Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project

Award Year: 
Project Director(s): 

Mary Fitzgerald, Associate Professor, School of Film, Dance and Theatre
Eileen Standley, Clinical Professor, School of Film, Dance and Theatre
Rose Weitz, Professor, School of Social Transformation

"Enmei (Long Life): A Dance and Aging Project" interweaves the collection and analysis of narratives, storytelling and dance making to examine the ways in which different cultures value (or devalue) the aging body. Mid- to late-career dance artists and scholars from the U.S. and Japan will bring their varied life — and bodily — experiences together to explore how cultural ideas about aging and gender inform the lives, embodied experience and wellness of female dancers (and, by extension, of non-dancers). The project culminated in an event at ASU that included a talk placing the work in broader cultural context, a discussion of our research process, the premiere of a documentary and performance of a new dance piece.



“Serendipity” is how Eileen Standley, a dance professor at ASU, explains how "Enmei" (meaing "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 studies how different cultures value or devalue the aging body by working with mid- to late-aged artists in the U.S. and Japan. Furthermore, they study 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 has 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. According to Standley, dancers in the U.S. are considered over the hill by 35. This notion strongly contrasts with the European view where dancers in their 30s are still taken very seriously. This type of community support is rooted in more traditional dance companies and more accessible government funds for older dancers. These cultural variations intrigued the researchers, so with their connections to Japanese choreographers, the three faculty members applied and received a Seed Grant from the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU to study Japanese impressions of older dancers. All three 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 choreographed pieces with Takei and Kitaura.

All three scholars recognized more prevalent ageism in the U.S. compared to Japan. Dr. Fitzgerald claims this could be because it is difficult for audiences in the U.S. to understand different styles and virtuosity. In the U.S., 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.

Generally, 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 [kimono costumes] references kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken poetry with gold leaf adhesive—philosophically transforming what is old, discarded or broken into something more valuable and beautiful than the original.” 

According to Weitz, all resilient dancers do not stop dancing with age and are consciously aware of the movements they can improve. Standley explained this kind of resilience through the analogy of a Buckeye ball. She claimed that “resilience, physically, takes root in the bones and muscles. There is a sense of openness and being able to counterbalance this with flexibility and strength allows one to be resilient.” This ability, to welcome what isn’t familiar and adapt to the situation at hand, allows dancers to remain resilient.

Fitzgerald added that resilient Japanese dancers, instead of trying to create movement where dancers are continuously overexerting themselves, try to obtain a sense of presence. This presence has origins in the art of Kabuki, Japanese theater, where this skill is highly valued. Having presence consists of grabbing the attention of an audience even though the dancers are not stretching their movement to their limits. On the contrary, this presence comes with age and time. Older Japanese artists have learned the skill of having presence as performers because this skill improves with age. Dancers who persist have this refined capacity that comes when the extremity of their body diminishes. Fitzgerald and Standley, both having injured themselves in their dance careers, agree that it is imperative for students to take care of themselves early in their somatic practices to allow them to remain resilient as they become older dancers.   

Dancers in Japan remain more resilient than American ones over the years for a variety of reasons. They begin most movement classes by stretching for three hours. This heavily contrasts to U.S. 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 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 has trained more intensely and is 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 50s 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 Kai offered them. Kai’s passion for her work showed her that age does not limit a dancer.