How dance can help women counter the experience of invisibility due to ageing

British popular culture is abundant with distorted representations of older women. As a result of television and film’s attempt to hide female ageing, middle-aged women are being marginalised on screen, often portrayed through ageist stereotypes and caricatures that defeminise and desexualise the ageing female body. Here Gemma Collard-Stokes, Research Fellow at the University of Derby Health and Social Care Research Centre, investigates the impact of gendered ageism and the value of dance to challenge it.

Let me ask you a question. What impact does the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of ageing women in Western culture have on the way society views ageing female bodies?  TV and film appear central to the current debate calling out the disappearance of middle-aged women and the routine scrutiny of ageing female bodies in shows such as ‘How Not to Get Old’, ’10 Years Younger’ and ‘How to Stay Young’.

Act your age

Caught in a constant battle to defy the ageing process and preserve youthfulness, the middle-aged woman is currently depicted as un-useful, frail, undesirable, and an economic and social burden. Yet, understanding how television and film influences society, actor and writer Nicola Clark’s campaign ‘Acting Your Age’, is calling for an increase of substantial roles for older actresses. This campaign aims to counter the invisibility of the ageing female as it stands in the current landscape, and as a result, bring about public and industry awareness of gendered ageism in media culture and its impact on society. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the campaign’s survey indicated a public awareness of the lack of real life representation. In addition, it highlighted a need for more middle-aged women on screen that are not limited to the demeaning roles of ‘the ex-wife’, ‘the battleaxe’, ‘the predatory cougar’. While popular culture is failing to reflect society by upholding the damaging stigma attached to ageing, the Royal Society for Public Health released a report last year claiming the 18-34 year olds surveyed, were conditioned to fear old age, believing it is normal to be depressed in later life, and that old people should not be considered attractive. 

What role does dance play in this?

Having conducted a recent study on the relationship between sensuous dance forms, (burlesque, belly dance, Latin American and pole fitness) and improved wellbeing for ageing women, there are some surprising benefits that not only provide empowerment for the women participating, but may also contribute to an increased acceptance of female bodies in a contemporary culture that continues to shame ageing.  

With current arts in health research immersed in an effort to prove the usefulness of dance to enhance social capital, fitness and health in older people, there has been little attention placed on empowering older women through dance. It was observed through my study, that women taking part in sensuous dance forms in an all-female weekly class, experience the following benefits:

  • Dance as an act of neutralising the effects of invisibility on confidence and self-esteem
  • Dance as an opportunity to comment on the objectification of women’s bodies
  • Dance as a means of counteracting and dispelling negative self-perceptions internalised in response to common misrepresentations of ageing female bodies in Western culture
  • Dance as a vehicle for validating and maintaining feelings of sensuality and sexuality
  • Dance aiding the rediscovery of self-identity in the transformation of gender roles (daughter, wife, mother, employee, carer, homemaker) due to ageing (divorce, bereavement, children leaving home, retirement)
  • Dance as a way to develop healthy bonds with a range of diverse women that grow into meaningful and rewarding connections

This indicates that the experience of sensual dance offers its participants more than improvements to their health and social predicament; it provides a domain in which age may be negotiated.  

The long-term impact of such activities for older women may lead to invigoration of positive relationships, not only with their own body, but also with other bodies. As women assert themselves through the act of re-inhabiting the body as a site of kinaesthetic pleasure, power and knowledge, the middle-aged body will resist disappearance.

The power of sensuous dance originates from its pure physicality and encouragement of a respectful and compassionate connection with the body. It provides its participants with a means of fully inhabiting, attending to and working with the body, as oppose to persuading them to build a relationship founded on use, possession and control. This novel way of moving and working with the body makes bodily sense and as such, has meaning that extends beyond the choreography taught in the realms of the class.

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