greater mobility, greater expression, social connection and greater meaning
A day of dancing with Naomi Goldberg Naas – Artistic Director of Dances for a Variable Population.
Spent three very different sessions following Naomi through her day.
We begin at the Mott Street Senior Centre, which is for the Chinese community. It’s the first day of classes, and much time is taken over registration and translation. Mee Mee is the translator for the session – she also happens to be a dancer in her own right…
Naomi tell me later, as we zoom uptown on the subway, that all her programs have the same principles at heart:
“In all our programs our mission is just clear for everything that we do. Its all about strong and creative movement, to communities of peoples of all ages. Its focus is for adults to find creative mobility – to find greater access to expressive movement, to socially connect and to actually find creative meaning.”
My first impression of Naomi is of a dancers elegance and huge strength, beautiful boned face with enormous clear eyes that take in everything. She is perched on her chair watching the lengthening registration process with growing impatience. Her voice is remarkable – loud, strong as her body, strident and very commanding, very clear. She doesn’t exactly shout at people when they don’t do what she’s asking, but she’s very very clear about just what she wants. Dance is her passion – she believes in it absolutely, and her mission is to get as many people dancing, and dancing as well as possible. She doesn’t smile immediately but when she does, its a total beam of light and affirmation of life. Yes!, Good!, Beautiful!. She exhorts and commands, and uses her all to get every single person in her classes doing their most creative dancerly best.
At Mott Street Senior Centre we get going with a series of exercises, clear, energetic, thoroughly warming and toning up the body. Lifting our hands high in the air – so our hearts can work better – stepping high and quick with our feet –when we get old we can fall,we need to move our feet – stretching all around us – within minutes the circle is busy and smiling and totally engaged. We use our voices to breathe out strongly and fully.
In that noisy underground interview Naomi had said that initially the manager of the community centre had been doubtful of the community wanting to take up dance. Naomi said that with this group, individual and improvisational work was not their norm – being more accustomed to following steps, and moving in synchrony. But they did a one off workshop program there, which went very well, and so the manager decided to give it a go.
I’m loving having Naomi’s strident voice take us through all the movement, and having the Chinese translation echo – lends a enjoyably surreal edge to the class – and watching the different ladies responding to the English version of dance class, and the Chinese version of dance class. They are all older ladies, and one older gentleman – all very petite, and fairly serious and polite – although there is more and more laughter as we move on…especially when Naomi invites people to come into the centre of the circle and improvise. Suddenly we have Travolta moves, Salsa, very slinky dance steps and to everyone’s delight and surprise, one sudden hip hopper – all sorts going on here – and the individuality of these ladies begins to bubble out.
Naomi tells me later that one of the most important elements of her programs is getting older dancers to inspire older people to move, and to create performance pieces, because people love to perform, the performance aspect inspires and invigorates.
“The most important thing an older dancer does is inspire an older people. You can’t underestimate the power of inspiration because really I think thats something that works really well. We have many public site performances, public site workshops, we put what we believe right out there.. its not closed…truly anyone is welcome. So much of the work is how you inspire people to move, get more people moving, get more people seeing each other together – thats golden, right? Thats golden. So all the other stuff that surrounds the program in terms of teaching peoples skills, how to teach skills to different levels, you know, movement that introduces them to the dancers idea of alignment, the dancers idea of connected movement, the dancers ideas of how to put together movements…”
We begin to improvise: Naomi gives us three clear movement phrases, we go into three groups, and work out our dance. I should mention that throughout the session Naomi is using a very eclectic fantastic range of music – ranging from classical to salsa to Donna Summer – no catering to cultural difference – we are getting the best of Naomi’s playlist. The music she chooses for the improv piece is flowing, slightly mournful, beautiful. There is a gravitas in the concentration and feeling put into the moves, the energy shifts in the room as Naomi asks us to perform group by group, with an audience. Some inconsiderate conversationalists in the back of the room are hushed, and passer-byers are drawn round the main door to watch. Its lovely to watch, and its lovely to perform.
I feel I’ve truly met some of the ladies in my group, and feel sad that I won’t be there next week to continue the dance and to watch them take up the mantle of dance.
We rush off madly – uptown to the 92Y Harkness Dance Centre – talking loudly on the subway – comparing notes on community and hospital work. Apparantly one dancer of Naomi’s company worked at the Harlem Hospital, with joints, but she does’s say much more about that…We miss our stop – rush off the next one, and rush to her next class.
Back to the dance studio environment.
Naomi’s next class is for older dancers who want to get back into the studio. Here in the land of gleaming and trim New Yorkers its difficult to tell really how old anyone is, but they say they are all mostly retired – probably mostly in their 60’s and early 70’s? Two men, and a whole bunch of women. Naomi decides that I really should join in – because you wanna dance, don’t you? – and so I do. It’s the first day of classes, Naomi tells us not to worry, she’s going to go slow. She smiles and says, well, not exactly slow, but uncomplicated. And proceeds to give a thorough total body warm-up, drawing on ballet technique – we are doing plies and little flick things with our feet, yoga, Pilates, and traditional modern dance technique. This class is about toning up, strengthening, finding balance. She finds and works every important muscle we have. Its tough, but feels really good. We do floor work – steps with partners, and here some people begin to falter – not quite sure what to do…Naomi is unrelenting – you need to learn that step – where are you going, don’t you know what a diagonal is? But amazingly we are all doing pretty well.
