Discourse & Communication 7(1) 3-24 2013

Justine Coupland Cardiff University, UK: University of Technology, Sydney, Australia 


Bodily display and self-awareness are generally mediated by restrictive ideologies of youthful beauty. ‘How do I look?’ is therefore a salient question in terms of personal ageing. Dance makes bodies watchable, while ageing has been claimed to make bodies ‘unwatchable’. Ethnographic research conducted amongst a group of older dancers provides an opportunity to study these Ideological tensions empirically, by analysing the discursive representations of older dancers and their teacher. ‘The mirror’ is a productive theme in the data, giving access to understandings of (un)watchability of more and less literal sorts. lt proves to be the case that, while dance as a practice for older women remains fitfully tainted by culturally dominant ageist assumptions about the body and ageing, it also opens up far more emancipating ideologies. Older dancers’ articulation of these ideologies are suggestive of how embodied ageing can be reconstrued, well beyond dance contexts.

Keywords Ageing, dance, ethnography, gender, identity, the mirror, watchability 

It may be true that ‘you are never too old to dance’. All the same, many genres of dance, and particularly dance performed for public scrutiny, are strongly associated with youth. Dance training tends to be undertaken in childhood or young adulthood, and professional dancers, for example in classical ballet and contemporary dance traditions, tend to pattern with professional sports people, standing down around their mid-30s (Wainwright and Turner. 2001). While there are certainly physiological and developmental factors at play here, ideological forces strongly bolster the association of dancing with youth. Restricted mobility is, for example, an ideological associate of old age, as in the stereotype of old people withdrawing from public gaze. Youthful and mobile bodies are, in contrast. voraciously publicized and consumed in popular culture. This article explores how such dominant ideologies of ageing and the body are maintained, but also in some significant ways, renegotiated, in the particular context of [Striking Attitudes]  a dance group established for older dancers. Ethnographic fieldwork allowed me to capture and analyse some of the discourses through which older women, in some cases returning to dancing after lengthy periods of time, assess the significance of dance for their evolving self-identities as older people. Can dance in some ways facilitate an escape from the most pernicious and physicalist ideologies of ageing? The data consist of interviews with dance group participants and the group’s teacher. Extracts from participants’ ‘dance diaries’, ‘written for this project, focus groups involving the same dance class members, and field notes compiled during my own involvement as a member of the group. … I organize some of the [paper]around the concept of ‘the mirror’, which focuses many key ideological and practical issues around ‘How do I look?’ …

… The atmosphere during class was relaxed. The teacher tended to gently but emphatically encourage members to work within their individual levels of fitness, comfort and confidence. Each class was two hours long, used music throughout, and began with a conventional, rather low-impact, contemporary dance warm-up. Occasionally the teacher would lead the class through a short piece she had choreographed, but more often she would talk through ideas and images for participants to use for creative dance, asking participants to interpret (in self-choreographed dance sequences), either poems that she I would read out (usually with suggested interpretations) or particular narratives or concepts that she would elaborate. In each case, the ideas were usually time- and ageing related; examples included ‘the past’, ‘the future’ and ‘the lifespan as a journey or a timeline. At one point during each class, participants were asked to work, initially alone, on a dance interpretation of one of these themes, then, through mutual discussion and practice, to arrange their initial choreographic ideas into coordinated routines to be performed in pairs, threes or fours. Each group in tum would then ‘show ‘or perform their short routine to the whole class. The teacher invariably provided warmly positive appraisals of specific aspects of these performances, and some aspects of the routines would be taken up and incorporated into longer sequences of dance by the teacher for performance in the end of series ‘showing’. 

The mirror in class: Curtains closed.

[Here] is an extract from my first set of field notes:

The class took place with the same teacher and in the same studio I had taken dance classes in 25 years previously. which enabled some change-over-time comparisons. Even as we moved forward to take up our places on the studio floor, ageing and bodily change became a focus for humour. The film-maker explained that although he was using a fairly small-looking camera, the resulting film could be projected on to a large screen without losing quality, or showing ‘lines’. One of the other class members responded: “you mean facial lines?” and another: “yeah, no wrinkles please” (this gave rise to general laughter’). Then, just before she began to lead the warm-up exercises, the teacher commented that she would leave the long black curtains pulled across the mirror which filled the wall of the studio facing the class “as I’m sure we don’t want those open” (this resulted in more laughter, some exclamations of “no no no” – no-one in the class stated a preference to have the curtains opened so we could see the mirror). 

