One’s sepia-tinged autumn years are usually wrapped in nostalgia, and our seniors are often seen as simply their memories. The reality is our seniors are still living big lives – so what happens when you ask them to create a new dance work?
IF ONLY I COULD... was a multi-generational contemporary dance project that celebrated the great big lives of our seniors and the endless possibilities for them. Directed by QPAC Producer Angela Chaplin with Lizzie Vilmanis engaged as Movement Director, the creative development of IF ONLY I COULD... began in 2018 and involved 10 Queensland dancers and 10 residents from two Lutheran Services Aged Care Centres. It since had public performances at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in November 2018 and at the Laidley Cultural Centre in October 2021. QPAC came on board as a partner in 2020 to support the facilitation of workshops with the dancers and residents and a public performance took place at QPAC in October 2022, where six residents of Lutheran Services’ Tabeel Aged Care, along with professional dancers from across Queensland, took to QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre stage in a performance that showed the power of movement and connectivity, and that age is just a number.
The concept for IF ONLY I COULD… began in 2017 with Director Angela Chaplin running a series of dance workshops with Lutheran Services aged care resident after she saw a gap in access to the artform of dance. Angela’s long history with community engagement and theatre directing, together with a firm belief in the social justice role the arts can play, led her to question who misses out. She found that a lot of the time, it’s the elderly. “This project came from my belief that everyone in our diverse community – no matter their age – should have the opportunity to explore their creativity,” said Angela.
Lutheran Services Creative Programs Advisor Clare Apelt has a background as a community artist and dance therapist and said that IF ONLY I COULD… was created to breathe life and colour into residents’ lives, with opportunities to move and connect with others. “Our creative programs aim to provide residents with active and meaningful opportunities to have fun, reflect, create, keep fit, remember, create new memories and friendships. IF ONLY I COULD... is a glorious flowering of this work. It began when I heard Angela’s vision of creating a piece of dance theatre with seniors, exploring their ideas and love of dance. I plucked up my courage and knocked on Angela’s door and asked ‘would you like to partner with Lutheran Services? I have many residents who would love to be involved in this project!”, says Clare.
The clinical benefits of the project fast became obvious, with residents who didn’t usually get on their feet standing up to dance. “We know there is a direct positive correlation between music and movement on elderly peoples’ health and wellbeing – both mental and physically – so creating an opportunity for them to be involved in a project of this kind is truly rewarding”, says Clare.
IF ONLY I COULD... participant 76-year-old Michael Bailey was told that after breaking his knees and shoulder earlier in the year, he would never walk again. He defied the odds and showed that with the right attitude and spirit, anything is possible. “Our elderly cast came alive through their involvement in the workshops, rehearsals and performances. They became more present, more talkative, more responsive, expressive, and cheekier through the rich range of movement, dance, theatre games, conversation and music with the dancers and Angela, as Director. We all witnessed our elderly cast’s increased joy, movement range, fitness and confidence. The benefits of participating in performing arts for the elderly are the same for younger people, including developing confidence, promoting self-motivation and expression but it is more poignant in my opinion as it re-connects the elderly with themselves, each other and to a wider community. The sense of exciting purpose and joy has been transformational for our participating residents,” says Clare.
With a lot of the participants dependent on other people to help them get through the day, dance gave them back a sense of control over their bodies and mind. When asked what they enjoyed about being involved residents said:
- Having fun and being involved in such a fun group
- My childhood dream of being a dancer has been achieved
- This has helped me feel alive!
- I can move and do so much more now!
From day dot, for Angela, it was the courage of the participants that stood out. Their commitment to the project came to a heart-tugging apex in the 2021 Laidley performance, where in a beautiful turn of events, grandchildren saw their grandparents become the centre of attention. “Angus, who’s got severe Parkinson’s and is in a wheelchair – he danced. The curtain opened and it was just him in the spotlight. And beautiful Amy who’s 94 and one of 16 kids said she’d fulfilled her childhood dream to dance on stage and she never ever thought she would,” reflects Angela.
The life-changing nature of the project is evident in its namesake. When residents were asked if they would like to dance, over and over their reply was “If only I could”. Angela Chaplin adds: “IF ONLY I COULD… shows that no matter our age or physical abilities, the stage belongs to all of us.”
Clare sums it up: “The residents’ performances and achievements have blown open what they and their families thought they could do or were capable of. So, in this sense bringing the performing arts to aged care helps redefine what it is to be old and living in residential aged care.” For Angela, the dream is to build an ensemble of professional elders, to the point where they are empowered to create and perform; to make her role as Director and facilitator redundant would be a mark of success against meaningful community engagement. As she puts it: “You get out of the way. Let them do it. Hand it back.”
Go behind the scenes of the journey from rehearsals to the performance and see the elderly cast come alive through their involvement in the workshops, rehearsals and performances.
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