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Not for the Faint of Heart


Youth is fleeting, but artistry is forever

By Catherine Samardza

Those of us who spend our lives in dance understand its many evolutions: from student to professional, performer to teacher, choreographer to administrator. Yet we remain students of dance, attending conferences and seminars to continue our dance education. Sometimes I find what I learn has nothing to do with pliés and tendus. At other times, what I learn is a reminder of something I knew all along.

Mental and physical flexibility are crucial to dancers as they age, Catherine Samardza says. (Photo by Tagg Le Duc)

I thought of these lessons, new and old, after performing at a concert in May 2009 where most of the dancers were over 50 and one woman proudly claimed to be 86. (It was so much fun that we did it again in May of this year.) Here’s what I’ve learned: dance is not just for the young. It’s not just pink tights, tutus, and Nutcrackers. Dance is not for the faint of heart. You can dance as long as you want to, but if you decide to dance into old age, don’t take yourself too seriously.

No age limits here
I am director and choreographer of Itinerant Dance Theater, made up of adult dancers with full-time jobs, families, and bills to pay. Some are in their 30s, but most company members are over 50, including myself. I am 55. Before forming Itinerant Dance in 1993, I was ballet mistress for the Delaware Dance Company after spending 15 years in New York, where I directed Indigent DanceWorks and was associate director for Maureen Gelchion/Astoria Dance Theater.

With Itinerant Dance, I sometimes will choreograph lyrical modern dances using the Horton vocabulary, but mostly what we perform is “family-friendly comedy dance.” We use lots of props—hats, giant crayons, parasols, drums, even kitchen utensils. Our repertoire includes tributes to Stomp and Isadora Duncan, as well as spoofs of mimes or the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. One song, a Broadway-type spoof of “Old Man River,” announces that we are “older dancers, much older dancers.”

We are often paid for our performances—not enough for each individual dancer, but enough to cover the cost of rehearsal space, costumes, and travel. Our rehearsal includes company warm-up, which includes a mix of yoga, Pilates, and Horton exercises; the rest of our time is spent working on new material or rehearsing an upcoming show.

All of that makes us very different from other Delaware dance companies, even the other adult companies. But because we make use of comedy and we’re “old,” we don’t get much respect from the local dance community. It hasn’t stopped us, but it can be a little depressing.

So when we heard about “Ageless Grace,” a concert sponsored by Dance Baltimore and the Baltimore Theatre Project that was to feature dancers over 40, we applied to take part. After years of being dismissed by our own dance community as “not really dancers,” here was a community that wanted to celebrate us—and pay us, as well!   

Mature bodies, brave hearts
The “Ageless Grace” audience was sophisticated but not classically oriented, and the performers were diverse: flamenco, storytelling dance, precision line, liturgical dance, tap, and us—comedy dance. It was a great show, and we had a great time.

We were one of the most athletic groups, despite our history of surgeries and rehabs. I may be classically trained, but I also continue to dance after three knee surgeries (including a partial knee replacement), foot surgery, a partially torn Achilles tendon, and two shoulder injuries. One of my dancers, a musical theater performer, underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. A woman who danced as a child, then had careers as a costumer and actress, has undergone surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Another found dance as an adult, performed with Urban 15 in Texas, and dances today despite nerve problems in her shoulder.

Dance is not just for the young. You can dance as long as you want to, but if you decide to dance into old age, don’t take yourself too seriously.

So we don’t do multiple pirouettes, or saut de chats, or high extensions. Our dances use nonstop walking and running, or falling and rolling on the floor. In one dance, we make a chain by holding onto one leg of the person behind, hopping on the other, and singing. (The singing comes after all that running, rolling, and hopping.)

If you dance as you get older, you must change not just what you do but how you do it. Technique helps, but performance carries the day. And dancers intent on dancing through their middle and senior years must be adaptable—mentally and physically.

Comedic inspiration
Because my company is small and adaptable, we do many performances in libraries. While some libraries have good-sized multipurpose rooms, others have nothing to offer but a 10-foot-square carpeted corner. The library audience can range from toddlers to seniors.

Our show might be the first live dance performance that some of these children have ever seen. While I take that seriously, I also know the dances must be entertaining—and brief, for those short attention spans. So we reach into our own “inner child” for inspiration. We steal props from one another and squabble over them, pretend to dance on a high wire, and bang on kitchen utensils.

In building these library programs, I discovered something. And that realization (which came to me when I realized I had a show to do when I was four months post-op from knee replacement surgery) provided the name for our 30-minute show: “Sometimes You Just Need to Be Silly.”

Technique gets harder as the body ages; however, performing artistry improves and gets easier. We learn to use what we have and adapt what we must to continue dancing. Our comedy dance may appear technically easy, but it demands a high level of performance—musicality, timing, energy, prop handling. The company members and I collaborate on new works; that allows us to keep a wide point of view and includes room for all members to work to their strengths. At this stage of our careers, it’s not always about challenging ourselves physically. Been there, done that. Humor helps us spread the message that everyone can dance.

 “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz, via his character of Snoopy, understood dance. There are two Snoopy quotes I have taken to heart ever since my first knee surgery at age 19: “To those of us with real understanding, dancing is the only true art form.”

I realize that is debatable. The second, however (taken from a sticker that dates back to my 1973 knee surgery) is not: “If you can’t dance, at least do a happy hop.”



One Response to “Not for the Faint of Heart”

  • Grace Pettijohn:

    What a beautiful, lifelong dedicated testimony to the ever healing art form of dance. I feel energized just reading it and it makes me want to do it all again, because there are others out there that feel the same way I do. I am a singing teacher but in my heart I will always be a dancing journeyman! Hats off to Catherine Smarzda and all her valiant efforts!

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