The Ladies of MAE


More than once since launching the Dancing Over 50 Project, older dancers from around the country have reached out to me to express interest and support. When Gwyn Henry wrote me about Movement Artists Ensemble (MAE) – a group of women in Escondido, CA who are moving into their middle years and beyond and who come together to improvise, take video footage, and weave the footage into dance poetry on film – I wanted to learn more. Below are their thoughts on aging in dance as well as some of their poetic dances films.



How did Movement Artists Ensemble come about?

I created MAE, the Movement Artists Ensemble, as an outgrowth of a modern dance class I was teaching to women who were moving into their middle years and beyond. The class eventually evolved into more and more improvisation. Some loved the improv exercises and wanted more, while others were less enthusiastic. For those who wanted to improvise, I started holding special “improv sessions,” which I began to film.

We enjoyed this so much we continued to meet and film periodically, and a process began to evolve; we brought regular home video camcorders to class and passed them around as we moved. We acquired huge swaths of fabric, and the women, on their own, began to construct “environments” within which we moved. As one movement artist said, “When we began to build the environment with the fabric… that’s when I could feel myself going into the zone.”

Her insight said to me that taking all that fabric from the bags, and beginning to hang and drape and manipulate it around the studio and in front of the mirror, served as a ritual that then segued us into the meditative zone of the movement. Later, I learned editing techniques to transpose those fabric constructed environments into seas, waterfalls, tents and other fanciful and abstract shapes. With the results, I felt the technology could peel layers off of ordinary reality and reveal new worlds beneath the apparent. The MAE experience began to open up whole new worlds to me.

Sessions are held seasonally, with varying regularity – sometimes six or seven sessions in one year, others with months off. This has been going on for about 10 years.

How has MAE facilitated your understanding of yourself as a dancer?

One thing I think MAE has taught me is that I AM a dancer. For many years I bought into the idea that one can’t call one’s self an artist or a dancer unless one is a highly successful professional, i.e. getting paid like a rock star with the accompanying fame and fortune. In my little neck of the small-town woods, neither I, nor my family or friends, had ever personally known anyone who earned their living as an artist.

I eventually formed the opinion that if one practices an art form, one is an artist. When I went back to dance classes at age 54, I rediscovered all those feelings of joy, strength and power I had felt as a dancing teenager. I allowed myself to follow where that newly-discovered passion led, and found the courage to call myself a dancer.

In fact, I believe we are all born to dance, for expression, for catharsis, to communicate, to explore ourselves and our inner landscapes… and my mission is to disseminate that knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you are out of shape, overweight, have had a lifetime of training, or two left feet. Everyone is a natural expressive mover, and can gain great benefits from a practice of it. And sometimes, in my opinion, those movements indeed, rise to the level of ART.

That’s what I want to show in my videos… the raw beauty of human expression living within movement that can come from non-professional dancers.

Why is MAE important to the world of dance? What does it contribute in terms of dialogue?

The fact that we are older movers goes somewhat against our cultural norms. However, today there are many classes beginning to be offered to older dancers, and I’m proud for MAE to be a part of that movement.

In the long run, so much of what I have done with MAE has been without knowing why I am doing it. It has seemed from the beginning that doors opened up, people came along, fallow periods rose and fell, and new paths became clear. I found things have gone best when we relax and let the journey unroll.

Another consideration: while we have built film installations in galleries and participated in film screenings, we cannot sell a five-minute video in the way one can sell a painting, a piece of sculpture, a book, or music album.  “So why,” some of my friends ask, “Why do you do this?”

Simple answer: I don’t know. Longer answer: when I upload the footage onto my computer’s editing program and start to work, I go into the “hum”… that other place where artists go when they know they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

How is what you bring to your dancing now different than what you could bring when you were younger?

The 16 year-old dancer has now merged with the 71 year-old I am today, and she brought with her all of her years that fell in between. I discovered I like what I have gathered. It has its share of negatives, but all in all that collection of years and experiences, of life lived, is something I like… no, I love. As I carry it now, thanks to my rediscovery of the artistic mover in me, I feel sweetly content with this life I have made so far.  That’s called wholeness. And it feels really good.



Tell me about your involvement in MAE. How did you come to be a part of it?