The class was expressing an apparent preference for ‘no mirror’ and ‘closed curtains’. In line with Katz (2008: 18), I had assumed that using a mirror in class was expected practice, that the decision to attend class entailed ‘a willingness to observe and be observe’ mutually and potentially evaluatively, for checking and correcting bodily positioning and movement technique. Yet the teacher opted for closed curtains, and classes proceeded with curtains closed across the mirror until much later in the series of classes. The teacher and the class seemed to be conspiring in recycling an ideology of ‘unwatchability’.

Class members’ accounts of the mirror

I had prompted dance class members to reflect on the ‘curtains closed’ episode in their dance diaries… here are some of the verbatim) diary entries on this theme by different class members:  

Linda: Mixed feelings about the covered mirror. Part of me was glad not to have the pressure of seeing my reflection. But part of me felt it was a shame to assume that none of us would be comfortable with our reflections . . .

Jude:  We can’t make assumptions that we do not want to see our bodies. Let’s try open and closed. At home I use the mirror functionally – brushing teeth, combing hair, checking make-up. When I was young I used to look at myself in windows and mirrors outside (I was gorgeous)…

Jane: Trying to look good fits with the mirror idea. Personally I’m glad the curtains are closed- its far more liberating creatively. No pre-conceived ideas about how you’ll look: and if you look bad you’re oblivious. Marvellous!  In technique sessions mirrors are useful but even then its your body that needs to know not your eyes 

Dance, kinaesthesia and the embodied feeling of ageing 

What is at stake might include not only becoming a better dancer, but coming to terms with older age, as it is conventionally ideologized. I became interested in how, beyond the specific triggering episode of the mirror in class and discursive responses to it, participants might account the wider affordances of dance in relation to their age-identities… In the focus group data, participants make retrospective assessments of the effects the classes had on them as individuals, based on a range of issues which had been raised in class discussions or in the dance diaries. The following extract begins just after I had asked the group if they could sum up in single words or phrases how they felt during and after a class. One of the class members, ‘Nia’. volunteered the word ‘elevated’. (In [the following exchange … J is the researcher, myself; N is Nia; M is another member of the group;  [1.0] equals a pause]) 

J:  can you tell us more about ‘elevated’ or do you just want to leave it at that?

N:  elevated (.) um (1.0) yes as (.) as Claire said you do feel a part of something which which I think builds you up and it’s it’s just it’s also just the um ( I .0) emotional and spiritual side of it. it just literally takes me out of myself and just puts me on a different dimension completely while I’m here and when you go out it’s completely different 

Others: (sounds of agreement) 

M: you do 

J: people are nodding about taking taking you out of yourself people are nodding about that 

N: it’s like a little I find for me it’s like a little oasis of calm getting back in touch with (.) parts of myself stuff like that and the empowerment for me is I can have al1 sorts of rubbish going on in my personal life domestic life but it’s like come here and for this two hour slot I’m back in control of me and my body …


‘Denying’ one’s reflected image as an older person would seem to be impossible. The data examinedin this article show that, even in a self-consciously age-emancipating institution such as [Striking Attitudes], informants are frequently aware of the potentially repressive ideology of mirrored old age; it surfaces repeatedly in their discourse. Associating ‘other kinds of affect’ with visible ageing is certainly desirable, but the force of ‘unwatchability’. where it predominates, is precisely its essentializing quality – old age, per se, is deemed unsuitable for public inspection. Exchanging the cultural mirror for another one, thereby inventing new cultural meanings of old age, is very much 

Gullette’s (1997) stance. She advocates ‘declining to decline’ and ‘cultural combat’ against societalageism. This is surely an appropriate response but it requires long-term critical engagement, and we have to recognize that the human and social sciences have been relatively inactive in critiquing prejudicial orientations to old age, relative to their input into the politics of gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity. There is also the overarching consideration that, in whatever culturally normative climate,  we all have to live in and with our bodies … the present ethnography suggests that dance habitus, in the more profound sense of embodying lived experience through dance, can be activated in later life … some older dancers report being able to ‘move back into their ‘bodies’ through dance training and performance. Their discourse also suggests that they are able to bring considerable  critical reflexivity to their bodily awareness, which Bourdieu would recognise is a form of cultural capital. They are able to recontextualize youth-aligned ideologies which value particular sorts of physical capital and, through dance, explore other embodied ways of being in the world. Dance is certainly no panacea, but it does appear to offer people a coherent set of representational possibilities for rendering their bodily selves watchable, both to others and to themselves. 

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