An Interview with Naomi Goldberg Haas, Artistic Director of Dances For A Variable Population
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Naomi Goldberg Haas is the artistic director of Dances For A Variable Population (DVP). Based in New York City, DVP promotes strong and creative movement among adults of all ages and abilities through educational and performance opportunities at a variety of sites throughout New York. Here, Naomi shares the breadth of DVP’s mission and its underlying philosophy that no one should age out of dancing.
This interview was conducted with the help of Ellis Wood, managing director of DVP.
How did Dances For A Variable Population get started?
In 2002, I began teaching at New York University. There was a clear need among NYU-affiliated members – older adults coming in from the surrounding neighborhoods – to have physical activity. I taught in the Sports and Recreation department. DVP grew from the need for older adults to move. I taught dance classes for people to move creatively as well as strengthen their bodies. They were able to move more freely, which is obviously a problem when you get older. Their improvement grew dramatically over the course of one semester. Attendance grew from 5 to 30 participants in one semester. The need was so strong; it was very clear that people wanted to move creatively and feel the strength of their own bodies.
I taught a senior fitness class, which was ongoing, and then a dance class was added. I treated – and always treat – people as dancers, helping them with their confidence and convincing them their bodies are beautiful.
Ellis adds: I’ve seen that in person and it’s very real and very moving.
One thing that is incredible is that although DVP started more than 20 years ago, some of those students still take class with me today. Though they are much older, DVP is adaptive to wherever they’re at.
How is DVP currently organized?
DVP teaches in approximately 25 older adult centers and in public spaces like libraries and parks. We also teach six Zoom classes and one phone class a week for people who don’t have access to a computer. There are two teachers per class, which is unique. There’s a lead teacher and an assistant teacher. The lead teacher plans class, and the assistant teacher takes role and gives extra support to any of the older adults in need of it.
We give live public performances called the Revival Series. We’re in the eighth year of the Revival Series. Public performances have been part of DVP since day one. I believe it’s important for people to be seen. DVP has performed at Times Square, The High Line, Washington Square Park, the Botanical Garden, Prospect Park, etc. Our programs are free, visible, and accessible for all.
DVP has a Dances for Seniors program that brings workshops and performances to older adult centers. In the past two years, we’ve implemented a program called Moving Minds, wherein a social worker and therapist meets with DVP’s teachers and models different techniques as well as creates a toolkit for our teachers so they have a better awareness of how to deal with mental health issues in the senior population. We found that mental health was as important as physical and social health.
In the next two years, we’re hoping to integrate the Moving Minds program into our Movement Speaks program, which is our core program. Movement Speaks is flexible and can encompass a lot of different kinds of work.
Where do you draw teachers from?
Mainly graduates from different college dance programs. We also have some older dancers from our Movement Speaks classes who have shown a lot of ability and have gone and done the training. DVP holds a Movement Speaks training every year in November. We’re looking to offer that twice a year because we have a lot of demand.
Can you share more about the pedagogy behind Movement Speaks?
I created this trademarked Movement Speaks program. One thing that’s really important is that community is part of the class. Connecting with others in the class is immediate. I’m constantly encouraging moving together. I had ongoing students so I needed a system. I formulated the Movement Speaks sequence of exercises. They focus on strength, flexibility, and creativity. Teachers have the freedom to expand on the ideas and bring their unique heart to the method. We progress from major muscle groups to an understanding of many of the tools dancers use: space, dynamics, collaboration, and choreographic structure. A sense of somatic understanding is important.
There is also a performance component to Dances For A Variable Population. Are there one or two performances you’d like to share more about?
Among DVP’s many performances, one in the past that stood out was when DVP performed at the NY Botanical Gardens on the grounds of the rose garden among the roses when they were blooming in peak season. There’s a specific weekend when that happens. The audience was up close and intimate. The dancers and audience were elated to be there. It was beautiful to experience dancing among the roses. The older dancers who participated are from a center located in the Bronx, but they had never been to the botanical gardens in the Bronx. It was special in that way too that they were able to visit that site.
Another memorable performance was in Times Square called Times Square Round Up. The turnout was huge because people were already there and wanted to dance. There were older adults participating who were previously unhoused and who rehearsed with me for about three months. Multiple generations participated. The older adults who studied with me for three months were confident and able to lead. They became teachers. It was very empowering.
Our Revival Eight is coming up in the spring and fall. We do two performances in both the spring and fall at Queensbridge Park, Grant’s Tomb, Washington Square Park, and Yolanda Garcia Park. We’re calling it Revival Eight: Then and Now. We’re bringing in former dancers from well-known companies like Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey, and they are reimagining iconic pieces on our older adults. They will use the essence of the piece in order to make the choreography accessible for our adult adults.
Have you noticed any shifts in the dance world in terms of acceptance and interest in older dancers and dancers with disabilities?
Yes. People are more open to seeing and experiencing different bodies moving and performing onstage. We’re part of a zeitgeist in support of difference. We didn’t start out feeling that way, but we see the shift happening and the world is changing.
Why is it important to create spaces for older dancers and dancers with disabilities to learn and perform?
Because it is important to keep moving your whole life. You should not have to age out of dancing. You adapt as you get older to different styles and ways of moving. You experience who you are through movement. Our older adults tell their own stories as well as the bigger story through their dancing. Sometimes they don’t see themselves as dancers, but they are. They learn somatic connections and alignment, as well as how to express themselves.
Any other thoughts?
I have had lupus for 30 years and more recently have had more inflammation in my brain and trouble with my speech and movement.
Ellis adds: That being said, Naomi still teaches classes every day.
To learn more about Dances For A Variable Population, visit www.dvpnyc.org.