“Serendipity” is how Eileen Standley, dance professor at ASU, explains how Enmei (long life) came to be. Originating in April 2016, Enmei is a dance research initiative that began with three Arizona State University faculty: Mary Fitzgerald, Eileen Standley, and Rose Weitz. The project has been studying how different cultures value, or devalue, the aging body by working with mid- to late-aged artists in the US and Japan. Furthermore, they have been studying how aging and wellness affect the experience of a female dancer.

Fitzgerald and Standley, both faculty members of the Herberger Institute for Design and Arts, initially formed the project before collaborating with Weitz, faculty member at the School for Social Transformation. While Fitzgerald and Standley studied the choreographic and performance elements for this project, Weitz helped investigate and write about the cultural significance of aging.

Two Japanese dance choreographers, Kei Takei and Masako Kitaura, were also a part of the research and choreography team. Kei Takei, who is currently in her 80s, and Fitzgerald met years ago when Takei had her own dance company based in New York, and she has served as a mentor for Fitzgerald ever since. Takei and Kitaura were instrumental in this overseas collaboration that culminated in a number of performances across the country. Though their partnerships were unplanned, they have led to a project much larger in scope and significance than they intended.

All three faculty were interested in dance and ageism: messages that you're too old to dance after a certain age. According to Standley, dancers in the US are considered over the hill by 35. This notion strongly contrasts with the European view where dancers in their 30's are still taken very seriously. Specifically, in Germany and The Netherlands there remains strong community support for dancers above the age of 40. This community support is rooted in older, more traditional dance companies and more accessible funds for older dancers.

The cultural variations intrigued the researchers. With their connections to Japanese choreographers, the three faculty members received a seed grant from the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU to study Japanese beliefs about older dancers. All three of them visited Japan in October, 2016. During their time there, they conducted interviews with six mid- to late-aged career dance artists, led contemporary based dance workshops for local University Japanese athletes, and were choreographed pieces with Takei and  Kitaura.

All three of them recognized more prevalent ageism in the US compared to Japan. Fitzgerald claims this could be because it is difficult for audiences in the US to understand different styles and virtuosity. In the US, older dancers are “fighting an expectation” that dancers should push their bodies to extremes. More is always better and is seen as the ultimate goal. With those cultural expectations attached to dance, audiences and choreographers are drawn to younger dancers. However, Weitz underlines the fact that “both cultures are complex with variants and subcultures, and can’t easily be summarized” through their experiences.

Weitz describes Japanese culture as rooted in strong familial units, with a long tradition of venerating the elderly. For example, while in Japan, she was consistently served first because she was the oldest. The elderly are given this respect across the culture because they have had the time to mature and grow. Weitz also spoke about the emphasis the Japanese place on appreciating the Earth, nature and spirituality. This veneration is like the traditional gold material of a Kimono costume, “The gold on the material references 'kintsugi' the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold leaf adhesive—philosophically transforming what is old, discarded or broken into something more valuable and beautiful than the original.” This cultural view allows older Japanese dancers to remain revered and be considered “National Living Treasures”.

Dancers in Japan remain more resilient than American dancers for a variety of reasons. They begin most movement classes by stretching for 3 hours. This heavily contrasts to US movement classes where dance is more technique and choreography focused. In Japan, there is value in a variety of meditative practices including martial arts, yoga and massage, which helps keep energy sustained throughout the body. Dancers in Japan take part in these different movement classes in order to help further their skills as performers. Movement practices are also ingrained in their lives: stretching on subways, affordable shiatsu massages and holistic medical practices help build a culture of care and bring constant awareness of the body. They found that the Japanese focus on somatics allows dancers to dance longer.

As a part of this project, all three ASU faculty have noticed a shift in their attitudes about resilience and being an older dancer. Fitzgerald trained more intensely and wasmore mentally focused on her surroundings as a performer. She learned to honor where her body is now and has realized that she can still be a strong performer with a different discipline. Standley questioned herself as a dancer once she reached her 50's and admits that she was challenged by her own ageist notions: she constantly wondered if her movement was interesting or vibrant enough for audiences. However, these notions were dispelled through the guidance Takai offered them. Takai’s passion for her work showed her that age does not limit a dancer. The way Takai continues to perform is very inspiring to Standley and helps her mitigate her ageist assumptions. After the first ASU performance took place on June 10, 2017, Weitz continued to be impressed by the dancers and their commitment to dance.

The three faculty members have plans to develop Enmei beyond the seed grant. In March 2018 they will be performing at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts as a part of their Japanese showcase. Takei and  Kitaura will be coming to the United States for the performance and have their own pieces to display as well. The show will be about an hour long and will include both the Japanese and American dancers. Later in 2018, they plan to have many local performances and two performances in Chicago. They have also been attending dance and movement conferences to present their research. The three faculty members are creating a documentary to share their experiences in Japan and to visually detail their thinking processes throughout the project. They also plan to have workshops in the future to work with older and younger people to help dispel ageist notions and create a welcoming environment for dancers of all ages.

Article written by Arathi Kulkarni