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The Over 50’s Dance Project, Palmerston North

In December 2004 the Palmerston North Over 50’s Dance Project celebrated its 21st birthday. The celebration at the Globe Theatre was enjoyed by a full house, comprised of family, friends, supporters and past members of the project, as well as local dignitaries. The audience was treated to a show of the group’s versatility – song and dance, tap, comedy…. But most of all vitality, confidence, joie de vivre and a level of skill, performance and energy which in our modern society is not normally associated with those in their 60’s and 70’s. Two of the performers had been with the project since it started 21 years ago and a good proportion of the performers had been involved for the last six years.

Over the years the project has given the dancers the opportunity to express themselves through the medium of dance in a wide variety of genres. There are many opportunities to share that performance repertoire with varied audiences and community groups in Palmerston North and the surrounding environs. As the dance styles, repertoire and opportunity for enjoying dance and performing are ever changing, there is a sense of challenge that is ongoing and exciting. The project also provides more than a dance experience. As a community dance project it encapsulates all the virtues of using art as a tool for community development. The participants also have developed a strong sense of community and support each other through good times and bad, such as family problems, bereavements, celebrations, practical help and general encouragement. Generosity of spirit is one of the hallmarks of the project.

The project was instigated by Tania Kopytko as part of some community dance projects she embarked on as part of her PhD research in 1983. The original partnership was with the PN Senior Citizen’s Council. They supported the need for healthy positive activity for the older age group that was challenging and had variety because they were concerned that much recreational activity for older adults was not exciting or challenging enough. Often recreation programmes did not enable people to utilize all the skills and talents accumulated throughout their lives.

The first class began with twenty women, due to the extensive networks of the Senior Citizens Council. A year later the project had grown to three classes per week and an average of  70 women attending weekly. It soon developed a female culture and so the few men who wandered in felt more comfortable being directed to a YMCA exercise group for retired men, or the social dance club which was short of males. Val Bolter joined the project as tutor in 1984 and continues to teach the two current classes per week along with Ian Harman.

The vision behind the project was to use the many facets of dance to create better health awareness, especially in the use of the body, a greater sense of well being and confidence, as well as expression appropriate to the group. By encouraging an all inclusive environment the intention was to create a dialogue with the dancers to explore dance that was new, as well as dance styles that they enjoyed and wanted to explore. This vision has remained with the project and is reflected in the wide range of dance genres that the group performs – tap, contemporary, flamenco, Afro-Caribbean, folk styles, jazz and show style, creative, song and dance, and funk. Research with the group revealed motivations- “we were brought up in a rural area. I always wanted to learn to dance but there was no opportunity.”

“It was the depression when I was young, Mum had no money to send me to tap classes. I always wanted to learn to tap – who would have thought that I would learn it at this age.. its fantastic”

“My husband doesn’t like dancing, but in this class we don’t need to have partners so I can dance.”

“I loved performing in Amateur Dramatic shows but when you get older they don’t choose you. In the Over 50’s we can keep going and we perform.”

The participants believe that dance helps them through such health problems as arthritis, stiffness and lack of suppleness, depression as well as combating loneliness. Once of the sad features of our society is that women in their 60’s and 70’s have often lost their spouses and have to cope with the loneliness this creates. Performances and open classes have done much to promote the vitality and talent of the older adult – through their performances at community centres, health expo’s, community concerts and festivals and through intergenerational dance opportunities with local schools and educational institutions. The most recent performance of the group, which has a stage name of “The Spring Chickens” was in February 2005 as part of a Palmerston North Dance Benefit Concert to raise money for the Alana Haines scholarship for young dancers.

As with all community arts projects the real value lies in a multitude of layers, not just in the expression of dance. The members have become expert at finding costume potential at op. shops and fabric sales, remodelling fabrics and designing costumes. They have been requested to be guards of honour, in costume, at members’ funerals and have created “community bouquets” from their respective gardens for various celebrations. Perhaps the project harks back to some older concept of dance embedded soundly in a community or society. Certainly the project is very powerful example of the value and expression of dance in the community.


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