Instead of Breaking Hips, They're Breaking Into Hip-Hop

Sunday, May 4, 2008


There's something immediately amusing about the sight of a senior citizen dressed in an oversize basketball jersey and executing hip-hop dance moves. It's the classic fish-out-of-water giggle, the same incongruity that makes folks chuckle when they see a toddler dressed up in a business suit and looking like a miniature hedge fund executive.

The documentary "Gotta Dance" evokes a lot of laughter because it follows a group of senior citizens as they audition and join a hip-hop dance troupe organized by the New Jersey Nets basketball team. The movie was part of the Tribeca Film Festival, which closes today. And when it premiered on a Saturday evening it was greeted with loud whoops and a standing ovation led, in large part, by the friends and family of the movie's stars but also because it made hay of the stereotype that old people just aren't cool.

The hip-hopping seniors, who have become fan favorites, were in the audience, screening the movie about their beginnings for the first time, and wearing their red-and-white jerseys emblazoned with their age. They may have been laughing hardest of all, as they try to figure out exactly what makes them "old" -- an adjective they themselves use -- and what that even means.

The film's director, Dori Berinstein, shrewdly alleviates any sense of uneasiness about whether it's okay to laugh at the senior dancers as they struggle with hip-hop choreography by showing them in other situations in which they are graceful and self-assured. The dancers aren't witless, just unschooled. They are excellent tap dancers and jitterbuggers. There is even a ballroom dancer in the group, Claire Gaines, who at 62 competes with a partner who is 27. She would be at the top of the leader board on "Dancing With the Stars" judging from her mambo or rumba or whatever it was. In one scene, Gaines wraps her leg around her partner's body and then spins halfway around it.

It doesn't seem so cruel to chuckle as Gaines struggles with her Jay-Z moves when we've just seen her swiveling her hips at approximately 60 revolutions per minute.

After the screening, the dancers lined up onstage and answered a few questions from the audience, most of which had to do with what it was like being followed around by a film crew and whether they found the cameras invasive. They did not. But no one ever asked them how they stayed limber enough and aerobically fit enough to hoof their way through long rehearsals and then perform at center court at a time when a significant number of 12-year-olds get winded trying to jog for a mile. Had these 60-plus dancers been working out regularly? Watching their diet? Shunning alcohol? Do they all come from a long line of centenarians?

The audience seemed to view them not so much as seniors who have figured out how to maintain their health and vitality over the course of a lifetime, but as magical elders. They are like AARP sprites, charming little creatures who have mysteriously defied the stultifying effects of time. They are elderly superheroes who have rhythm, remember choreography and do not come undone at the sound of OutKast.

It's hard to even know what the term senior citizen means anymore when AARP sends out membership cards to 50-year-olds, Internet millionaires retire before their 40th birthday and the arrival of one's first Social Security check will soon disappear as a rite of passage. And in an age of Botox, hair color, liposuction and Pilates, we know what weird looks like, but what does "old" look like? It's hard to know.

It doesn't seem to matter that several of the dancers could be classified as baby boomers -- a group that has spent the past 20 years letting the world know that they did not plan to go quietly into old age. It doesn't matter that the youngest dancers would only have been in their 20s when hip-hop was born. When dancer Betsy Walkup, who by day is a reserved kindergarten teacher, observes that "Hip-hop is the blues of our generation," the audience responds with shocked delight, as if a toddler has just quoted Shakespeare.

Are the senior dancers that extraordinary? Or are our expectations simply that low? Our popular culture is notorious for ignoring older people, for allowing adolescent beauty to set the standard for adults. We get more excited about physical youth than mental maturity.

So when popular culture gives us senior citizens who do not wear dirndl skirts and stay home and knit -- even though that is more caricature than reality -- people gawk in delighted dismay. And those bumping up against age 60 cheer, likening a gray-haired lady bouncing to a beat to an act of anarchy. How far away are we from it simply being seen as . . . normal?

Another film currently in theaters, "Young@Heart," tells the story of an older group of people -- in their 70s and 80s, with at least one in her 90s -- but it evokes a similar sense of teary-eyed chuckling. In that movie, the magical old people don't dance; they sing. They form a chorus of seniors who perform their versions of rock, rhythm-and-blues and punk songs. One might assume that they are singing Muzak-ed versions of Coldplay or Talking Heads. But they keep the integrity of the original recordings while injecting them with their different perspective on life. A song like "Fix You," which might give solace to someone who has lost a beloved when sung by Chris Martin, sounds like a personal farewell when performed by an elderly man dying of congestive heart failure.

What makes the film compelling is not that the members of the chorus, with a variety of ailments and impediments, continue to sing and socialize in their old age. It's not even that they keep performing after members die and their grief is fresh. It's that they're so connected to the here and now. They're singing contemporary music. They're learning and paying attention to the world around them. They're embracing change.

The senior citizens in "Gotta Dance" talk about the pleasure they take in learning a new kind of dance. One of them, Audrey Stevens-Eteng, had just turned 60 when she auditioned for the team. She didn't know the group would ultimately perform hip-hop. She just wanted an outlet for dancing after she could no longer get past the velvet ropes at nightclubs. So she adapted.

These senior citizens are willing to look befuddled, frustrated and awkward in public. That's something that most people cease being willing to do by the time they get to high school. As adults, we spend a lifetime trying to appear confident and cool.

But these senior citizens were willing to look foolish. They were willing to be wrong. And they did it for the sheer pleasure of learning something new -- not for money or publicity. That's the most astonishing thing of all.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company