Aging: it happens to all of us. There’s literally no avoiding it. At first thought, an aging body seems like quite a problem for dancers – whose body is their instrument. But does it have to be? Aging dancers can face questions of identity (“am I even a dancer anymore if I can’t do a big battement, and if I’m not a dancer, who even am I?”) – but do they have to? Can it rather be a matter of preparation, personal care, and perspective-shift?  

To dive into these questions, and look into how dancers can face aging with more grace and ease, I spoke with two over-forty dance artists still going strong: DeAnna Pellecchia (Boston, MA) and Megan Williams (NYC and upstate NY). They have a lot of wisdom to share, so let’s jump right in!

Mental hurdles and perspective shifts: mental health for athletes and dancers

Perspective shifts can indeed make the journey into aging as a dancer easier on the mind and soul. Williams encourages focusing on “where your strengths lie” and bringing that forward in one’s artistry – rather than fixating on what’s no longer physically accessible. “Work within the parameters of what’s possible,” she recommends. From there, “renavigate and recalibrate” to get to your artistic goal. “It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it,” Williams quips.

This sort of perspective shift might even take a hard and skeptical look at our wider culture’s anti-aging stance. “Aging is going to happen, so it’s pointless to be against it,” Williams says matter-of-factly. The hard truth is that you’re not going to “get back” your younger years – that’s just not possible. What might still be in store, and can there be hope in that? Look forward to the future, rather than back at what was.

An aging body is still your body, and you’re still you.

That can certainly be easier said than done. When it comes to performing, it can help to approach each project with “nothing to prove,” Williams says. Try to be present and enjoy each dancing moment for all that it is – above and beyond audience accolades or how athletically wow-worthy your work might be. “I care less about how a performance ‘went’ after it's gone than I did when I was younger,” Williams shares.

And, crucially, an aging body is still your body, and you’re still you! As one way of thinking about that, Williams sees herself as someone who’s aging and just happens to still be dancing. How can you continue to bring your full personhood to your work – and maybe even do so more powerfully and meaningfully?

Pellecchia underscores a similar sentiment; “at every single age, there’s something beautiful and authentic that a dancer can offer....if you think you belong there, you do.” It’s about bringing the person inside forwards for an audience to experience, at whatever age that person might be. Arguably, that’s where the magic of dance as an art form truly lies.

Age also comes with a deeper “well of experience…the good, the bad, the ugly”, Pellecchia believes – and she’s seen “older” dancers bring that to the stage to captivating effect. Part of that also often comes from knowing yourself better: as a person and as an artist.

After years of experience performing, “you can get to a place where your questions, if you have them, are not about who you are – you are in the craft, with no fear and no hesitation,” or at least much less of it, Pellecchia says. While certain athletic feats may not be as readily available as they were in the past, that confidence, well of life-experience, and self-knowledge is readily available. With all of these factors at play, reaching your peak – as an artist and as a person – can come at any age.

Williams thinks along the same lines: that as your years as a dancer go by, you get better at the “person” part of it: the mental, social, and emotional aspects of dance artistry and professionalism. Paradoxically, the more you learn with age, the more humble and youthfully curious you can become, Williams notes; it’s the old adage that the more you learn, the more you see that you still have to learn.

She also does acknowledge that rather than a pivotal, “lightning strike” moment of your dancer body completely changing, there can be “little losses” that you tuck away – one by one. Thankfully, advancing age can also come with the greater wisdom and inner calm to take that in stride. “And let people help’re not in a vacuum!” she says with a laugh. Indeed, social support can be a key component of mental health for athletes and aesthetic athletes.

Caring for the dancing body as the years pass

At the same time as all of the above, we can be intentional about caring for an aging body that dances – to the best of our abilities. Cross training (and strength training in particular), as well as very thorough and thoughtful warming up, have been important for Williams. “Caring for the body becomes its own practice,” she affirms.

Pellecchia also works as a personal trainer, so such personal care has been part of her physical practice for years. “From a very early point in my career, I was fortunate to be working in a very athletic way. I came to understand that the only way I was going to be able to accomplish those physical feats was supplemental work in cross-training,” she shares. The work that she was dancing got less athletic over time, but her cross-training regimen didn’t change. She has overtrained at certain points, contributing to injury, she notes – so it can be a delicate balance.

When you’re a ‘young’ dancer, you never think you’re going to be an ‘old’ dancer - Williams

Pellecchia also has a whole team of professionals who support her physical practice: a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and physical therapist. All of that is not cheap, she acknowledges, but it can be a whole lot less expensive than addressing injuries once they’ve already happened (apart from having to take time off dancing, teaching, et cetera).

There can also be creative ways to make it work – for example, alternating weekly appointments (Pellecchia sees her chiropractor one week and then her acupuncturist the next). Don’t be afraid to also speak with your providers about how they may be able to work within your means, she also recommends.

Pellecchia has also seen first-hand how injuries can happen when one doesn’t keep up with their physical care regimen. She urges dancers to find what supports them, and then make it work: budget-wise and time-wise. Doing that for herself makes a world of difference – yet, going back to what’s just inevitable as years dancing pass, she is also seeing things in her physicality and physical performance change. Williams attests to the same. It’s just par for the course.

An ounce of prevention…thinking ahead about the aging body

The duty to care for ourselves as well as possible as we age, and the inevitability of change as we do so: it’s a bit of contradictory conundrum. It behooves dancers to start thinking about it early in their careers: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes.  

“When you’re a ‘young’ dancer, you never think you’re going to be an ‘old’ dancer,” Williams says. At the same time, you always think you’re “old” as a dancer because of the comparison game – always looking towards dancers younger than you.

Some of that is competition, and some of it is jealousy, Williams believes. Either way, it can be beneficial to look inwards and observe one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when it comes to all that – and then be honest about what is productive and what’s not. That kind of truthfulness and “letting go” can only be helpful as one ages as a dancer.

Pellecchia, for her part, has seen many young dancers think that they’re invincible. Without a gradual coming to terms with the fact that we are not, aging can hit “really hard”, she says. On the physical care side of things, she encourages early-career dancers to “figure out what injuries they’re prone to, and don’t let it become chronic – figure out caring for it…and make it a way of life.” If one does allow injuries to become chronic problems, their career “will be over real fast,” she warns.

Look forward to the future, rather than back at what was.

On the other hand, getting diligent about cross-training young can shore up the body for years to come; “the body remembers…if you train hard when you’re young, it stays with you,” Pellecchia maintains. She is grateful to have danced with artists who’d been around the block and already figured these things out, so to speak, in her early career. She does her best to pass that knowledge on to younger dancers she educates and works with.

At the same time, Pellecchia knows that questions of physical change, aging, and how she goes forward in her career will continue to surface. She knows that they’ll be challenging. To some extent, we’re all learning and figuring it out as we go.

On a broader scale, the field is thankfully becoming more thoughtful and inclusive when it comes to matters of diversity – including aging. We can learn and figure it out together. Whatever happens, “you’ll have to pull me off the stage with a crane…I’m never stopping!,” Pellecchia says with a chuckle.

Williams, meanwhile, acknowledges how time passes by us no matter what – and we’ll never get it back. So, why not enjoy it for what it is? “Each age I pass through is as ephemeral as the dances themselves,” she muses. “And I still like to show off,” she adds with a smile. We’re cheering her on, as we do every dancer who gets up there to give their all – “young”, “old”, or anywhere in between.

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