There's a lot of talk about diversity in the arts at the moment. We consider ourselves to be a diverse company for many reasons, one of which is the age range of our dancers. Whilst many companies are made up of under 40s, we actively celebrate the experience, emotions and movement of our dancers as they age, it is another way we hold a mirror up to our audiences and to society.
This week there has been a lot of talk about the menopause in the media. In a world where women become increasingly invisible as they age, we thought we’d shine a light on what is still seen as a taboo subject.
Caroline Reece has danced with balletLORENT for 23 years, Debbi Purtill for 19 years and Juliet Thompson for 16 years. They are all currently experiencing and living with the menopause and will share their thoughts and experiences with us in the coming days and weeks.
Wednesday, rehearsal day 8…. find marbles!
I am going through the menopause. I haven’t been waiting for it, I haven’t even thought about it. But like age, it seems to have crept up on me unexpectedly, as have the joint aches, hot flushes, brain fog and generally not feeling myself.
My body is the instrument I have trained. Honed, stretched, occasionally broken, strengthened and relied on, not only to express ideas through movement but to earn my living. It’s sod’s law that as we gain experience, knowledge and confidence as we get older, the menopause rears its head and throws this at us!
I’ve just finished the second week of movement exploration for The Lost Happy Endings, our next fairytale production, and as I experience my body changing, I feel thankful that I’m working in such a supportive environment. I’m surrounded by women and men I’ve spent the majority of my adult life with, some peers who have already been through the menopause, some who are well on their way through it, and others, like me, who are new to it! We all deal with it as best we can, which is generally in a matter of fact way with lots of good humour. Some things may be off the dance move menu now, but we offer so much more in other ways, I feel valued for the many other skills I’ve harnessed as an experienced company member, by Liv and the whole company, and that’s really so important.
I can deal with the hot flushes when I’m in the studio, dancing makes everybody hot and sweaty so I can blend in. However they seem to come at more inappropriate times, like in the office or during a meeting where they can really make you lose confidence, it’s a vicious circle, you look like you’re unsure of yourself, so you become unsure of yourself, I was fine before! And you have no control over them, they’re as spontaneous as sneezing! When we recently performed After Dark at Theatre Royal, I experienced hardly any symptoms, no flushes or brain fog.
My joints ache so much in the mornings I feel like the Tin Man, pass the WD40! I now start every day with a bath, it’s become my morning ritual. As much as it sometimes feels painful doing company class, it is the best antidote to keep moving, lubricate the joints, keep the muscles and ligaments stretched, keeping my body strong and flexible.
The more I’m able to talk about it and share these feelings, the more accepting I can be of the physical changes that are happening to me. It’s not just physical though, I’m experiencing broken sleep, anxiety and odd outbursts of sudden rage/humour (depending on who I’m with!), which in the 1800’s they locked women up for! The physical symptoms can be obvious, but the mental symptoms not so… a warning of the power of hormones…
Debbi Purtill: We’re sharers in balletLORENT, nothing is too real for us to chat about, or indeed create new work about, so this quote from “How to be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran really resonates with me:
“So Yes. We're all dying. We're all crumbling into the void, one cell at a time. We are disintegrating like sugar cubes in champagne. But only women have to pretend it isn't happening. Fifty-something men wander around with their guts flopped over their waistbands and their faces looking like a busted tramp's mattress in an underpass. They sprout nasal hair and chasm-like wrinkles and go 'Ooof!' whenever they stand up or sit down. Men visibly age, every day - but women are supposed to stop the decline at around 37, 38, and live out the next 30 or 40 years in some magical bubble where their hair is still shiny and chestnut, their face unlined, their lips puffy, and their tits up on the top third of the ribcage.”
"It’s hard to express how the Menopause feels. In many ways I’m having it much easier than other women as the only physical symptom I’ve had is hot flushes. In fact, I had my second ever hot flush last year whilst touring the country with Rumpelstiltskin…whilst wearing a sheep costume.
It’s my moods that are up and down, due to the insurgence of hormones I could burst into tears or kill you in the next 5 minutes.
This quote really resonates with me:
“The object of facing up squarely to the fact of the climacteric is to acquire serenity and power. If women on the youthful side of the climacteric could glimpse what this state of peaceful potency might be, the difficulties of making the transition would be less. It is the nature of the case that life beyond the menopause is as invisible to the woman who has yet to struggle through the change as to the top of any mountain is invisible from the valley below. Calm and poise do not simply happen to the post-menopausal woman, she has to fight for them.” ― Germain Greer
Interestingly during After Dark at Newcastle Theatre Royal I didn't have a single hot flush. I don't know whether that was down to the physicality of the piece, the emotional focus it takes to perform or the surge of hormones vigorous exercise induces, but something was going right!"
"It is amazing that we are dancing in the company, when we did The Night Ball in 2013 I used to feel that I was representing the older woman....why shouldn’t it be a cross section of society.....there is always mystery and taboo.....or Jenny Eclair & grumpy old women!
I recently watched the BBC show Fleabag written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and there is a brilliant scene with Kristen Scott Thomas where she talks about the menopause in a wonderful way I’ve never heard before:
“Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives, men don’t. We have it all going on in here inside, we have pain on a cycle for years and years and years and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes, the f***ing menopause comes, and it is the most wonderful f***ing thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f***ing hot and no one cares, but then you’re free, no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person.”
I also caught up with BBC Breakfast who have been covering it recently and I learned that younger women can go through the menopause, even teenagers, and I thought it was only women in their 40s and 50s that went through it. We should all know more about it considering if affects half of the population."
"I work with the female dancers in balletLORENT who have been with me for over 20 years. As they grow older it is easy to continue to be inspired by their artistry. I want to work with a range of bodies in the studio, and see my peer group on stage as well as bring younger dancers into the work.
The physicality of older dancers is different, but it is highly sophisticated and enviable in terms of grace, economy and the ability to execute perfect transitions from movement to movement. And the highly evolved performance skills that these female dancers in their late forties and early fifties bring to the work make every dancer in the room raise their game.
Menopause in the company is faced with courage, tenacity, adaptability, compassion and often with a sense of humour. The dancers have been perfecting these skills their whole working life.
As we continue to discover more ways to support dancers in the company through life changes, thank you to all the dancers I’ve worked with who have faced menopause induced physical or mental challenges. You, with your incredible creativity and grace. You inspire us all."
All photos by Luke Waddington