Dance of the ages

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July 4, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Anna Pratt
Anna Pratt

Kairos Dance Theater brings together kids and seniors, making strides in the emerging field of creative aging

Local Kairos Dance Theater Company transcends age, skill-level and training with choreography that's inclusive, weaving the lively movements of 5-year-olds into the mix with 90-year-olds.

The framework of Kairos is intergenerational. Some of the wheelchair-bound seniors dance without ever getting up, redefining dance as they move subtly from their chairs, waving their hands or nodding.

Many audience members got teary at the sight of a slight, gray-haired woman roving oh-so-slowly, but articulately, across the stage past an animated kid, at the Pantages, 710 Hennepin Ave. S., where the troupe danced as MOSAIC festivities began in early June.

One of only eight companies of its kind nationwide, the troupe uniquely expands on an old adage: That is, if it takes a village to raise a child, than an entire community is also needed to raise a Generation Xer, Baby Boomer and a senior citizen.

Kairos, in residence at Loring Art and Community Center, 1382 Willow St., helped kick off the MOSAIC activities the past couple of years.

Often, they interpret themes like war and peace. Other times they wiggle shamelessly to the "Hokey Pokey" in traditional and alternative venues such as libraries, offices, senior centers, schools and churches.

The company has made big strides in the emerging field of creative aging, which proves that artistic endeavors have concrete health benefits for the elderly. The bonuses are both cognitive and physical, resulting in statistically fewer visits to the doctor, less frequent falls and a better outlook on life that can delay the onset of dementia.

The San Francisco-based National Council of the Aging recognized Kairos as an authority on the concept of "creative aging" and Kairos has also received grants based on that expertise.

While dancing helps ease seniors' aches and pains, it encourages kids' participation and growth.

Kairos Artistic Director Maria Genne, a Southwest Minneapolis resident, said, "If we engage them creatively, then we're engaging all parts of them. Their gifts are valued."

She started the group that grew out of dance projects with both children and elders about four years ago.

"For me, Kairos is my vision of creating community. Celebrating life with dancers of all ages, backgrounds and abilities," she said.

Kairos' core group of 15 now performs for crowds of over 1,000 or for groups as intimate as 20. Genne and several others also frequent the Southwest Senior Center, 3612 Bryant Ave. S. and Walker Methodist, 3737 Bryant Ave. S., teaching classes utilizing seniors' agility in muscle and memories.


Some of the dancers are lifelong artists and have danced with each other since they were youngsters. Others didn't even start to dance until they hit middle age - a chronological hump when most classical dancers would retire.

The experience of working with such a wide range of abilities and ages has tested Genne.

"It's certainly changed my life," she said.

"It's challenging for me to create dances that are in chairs. But I've found that there are lots of ways to dance in a chair."

Although most of the company's steps are grounded in modern dance, there are also elements of folk dance and sometimes hip hop is infused in their work, while technically strong dancers perform alongside beginners.

A big part of the choreography comes from storytelling. Often, the stories of the elderly emerge from various musical numbers. Genne draws from minute body language that emerges as seniors relate their tales. Sometimes the movements are as grandiose as lifting an arm over their heads or as simple as turning their heads.

They share memories like witnessing World War II, dancing the jitterbug, selling Avon products, narrowly escaping the ill-fated Titanic, Russian concentration camps and vaudeville days.

Meantime, other stories are being created in the here and now. For example, 6-year-old Sophie Peterson's favorite dance is "Tres Contos" because she gets to climb atop adults - in stark contrast to 91-year-old Ocie Mae Young's slow but steady stroll across the stage with the aid of a walker.

Sophie's mom, Melanie Salman-Peterson, a Kingfield resident, considers the experience for Sophie and her other daughter, Scout, an invaluable part of their development. Salman-Peterson said that it taught them lessons that would kick in later in life.

"Scout has gained a lot of confidence and poise from performing. She also understands being committed to a group that counts on you. Sophie just has great pleasure in being with the people at Kairos," said Salman-Peterson.

Similarly, lanky Alisha Houston, 16, likes mingling with elders. She and Young met at church where she said that sometimes people there avoid the elderly. Here, they're friends.

"There's no discrimination because she's older and can't move very wellshe's pretty cool," Houston said.

"I think it's mostly not about the skill. It's about the stories expressed through dancing. Little kids are discovering who they are. They're undefined and unsure in life and as dancers. Elderly ones have already defined themselves. Now they help us grow."

A gathering for peace

In ceremonial fashion, the bare-footed dancers usually start off by forming a circle. In the recent dance, "A Gathering for Peace" the thesis is about survival. "Against all odds, we have hope. Humanity survives, and our connection to each other allows us to grow," Genne said.

The piece evolved over 10 weeks. In the development phase, one woman talked about the struggle to gain the right to vote in Alabama years ago. It was based on tales like that and the story of a little girl in Hiroshima who heard that if she constructed 1,000 cranes that she'd live forever.

Emily Fisher, 25, said that she loves to watch the young Scout during "A Gathering for Peace."

"She has such a dynamic and intuitive understanding of the emotion that piece is trying to display. I think she's too young to fully grasp the effect that has on the audience."

Fisher came to the group via Kairos' collaboration with One Voice Mixed Chorus. Then she traded one art for the other. She sees herself more as a singer and visual artist but truly enjoys dance.

Probably the thing she appreciates the most is the community. "We're intergenerational but not separate. It's really interwoven. You're just as likely to dance with a 5-year-old as a 90-year-old as a 25-year-old," she said.

Creative aging

The same could be said of the seniors. Scott Saffert, who also leads the classes at Walker, said that Kairos "opens the doors to their imaginations. It re-introduces skills that they forgot about and helps them see themselves as contributing artists."

He added, "it brings life to their stories, builds self-esteem and recognizes the importance of their lives. But it also gives them a sense of being an active part of a community instead of looking at retirement as time when they can't do anything anymore as opposed to doing it in a different way."

Some of the seniors are highly functional but struggle with depression or mental illness. The change in perspective that Kairos affords saves a lot of money in medical expenses, he said.

Saffert said he could testify to change in some seniors, such as one member who suffered a stroke a couple years ago. Since he got involved in Kairos, he's able to express himself. On the whole, he's more productive and confident.

Another lady who suffered from memory loss was able to recall her service in the military when the troupe played military tunes. Another remembered an African journey and also recalled selling Avon products.

From the outside, the program also helped the center's staff get a picture of who the seniors were when they were younger. "We're meeting them at this season of their life. We don't know what they were like as teens, or in their 20s, 30s or even 60s. It would be nice if everyone could see all of those life experiences, challenges, struggles and happy times, especially in a society obsessed with youth and living forever."

Kairos has a fully scheduled summer ahead. The group will perform for the Fringe Festival, Lake Harriet Bandshell and other concerts.

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