Dance is for the young. That’s what the world says. Dance companies are full of young dancers with incredible physical skills, and choreographers are funded to make spectacular performances with their young companies. But this view is belied by the huge numbers of older people who dance into their thirties, forties, fifties and beyond. I have always loved to dance, but I often think that I’m not a ‘real’ dancer. I’ve never been in a big company, I only danced seriously for about 12 years, then I more or less gave up until my late 50s. I don’t talk about dancing to my work colleagues, or in my kayaking club. But still, at 66, dance remains a core part of who I am.

66 Dances began, like many things, during lockdown. My friend Steve Batts, who is director of Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company in Derry, put on November Dances, a series of 21 live streamed performances in November 2020. It was a great event, Every weekday night a community of people from all over the world gathered to watch for about 15 minutes. Each night Steve created a space in our imaginations where he could dance for himself and for us. This summer, I was involved in several dance workshops and projects that I enjoyed immensely. However, I was also feeling afraid. I have had several small ailments that were quite worrying at the time, and many friends have quite serious ongoing health problems. Would I be able to dance in a year’s time? In a week? 66 Dances arose out of these feelings. The idea was to make a two-day event in which I would perform my age in dance.

My first thought was to do 66 biographical solo pieces, one for every year of my life. I quickly dropped that idea. Almost immediately I realised that some ideas were group pieces, not solos. Also, I had vivid memories from some parts of my life, while I could hardly remember other periods. I quickly assembled a list of 30 or 40 ideas, and wrote each one up on a digital card, with images, impressions and structural ideas. I used a suprising number of these original ideas. In some cases, when I actually came to work on an idea, the card had everything I needed to start. With other ideas it took longer to find an approach. How could I make a response to the first Pina Bausch performance I ever saw? Often, once I started to think about a particular piece, an approach would pop into my head after a day or two, but some ideas never got made. I made a response for Pina Bausch, but not for my other hero Trisha Brown. I didn’t manage to make anything about the birth of any of my children, or about my relationships. I didn’t make a score to any of Rimbaud’s poems, which I was reading on and off throughout the process.

We started rehearsing in September with a group of about 12 performers, dancers and musicians. All the pieces were planned as scores for improvisation. Some scores worked well immediately; one of these was December haiku. One of the group, Erica, is a haiku poet, and we used her haiku for a whole series of short pieces. It was a really successful formula. Other scores didn’t work half as well. At first I couldn’t work out why, but after a while I began to see that people’s approaches to improvisation were all quite different. Some people loved to have bits of movement material or physical ideas as a way to structure their improvisations. Some people loved to play; others wanted some kind of emotional core to place in their work. It was challenging and interesting trying to find the right combinations of elements to make a score come to life.

As the performance got closer, the process became more stressful. Some pieces stubbornly refused to fall into place. (We dropped one piece on Friday afternoon, and many of us heaved a sigh of relief). There was a mountain of admin issues. For some pieces there were sound files, images and videos that were essential parts of the score. And there were still gaping holes in the programme. I had sleepless nights worrying about how we would manage. I seriously wondered if it would all be possible.
On the first day I couldn’t get the live streaming to work, which was not a great start. Once I started dancing though, I began to feel more confident. In the week beforehand, I saw the first hour or so of solos as a bigger and bigger obstacle to overcome. Once I actually started, I realised that having the solos first was the best preparation for everything else. By the time other performers started to arrive, I was well into my stride.

On both days I programmed quite a few open improvisations and opportunities to join in. These were another shadowy worry beforehand, but there was never a shortage of people wanting to participate. On the first morning a woman who had never performed before felt inspired to join one of the open slots. She was nervous at the start, but after a short time she fitted in as though she had been working with us for months.

The audience numbers were generally low, but it was a very supportive and warm atmosphere. There were many other dancers there besides the core group – a group from Stroud, the Butoh group Café Reason, Oxford Youth Dance, and many other individual dancers. Nearly everyone watching took part in at least one piece. I really loved the creative process leading up to 66 Dances, and I would love to continue working with all the wonderful performers who were involved. I am thinking of marking my birthday each year with a performance called ‘Where I am Now’. It will be fascinating to see how we all change year by year.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge all the amazing contributions from other people. Grateful thanks go to Margreet Armistead, the vicar of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas Church in Littlemore, and her husband Julian, for their unfailing support of the venture. Contributing artists, if I have missed anyone, apologies. A huge thank you to you all!

Core performers: Sue Amey, Karen Goonewardene, Alex Howard, Erica Ison, Ayala Kingsley, Jenny Parrott, Andy Solway, Lizzy Spight, Ségolène Tarte (dancers); Malcolm Atkins, Paul Medley (musicians).

Cafe Reason: Nathalie Descamps, Helen Edwards, Juliet Henderson, Ayala Kingsley, Bob Lyness, Jenny Parrott, Lizzy Spight, Fabrizia Verrecchia.

Stroud Saturday group: Alex Howard, Jo Hofman, Simon Slidders, Anna Thornhill. Other members also contributed but weren’t able to perform.

Oxford Youth Dance: Class 1: Liz, Nate & Emmy Cremona-Howard, Benja Crombie-Moore & Hester Crombie, Florence & Millie Burns and Kate Blessington, Lola & Michaela Pushka-Thornton. Class 2: Sif Kudsk-Anderson, Emmy Cremona-Howard, Frankie Crowther-Clulow, Isabelle Dorney-Savage, Runa Humphrey, Sophia Reid-Omlor, Lyra Ashby-Dalton. Class Three: Alice and Isobel Marshall-Harloe, Isobel Ashby-Dalton, Lily Gooch, Olivia Madden, Lotta Rosenow.

The Uthers: Madaleine Gibson, Eleanor Percy-Bowersox.

Slipstream: Alex Ballentine-Drake, Ben Hughes, Greta Cullum, Imogen Robinson-Villain, Luke Duffell, Magda Sykes, Rosa Hamilton, Russell Kay.

Helpers: Alex Ballentine-Drake, Eleanor Percy-Bowersox, Rayya Majid, Ben Hughes, Magda Sykes, Abbie Hull, Imogen Robinson-Villain. Lantern dance: lanterns by Helen Edwards. Singer (Saturday): Nuzhat Abbas. Composer: Hassina Sakhri. Other contributions: Steve Batts, Susie Crow, Bruno Guastalla, Macarena Ortuzar, Chris Priestman, Andrew Smith, Martin Smith, Lucia Walker, Sharyn West, Simon Whitehead.

Andy Solway

5th December 2022

You can find an album of photographs of 66 Dances here