underpinning for my dancing. I had seen WEAVE: A Conceptual Dance Company practicing in our shared space, Chattanooga’s Barking Legs theater. I took a class and I was hooked.

The first few classes — all right, the first few months of classes — all right, maybe still — I spent standing and staring while people sped around me. I had forgotten how to learn choreography the first time someone demonstrated it. Or the 10th time. Or even how to look at a movement and imitate it. I watch someone moving their left arm and my right arm jerks.

Here are some other things that have surprised me about dancing at 41:

1. I’m always tired. ALWAYS TIRED. After three hours of class capped by an hour of rehearsal, the young folks are ready for cappuccinos and a night of partying. I am ready for wine and an episode of Sherlock. How do they do it?

2. Young people and old people can make excellent friends. In dance, the typical boundaries don’t always apply. My dance friends range in age from 12 to 70. They’re male and female, queer and straight, able-bodied and disabled.

3. When you’ve had three kids, if you extend one foot into an elevated split and put your face on the knee of your standing leg, your stomach will hang down toward the ground like an empty sack. This is just fine.

Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

Kinesthetic learning and memory are skills like math. Unless you use them, you lose them. The Institute for Learning Styles Research describes the kinesthetic modality as learning by doing. Years of conditioning to learn by taking verbal direction or studying a screen or watching a PowerPoint really strengthens to other learning styles: print, for instance. As you get older and specialize in a career or just a comfortable habit, you get better at what you practice and lose what you don’t.

I only had the less useful, more annoying, remnants of kinesthesia at my disposal: a tendency to fidget, hyperactivity, movement as a mode of concentration.

But you can always retrain. You relearn how to watch dancing, how to see movement, how to imitate it, how to retain it in your muscles and bones. You repeat, like a baby babbling words, over and over and over. Left foot. No, left. Left foot and right hand move at the same time. I can do that? Do what? Left foot, left hand? No. Left and right. At the same time. Do it. No, that wasn’t it. What?

If you’re starting dance — or a sport, or Basic Training — when you’ve spent years behind a desk, learning to learn in a new mode may be the most frustrating part. After all, simple physical feats are easy, conceptually. You learn to do one push up, and you keep doing that same push up. Over. And over. And over.

With choreo, especially in contemporary dance where ballet vocabulary only covers a tiny fraction of the ever-expanding patois of possible movements, you have to learn how to learn. And then you have to keep figuring out how to learn.

“Practice more,” my artistic director tells me. “You aren’t remembering well enough. You can’t make any errors.”

Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

Travis Upton/Mr. Chattanooga Photography

Recent research suggests that new memories may rewrite old memories … so I always wonder what I’m overwriting, and whether it’s important. Maybe I’m replacing basic math with popping and locking? Or cooking and sewing with petit allegro? Will I ever miss it?

And then, there’s the question of what I want to say with dance. If I’m telling you about my body, not even trying to send a message or tell a story, if there’s nothing going on but self-expression at its most basic level, still, I’m speaking.

I see young folks around me saying something like: I am sexy. I am beautiful. Or maybe, I want to be sexy. I want to be beautiful. Of course, that’s me, looking from the outside. I could be reading them all wrong. 

But seriously, if you’re a teenager, you are lovely. There is no need for self-doubt. Genderqueer, cisgender, able, disabled, chubby, boney, sinewy, wispy. It doesn’t matter. You’re luminous. Just wait 20 years and you’ll see what I mean. You now how babies are always adorable? Well, you’re always adorable. You glow from within.

But back to the point, what my body is saying is probably something closer to: Entropy. Process. Entropy. Change. And yes, someone might need to tell — to dance — this story.

My teenager and I are walking down the sidewalk of an arty tourist-trap district one Sunday evening. A busker is playing a bagpipe. I think that I want to jig. So I do start to jig. My teenager tries to stop me, fails, and walks about a block away, pretending he doesn’t know me.

People pause their evening strolls and gather around. They put money in the busker’s cap. They clap — not for me, because I really can’t jig — but because right now I’m saying, Listen to this music. Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t this young hipster with the slim jeans and the beard and the bagpipes working some magic?

And when they stop to listen, they think so, too. Even my teenager, who does manage to rejoin me, once I’ve stopped jigging.

I don’t know where this journey is going, which is perhaps the point. But I’d like to tell you, whoever you are: Whatever you want to learn, try. You can learn.