Image by Nadia Iftkhar of George Tulip and Ellen Martin
Tucked away in a small room in West Denton Community Centre, seven dancers methodically run through their routine for a piece of dance theatre set to form part of PUG’s alternative arts night at Tyneside Irish Centre. The performance on Friday 27th January from this septet, better known as Company Of Others II, is just their second as a group. What’s even more impressive is that just twelve months ago, the majority of the group had never danced before. Pulled together through adverts, notice board information and GP referrals, this new dance program for people over 65 years of age blossomed.
Led by Artistic Director and Choreographer Nadia Iftkhar, her passion for dance and for this project, and most importantly, this group, really sets the tone; “what was gorgeous about them coming together was they were all coming from the same place. They go through that journey as a group”. It’s that journey that proves to be a central theme for them all, and will form the major crux of Echo, the performance they’ll be showcasing.
They may have started as a group of individual dance novices, but they quickly evolved into a little community, and Echo springs forth as a real collaborative effort. In speaking to the dancers, their vibrancy when talking about each other shines; “we’ve all got our different personalities and we don’t take life too seriously. It’s still nice to try fresh things. We’re getting to know each other and have a great deal of confidence in each other and in ourselves.” Dory explained.
It’s a similar feeling for George too, a farmer who passed retirement age without actually retiring, he seems to have finally found something which allowed him to take a step back, while taking a couple of rhythmic steps forward. For him, learning about dance “opened doors to other understandings , other ways of life, opened windows in my mind to other perspectives and one of them is a community of complete strangers coming together for a common purpose.”
Each one of them I sat in the company of had their own story to tell, their own life that lead them to this group, to dancing and performing this new piece. For Tony, his role in several choirs and willingness to put the hours in really shows, recognising the way practice gets you to where you need to be. There are also the benefits in day to day life for each of them, “all the little sequences and exercises we do helps us with climbing up stairs and all the other things we do in life,” he told me. They all relay similar sentiments, with the learning of routines aiding memory, and the passionate confidence they seem imbued with now really showing how far they’ve come. For Sylvia, who hasn’t danced since she was a small child, it’s invigorated her attitude towards life, “I would never say no. I would always try to take part.”
Nadia too has her own tale that brought her to lead this beguiling bunch. “I trained in contemporary dance. I got my degree in 2006. For a long time I moved around and travelled with work a lot and delivered community projects in different areas of the world. In 2013 I decided to set up Company Of Others. But wanted it be a little bit different to the other companies that are out there and serve a different purpose.”
Then, in partnership with Helix Arts she created Falling On Your Feet, a falls prevention program for people over 65. Focusing on the importance of the independence of older people, and wanting to aid them in retaining that for as long as possible as a key part of their own identity, the programme serves an important purpose. Though as an introduction to dance for people who’ve always wanted to but never got the opportunity, there’s something more going on, and it’s this passion for the art form she knows so well that has certainly helped make the project such a success. A wonderful debut performance on their home turf followed, and of course, most of the dancers wanted to continue. Nadia gladly told me of the group’s “aspirations for performing on bigger stages” and how they “wanted to keep creating choreography.” They did too. Together. She explained further “we really make the work together as collaborators and that was something that the dancers hadn’t known they would love because they hadn’t experienced it before. It became really important to them.”
It’s the openness to go with wherever this takes them that is exciting for both the group and Nadia, and perhaps their exuberance rubs off on her just as much as she clearly does on them; “setting up a company of dancers over 65 was always part of my long term plan and it just became really apparent that it has to be now and that these are the right people.” Every single one I spoke to couldn’t speak highly enough of their guide into a new world, and with so much of it being built on an important circle of trust, there was a sense that this trust has allowed them to push on together.
Echo is the culmination of that trust. Nadia explains “it’s about the journey. It’s about their journey towards this moment where we met.” Dance may have been new territory for most of the group, but that innocence to it all is a major factor “it’s about their journey towards dance I think, and actually, a celebration of age and the experience that comes from being older and having gone through so many life experiences it’s also about them holding that as a powerful thing, celebrating what experience and knowledge they have” she continued.
It’s all invigorated a new found love of dance for the group, as Stephen tells me “The young ‘uns are missing a hell of a lot now.” It’s kicked in an interest in dance throughout the group, as George echoed “I see dancing on the television or any art form, I appreciate the effort that’s gone into it. It opens your mind.”
The artistic worth of it all seems the perfect point for them all to arrive at, as you get that it had to be this that pulled them in, suiting the array of personalities perfectly. As Ellen said “at my age, I did try zumba, which was too exerting, because everything I do, I put 100% in. When I came back from zumba I got home and collapsed,” she chuckled, before clarifying just what finding this company meant for her; “it means I’m doing something for me. Everything is positive, a really positive experience all the way through. Meeting new people, we’ve all gelled together.”
Linda, who had a brief flirtation with dancing as a child, took to it all with what must be the same wide-eyed enthusiasm she would have had in her youth; “It’s quite an emotional experience to watch a group of people all in harmony together and feeling each other’s movement, because that’s the only way you can get it together. It’s a connection and you’re dancing with an intention somehow. You have to put everything into it.” The former music teacher had a real glint in her eye, and continued “the rhythm is in you, when you’re little,” and it most definitely still is, and it’s enriching to see a group of people so excited to have found that.
The group have really put the hours in to make sure Echo leaves a lasting impression, and as Nadia takes the group to a new audience and new challenge, she summed up what seeing this performance could mean to those watching; “that’s so exciting for me, for younger people to see older people in a different light, in a powerful and very beautiful way, in harnessing their own creativity. That’s really important.” It is so important too. With PUG being a night centred on coming together and challenging each other, this feels like the deliberate, rhythmic steps on show will all form part of a mesmerising piece but most crucially, so do the people behind it. This is a group that will find captivating, unique ways to connect with the audience, the same way they’ve connected with the music, the movements and each other.