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Virginia Spatz is not sylphlike.
Like hundreds of dancers in D.C., she has neither the svelte figure nor the impossibly supple physique of ballet’s aristocracy.
“Never will, and never did,” she says staunchly.
In fact, Spatz, a 35-year-old mother of two, has never danced on a stage. She was introduced to tap and ballet at age 5, but did not find her way back to the barre until she was 18, when a college friend talked her into taking a class. Her reintroduction was a miserable one: “I never knew what was going on,” she recalls of the highly structured ballet class. After injuring her back, she again gave up on dance. Ten years elapsed before she found reason to venture back into a dance studio.
Some years ago, Spatz began taking ballet classes as a personal reward for having quit smoking. This time, she received training in the fundamentals: “The teacher showed us how to put our shoes on,” Spatz recalls with evident gratitude. “[And] without treating you like a 4-year-old,” she adds. She was finally getting beginning ballet instruction that started at the beginning.
But when she went in search of more information, Spatz discovered that there was a dearth of writing for adult students of dance. “Dance Magazine never taught me anything,” she says. Her experience is not unique: Doug Yeuell, director of the Joy of Motion Dance Center, confirms the “surprising” lack of instructional materials for adult dancers.
Several years and studios later, Spatz took it upon herself to fill the gap in dance literature. Under the auspices of her own company, Scrutiny Press and Text Services, she inaugurated the bimonthly magazine Dancing Over the Hill (DOTH) last October. At present, the journal only covers ballet, but it will eventually include information on everything from Highland dancing to tap.
Currently, DOTH is an unassuming eight-page publication containing a feature article or profile of an older dancer, tips for adult amateurs, and a resources section that Spatz plans to expand as more information comes her way. Likewise, Spatz hopes that “The Changing Room,” a write-in section that covers a different topic in each issue, will become a popular forum for the exchange of ideas as readership increases.
But Spatz’s goals do not stop at dissemination—she also hopes to dispel some stereotypes about dancers. “If you ask people [what a dancer is like],” she says, “[they think of] an emaciated-looking 12-year-old girl or a muscled young man.” Yet, she continues, “Dancers can be anybody.”
Or, perhaps, any body. One of DOTH‘s goals is to address the unique problems and frustrations of adult dancers—not least of which is the limitations to which older bodies are often subject. Citing pregnancy, arthritis, and knee or joint problems as examples, Spatz details some teachers’ use of “sensitive choreography” that’s adjusted to adult dancers’ abilities. Such choreography might include cutting grande pliés from barre work or reducing the number of jumps in any given class. But more important than tailoring classes, notes Spatz, is the individual dancer’s self-image. “You have to come to an acceptance of your own body, no matter what age,” she says emphatically.
One might wonder what motivates adult dancers who will never grace the stage or achieve an advanced level of technique. Spatz thinks there’s more to it. “Older people connect with the music more than younger dancers,” she observes. “Because the dance class often serves adults as a private retreat from the hassles in their lives, or as a physical release of tension, their dancing, though imperfect in form, may achieve a certain maturity, and express a delight in movement not seen in the more elastic younger dancer.”
Once they conquer their inertia and make it to a dance studio (Yeuell reports a common worry of prospective first-timers, “Will I be the oldest person in the class?”), adult beginners may face serious frustrations beyond the physical. Spatz says she had difficulty remembering combinations before she knew how to break down patterns into directional positions, like en croix. To many instructors, this kind of knowledge seems so rudimentary that an explanation may never be given. Both Spatz and Yeuell arrive at the same analogy: Learning dance is like learning a foreign language, and children can pick it up faster than adults.
But in spite of the problems that adult amateur dancers encounter, the rewards are very real. As one local dancer puts it, dance class gives her “the chance to do something right” after a harrowing day at work. Another mentions the sense of accomplishment she feels when she notices improvement in her technique. Spatz agrees: “There are a lot of interesting reasons that bring [adults] into dance.”
For subscription information write Dancing Over the Hill,
c/o Scrutiny Press and Text Services, P.O. Box 15087, Washington, DC 20003-0087.