Wednesday morning, east London, on the Docklands Light Railway swapping stories about compressed morbidity. I’m travelling with Maria Genné, artistic director of Minneapolis based Kairos Dance. Their award winning Dancing Heart programme works with frail elders in a range of care settings. We’re travelling through the autumn drizzle to drop in on a rehearsal at East London Dance’s new elders performance company XYZ.
My story is of Nelly Coombes who was at 92 was the oldest member of the Young in Heart performance company who I served my apprenticeship with in the early 80’s. They were Bermondsey girls who had survived everything that the twentieth century had thrown at them: world wars, depressions and unimaginable technological change. They crashed on through, fuelled by dance, song and stories. We were performing a show at a conference organized by the Centre for Policy on Ageing. It was a piece of music theatre that they had devised about a woman who moves from her flat into a care home. (Still wrestling with the same issues three decades ago) Nell gave a stunning performance and joined her friends for post-show tea and sandwiches. Then, with the last dregs drained, she gently nodded into a coma and twelve hours later she was dead.
Maria remembers dancer Ida Arbeit. I had met her when visiting Kairos a couple of years ago in what was to be the last days of her life. She was 101 years old. We were in an activities room transformed into a dance studio in a retirement apartment block. She was filming with PBS TV and dancing, still dancing to music live from 92 year-old Jazz saxophonist Irv Williams.
And that’s what it is I guess, the pubic health specialist’s dream: compressed morbidity, maybe all of our dreams. To dance or act our way through and out to the ‘other side of the veil’ as they say in the US.
Later back at the Albany in Deptford Maria leads a master class for dance artists working with older people. We hardly advertised the event and the studio is packed: so many people developing so much work all over the city. And the research findings keep tumbling in. The latest from the journal Stroke: Older people who engage in regular physical activity reduce their risk of vascular-related dementia by 40 percent and cognitive impairment by 60 percent. As the man on the TV says, we’ve all just got to ‘keep on dancing’.