Looking forward, looking back: A recap of the SF Older Dancer Interviews

By Emmaly Wiederholt; Photographs by Gregory Bartning

Over the past two months, I have posted the interviews of ten dancers over 50 from around the Bay Area who I was fortunate enough to talk to and have photographed in collaboration with Gregory Bartning. From here our goal is to expand the project to include older dancers from Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, and to eventually turn the interviews into a book.

The point of this project is manifold. It aims to challenge popular perceptions around dance as a youth-oriented pursuit. It aims to educate young people about what it means to pursue an art over a lifetime. It aims to inspire others over 50 to kick off their shoes and take to the dance floor. It aims to remind people that there is grace, beauty and desirability in a body of any age, and that this is true for women as well as men. Lastly, it aims to pay homage to these older dancers who are leading by example.

Your support, readership, and interest in this project are so vital to its success. Please stay tuned in 2014 for more interviews and for ways to support the making of these interviews into a book.

For now though, a quick recap. These are some of our favorite morsels of wisdom and beauty we’ve collected.


Frank Shawl

“I never think about [success]. I just keep doing what I love to do. I never measure it. Ultimately when you do something long enough and well enough, you get acknowledged for it. The certificates on the walls downstairs, they’re just pieces of paper. But they are acknowledgements. If I didn’t get them I’d still be doing what I’m doing. I’m not after those kinds of accolades but they come in time.”

“It’s so great to see talent bloom, to take a little seedling and watch it grow into a gorgeous flower.”



Virginia Matthews

“I always figured at one point I would stop. It would stop being new or the aches and pains of the body would outweigh the benefits, but it hasn’t happened yet. Dance is like a mirror reflecting back to me where I am physically, emotionally, psychically. And I feel so good.”

“I’m not worried about my weight, or my technical proficiency, or my career, or if I’m being recognized. Now I just focus on how I feel.”



Bonnie Lewkowicz

“You often hear about someone going through a traumatic injury that they are still the same person. So the reasons why I danced before my disability were because I loved it. I loved being in my body. I loved expressing myself physically. Music is a big part of what inspires me. None of that has changed.”

“Every person has different limitations. But I knew that no matter how hard I stretched or worked out there would still be things I would never be able to do. And so I think my success as a dancer was not so much measured in physicality as it was in performance, what I could bring to a performance beyond physicality.”



Kim Epifano

“When I was younger there was a bravado element to [my dancing]. I wanted to be seen. As I went along and worked with different collaborators, I pushed myself harder. Now it doesn’t feel about me as much. I’m not trying to show something. And I think that does develop as I get older. Younger dancers are often trying to achieve something.”

“I was from an era that broke the female-male separation in dance. In that way I’ve felt quite relevant in the articulation of athleticism and the female body.”



Enrico Labayen

“I just did a performance last night and it went really well. If I’m going to dance though, it has to be age appropriate. I’m 60, and I’m not going to grand jete or pirouette even though I can. It feels ridiculous. As a mature artist I have a life experience and just being still, standing there with a gesture, is a lot already, even if my back is turned.”

“I didn’t get into this thing to be successful. Success and failure are the same thing to me. I do not rejoice in success. I do not cry in failure. I walk the middle path. It’s all about work. Work gives me dignity. Success is for other people to see.”



Randee Paufve

“I used to be concerned with being a good dancer, and I still am, but what a good dancer is has shifted. Now, more and more, I really make very little distinction between washing the dishes and the movement I do in rehearsal. It’s all of a piece.”

“I don’t ask the big questions anymore, oddly. And it’s not like I’m bogged down in the details, but the closer I draw to my own mortality, the less I feel like I understand about mortality, and the less interested I am in it. Death is part of the continuum. I’ll pass and I’ll figure it out then. Until then I’m going to live. To me that means dancing in whatever form that takes.”



Lizz Roman

“I feel hugely successful as a dancer. But nobody ever needs to know it. Success for me is the look on the dancers’ faces when I’m teaching, the look on the dancers’ faces that I’m working with, and the looks on the faces in the audience.”

“Be honest. Be honest in your training. Be honest in your creativity. Be honest in your mentoring. Be honest in your performances. Be honest.”



Cathleen McCarthy

“Pursuing dance is like being in a monastery; it’s that kind of discipline and focus that one needs to have. It’s about taking care of your body and being discerning about what you put in your brain. It’s about what you read. It’s about who you’re with. It’s about how you treat yourself. It’s about how you are in the world. It’s a really big commitment.”

“Times will come when you feel really discouraged and feel like giving up but just keep going. You’re building something tangible whether you know it or not.”

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Nina Haft

“I do think that unless you become super famous and powerful, there’s some time in your 40s where – and I don’t think this is unique to dancers but more so to women in general – in this country you become less valued and more invisible once you reach a certain age. And because so many dance artists are women there’s a way in which a lot of us are seen as: ‘Oh, well, you didn’t make it by the time the buzzer rang so you’re less relevant.’ There’s a premium put on who’s the next it-girl. In that way there’s a focus on youth. It’s an ageism in our culture that hits dance especially hard because dance is so tied to the body.”

“I’ve seen a lot of young people pursue certain kinds of gigs, like, ‘I need to work with that person because that’ll mean that I made it.’ Or they train in a certain way that they get injured and then they feel like they can’t dance any longer. Or they get so fixated on ‘If I can’t dance for this or that company then nothing else is worth it.’ That mentality will torpedo your longevity in dance faster and more completely than any rejection that anybody could ever hand you.”



Anna Halprin

“Every experience I’ve had in my life is a resource in my body.”

“The word ‘success’ doesn’t mean anything to me. Success is not the word I would use. I would use recycle. If something doesn’t work I recycle it.”

“I’ve developed the phrase: as life deepens, art experience expands, and as art experience expands, life deepens.”


4 Responses to “Looking forward, looking back: A recap of the SF Older Dancer Interviews”

  1. stanceondance

    Thank you Jennifer! I cannot and do not want to imagine a life untouched by art. In fact I’m not even sure it’s possible. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Dana Lawton

    Can’t wait until September 18, 2016 so I can join the ranks of these amazing artists and people. We are blessed.

  3. Jennifer Henry

    I love this project. I have shared every single sentiment expressed by the dancers interviewed and love that there is a movement to recognize and record their experiences. Dance history in the US is made up of many artists who may or may not be known for their work, regardless of their roots and talents. I always wished dancers would show respect for their teachers and all the techniques created and mastered and then morphed. Artists like these give our society necessary sophistication. They are our weathervanes. Can you imagine a life that had never been touched by art? I hope not.

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