Dance troupe high-kicks holes in old stereotypes about age

Elders Ensemble dancers (from left) Karen Klein, Betty Milhendler, and Eleanor Duckworth rehearsing. Elders Ensemble dancers (from left) Karen Klein, Betty Milhendler, and Eleanor Duckworth rehearsing. (Tommy Neblett)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Lesley Bannatyne
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2008

The women burst into the Central Square studio, kick off their shoes, and stretch before one of their final rehearsals. They unpack costumes and talk through tricky sections of choreography, gently practicing lifts and turns while keeping one eye on their reflection in the room's giant mirror.

It's like any other dance troupe. Then, the differences begin to emerge.

Betty Milhendler sits on a bench and takes out her crossword puzzle. "It's so soothing," she says.

At 84 1/2, she's just shy of being the oldest member of the Prometheus Dance Elders Ensemble, second only to 85-year-old Dorothy Elizabeth Tucker.

"Old people and children always add their age to the half year - did you ever notice that?" Milhendler asks.

From September to May, the 10-member Elders Ensemble spends every Thursday afternoon rehearsing dances choreographed by Diane Arvanites-Noya and Tommy Neblett, the artistic directors of Prometheus Dance. They began using mature dancers in a work that the Cambridge-based troupe premiered in 2002.

"It was such a wonderful experience," says Neblett, "that we thought we'd like to work with them again."

The Elders Ensemble is Prometheus's second company, and has been performing professionally - the dancers are paid - for four years. "We wanted to blow the myth of dance being only for youth out of the water," Neblett says.

During the ensemble's two-hour rehearsal, there are no breaks. To Ray Charles performing "Lonely Avenue," the dancers lower their sunglasses and plop into lawn chairs, kicking and crossing their legs like chorines.

When the music shifts to Schubert lieder, compositions based on poetry, they dip into the kind of emotional territory that makes it clear they've lived long enough to have, as writer Zora Neale Hurston says, "been in sorrow's kitchen and licked all the pots."

"Sacred," which has its premiere on the group's next program, includes nuanced movement as well as soft whisperings that name the things these women find sacred: the lives of grandchildren, their parents, sexuality.

Neblett and Arvanites-Noya create choreography they call "age appropriate," movement that each dancer can handle based on her experience and ability.

"It's true they can't do the same thing as a 25-year-old," says Neblett. "So the leg doesn't go up to the head - who cares? It's humbling to be around these ladies. They've done all these incredible things in their lives."

Nearly half of the Elders are or were professors - of medieval literature, social work, education, the arts. They are also painters, models, activists, therapists, mothers, grandmothers, and widows. Most of all, they are very much themselves.

More than 60 years as a teacher gives Dorothy Elizabeth Tucker a gravitas that when used (as in "All Dressed Up to Go Dreaming," one of the four works on the program) makes you swallow your gum and sit up straight.

After decades of moving figures through three dimensions as a choreographer, Joan Green's intelligence is part of her presence. The sheer joy of extending, balancing, and running exudes from Marcie Mitler (the youngest company member at 55), who rediscovered dance after a 22-year hiatus.

"People are very impressed, very interested in what we're doing," Milhendler says of audiences' reactions. "There definitely is ageism in our society. . . . People have a stereotypical idea of what an older person can do."

And it probably doesn't include high kicking, hoisting chairs, dancing to the raucous beat of DJ Shadow, or balancing a traffic cone on her head.

"As long as my body will do it, I'll do it," Karen Klein, 71, says about her future with the Elders Ensemble.

"When I dance I feel better about everything. I certainly don't feel old, and I don't think of the women I dance with as old. They're plucky."

The Prometheus Dance Elders Ensemble will perform at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Dance Complex, 536 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; $20 general admission; $15 seniors, students, and Boston Dance Alliance members;, 617-576-5336.

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