I am a member of Escondido Art Partnership Gallery in Escondido, as is Gwyn. I gave a presentation there about my book Circles of Healing and led the class in painting mandalas for each of our chakra centers. I shared photos of my Philadelphia dance company, Agape Dancers, and the mandalas we created as floor art and as part of the choreography.  Gwyn was present, we discussed MAE, and soon after I joined her improvisation at Escondido Center for the Arts.

How has MAE facilitated your understanding of yourself as a dancer?

This was the first time I danced in many years, and I had almost forgotten I loved to dance.  My life has been focused on survival issues, including a divorce, single parenting, losing a home, almost not having a home, re-locating, struggling to make ends meet, etc.  At 62, when I danced with MAE, I was so happy to discover I could still move in a creative and fluid manner. Also, I feel very tuned to Gwyn’s visual artist perspective and am fascinated by her video “poems.” The combination of movement and visual art, as well as her literary skills, pulled me in even more.  When I dance with MAE, all the years of martial arts, modern dance, Indian dance, yoga and my interest in animals and nature comes pouring through me! I have always loved improvisation for just this reason… I can acknowledge and channel the many sources of inspiration from my life.

Why is MAE important to the world of dance? What does it contribute in terms of dialogue?

My whole life, I have looked at myself with a critical eye. When I was in my 20s, I was upset because I was 125 pounds and not 110 pounds! At 64, I still do that. And yet the magic of MAE is that we are all beautiful movers, with inner light and years of wisdom to add to our dance vocabulary and expression.  At no age should we stop dancing. Regardless of our body’s mobility, size, speed or agility, we can all enjoy and benefit from movement and creative self-expression. Dancing alone is a healing statement, and even more healing with others as a form of exploration and communication.

How is what you bring to your dancing now different than what you could bring when you were younger?

When I saw myself on film, I was not happy to see my gut, and thought I looked too old. When I got past that, I could appreciate I still had the dancer in me! And I was happy to discover the more I danced, the younger I felt and looked! When I take ballet now and dance on a regular basis with Gwyn, I become more lifted, feel a more clearly defined separation between my ribs, chest and lower body. Ballet at my age helps me feel strong in my lower body and lifted in my upper body… and counteracts the tendency to slouch and compress.

In my younger years, I lacked confidence, was concerned how viewers saw me, and suffered from intense stage fright. After so many life experiences, including wife-hood, motherhood, losing parents and family, financial uncertainty, working as a massage therapist for 40 years, living with and caring for a variety of animals and observing and learning from them, teaching yoga and movement to a variety of bodies, being present at births and at deaths, I have so much more depth as a person, mover, collaborator and performer. And stage fright almost seems silly!



Tell me about your involvement in MAE. How did you come to be a part of it?

I have never been a professional dancer, but dancing was always a big part of my life. Since my childhood, music – especially classical – had a mysterious power over me; like a great master playing an instrument, music “played” my body, made it move and freed my soul through the movements. Dancing would take me to another world, where movement and sound are in complete harmony.

I found MAE during a difficult time of my life when I was a 24/7 caregiver for my elderly paralyzed mother for 10 years. Browsing the internet several years ago, I’ve ran into a local ad: “Ballet classes for older dancers or someone who’s always wanted to be one.” BINGO! I was in my late 50s, and I’d always wanted to try ballet! After several classes, Gwyn invited me to join MAE, which has become a very important part of my life.

How has MAE facilitated your understanding of yourself as a dancer?

Our dancing is a complete improvisation: no rules, no limits, trust, freedom, and acceptance of each other. Music rules. The amazing thing to me is that even though each one of us starts improvising in our own individual ways, at the end, all our movements come into harmony, and sometimes it is difficult to believe that it is not staged.

Why is MAE important to the world of dance? What does it contribute in terms of dialogue?

MAE gives a chance to everyone, regardless of age or physical ability, to express themselves through dance, as well as to find ways to communicate with each other through movement. This is important to us as the participants, but it is up to the world of dance to decide further importance…

For more information on MAE, click here.

One Response to “The Ladies of MAE”

  1. Robt O'Sullivan Schleith

    Gwyn states “.. if one practices an art form, one is an artist.” I’m amazed at how something can simultaneously be so simple and so profound. But then, this elegantly-stated Truth doesn’t surprise those of us who know her as a poet and film-maker first, and not so much as the dancer detailed so beautifully here

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