Finally she gives us a movement phrase, and gets us dancing. Naomi insists we get it right- count – and urges us to know that when we dance every gesture matters – why are you looking up? – why are you touching your arm – make it beautiful . Again, the music, which has been great becomes fantastic and there is that same focus, and drawing in of energy and attention that happened at Mott Street. Something important is happening. We move in two groups, and we watch each other, and it is beautiful.
After the class I ask one lady why she comes: “…Well, for me its just very personal – I just really love personal expression – thats what I enjoy – its very invigorating, I feel more alive, and its also very good when you want to try to keep your figure – it really helps… you have to look in those mirrors, and that is the moment of truth…its a wonderful way to express oneself.”
One gentleman tells me he comes because he wants to figure dance out, like you need to figure out a cricket game – impossible to know the rules until you do it. I ask him if he enjoyed it. NO WAY he exclaims loudly and vehemently, I hate stretching, I hate exercise, but you gotta do it right? I can’t give up? I’m never going to be a dancer but you gotta do it! And then more shyly, Do you think I’ll pass? Maybe she won’t let me back in….
The last class has begun. This is the only small class I’ve witnessed – four attendees, Naomi and myself. This is the Dance Improvisation and Creation for Older People. The one I was most looking forward to. The ladies in this group are older than the previous class – the lady on my right is 85. Balance and hearing are very real issues, and we need to slow down. But its still thorough – throughout the sretching and opening and exploring, Naomi carefully feeds in small movement phrases that we can develop ourselves. We work individually and in duets, and we take it in turns to share, and watch one another. Its absolutely beautiful watching these much older bodies express so differently and with dignity and very different styles of presentation. P has clearly done a lot of flamenco, and finishes every sequence with a haughty flick, arms up and shielding. J was a dance therapist and is in mourning for her husband; her movements are soft warm gatherings in and scattering back out with smiling and brimming eyes. J had told me earlier, that Naomi had helped her create and choreograph a grieving dance for her husband that she intended to perform at his memorial. In the last moment J decided she didn’t want the memorial to be about grieving and didn’t do the dance, but, “Naomi came anyway…thats the way she is”
I talk to another lady after the class and ask her why she comes: “She’s wonderfully creative and enthusiastic – she’s a great teacher, she gets everyone to move, no matter what your status or what your level is…Its a fulfilling part of my life that I wouldn’t have if I don’t dance, so I follow her because she’s one of the few people that can work with older bodies I find. Dancing makes me feel good and I think anyone that dances feels that euphoric.”
I ask her what she would say to older people who are fearful of dancing because of their age?
“ I think there’s always something they can do, and I think Naomi’s very conscious of that, and when I’ve seen her work in the senior centres, even if the movement is within yourself, you can still feel the rhythm, and pick up the sounds, so I think people can find the level that they’re at even if they do it sitting down…”
Its been exhilarating and my mind is full of the people and movements I have witnessed. I know I probably have a lot more questions to ask Naomi – but she looks busy and ready to rush off to the next part of her busy schedule, and my mind is too full to think properly. Naomi gives me a big warm hug goodbye and wishes me all best for my travels and journey.
After all that I feel I just need to wander and drink in New York sights, so I head back downtown to Mott Street. As we rushed past earlier I noticed Little Italy looked all decorated – Naomi told me it was San Gennaro’s feast. I think a little religious celebratory fervour is just what I need…
Great to walk streets with no cars. Pizza, beer, ice-cream, lots of police, shiny lights, old apartment buildings, gesticulating groups of Italians, tourists, deep-fried Ores cookies and lotsa lotsa proud advertising about how much cannelloni is being made, how good it is, and how much you need to get some, now.
One lady keeps opening the lid of her pot – and shouting out “We got balls!, we got balls!” She has a Tshirt on saying she’s got balls.
Plenty of very huge Irish guys manning (looming over, more like) the many modern equivalent of coconut stands – maybe they’re not Irish? I have no idea – its all too much of a melting pot, and I’m happy to be bewildered. The image of Audrey Hepburn is familiar, and has to be taken. Famous fictional characters you’d want to stroll around New York with? Holly Golightly, Eloise, Jay Gatsby, Dr. Peter Venkman. Cosmo Kramer, Alvy Singer, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, Francie Nolan…this according to TimeOut. Absurdly I feel pleased i know all of them part form the Mad Men guys…Think Seinfeld and Ghostbusters…and of course Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I find San Gennaro’s alter and church place. Chinese ladies are selling all the bits of plastic memorabilia to take home with you. As always, churches offer quiet and peace. The heaving city outside melts away, and I’m content staring at the many techincolour murals. Good-old-back-at-home renditions of the bay of Naples with pretty waves. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. He has many one dollar bills pinned on him. Its uber kitsch and uber comforting and to some people probably uber serious & important.