Roxane D’Orleans Juste, former dancer with the Limon Company for 30 years, now in her sixtieth decade. Photograph by Natalie Fiol
Age is in the news these days. After a nasty fall, 81-year-old Mitch McConnell will soon return to a United States Senate where 54 Senators are older than 65. At least 68 percent of Americans think Biden is too old for another term. There have long been concerns about the 89-year-old Democratic Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein: although she is retiring, she still plans to serve out her term.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that former Governor of South Carolina and Republican Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley wants a competency test for politicians over 75. But would that include her chief rival, 76-year-old Donald Trump?
While worry about our politicians’ abilities as they grow older is understandable, particularly when they seem confused, the age of my pilot or surgeon might be of more immediate concern. Yet our cultural perspectives on aging are complex. We often turn to elders for wisdom and reassurance too: after all, former president Jimmy Carter is nearly 100, but still giving us life lessons as he enters hospice.
Arguably, today’s polarized politics desperately need the wisdom of our elders, but the quality of that wisdom depends on how a life is lived. As rock star David Bowie once said, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”
But not everyone arrives, and instead, it may take a lifetime of courage and a willingness to let go. And that, in itself, is a form of wisdom. My mom often repeated this seemingly nonsensical phrase: “Aging is not for the young.”
As a 70-year-old woman in dance, a field that values youth, my mother’s admonition is starting to make sense. It’s taken a lifetime of practice to learn from the physical losses due to aging: saying goodbye to arabesques in my forties and relinquishing the feeling of flight as I hit my sixties and seventies. Later decades require even more courage—stepping away from a working life, and perhaps life itself.
But ironically, if you are attentive, letting go does not diminish, but rather opens up, new possibilities.
Here’s one. Dancing is learned from body to body—so naturally, teaching dance also becomes difficult as you age. I had a phenomenal role model for this part of my journey. Donald McKayle taught a class packed with professional dancers in a sweaty studio in Chicago. Leaning on a cane, he barely indicated a shoulder roll, a hip thrust, a leg kick. However, the dancers didn’t miss a beat—jumping, twisting, and flinging their limbs in all directions.
At that time, McKayle was 80 and finally being celebrated for his contributions to American dance. A Black choreographer who spoke of social justice long before the Black Lives Matter founders were born, he was also a trailblazer. His piercing eyes and soft gravelly voice communicated a determination developed over a lifetime, and that is part of why the dancing was so fierce that day. And he taught another lesson: despite squeaky joints, I had much more left to learn.
Aging bodies are their own gift. Philosopher Joseph Campbell said, “If the body is a light bulb and it burns out, does that mean there’s no more electricity? The source of the energy remains. We can discard the body and go on. We are the source.” President Joe Biden’s losses are wellknown, but the electricity is still glowing brightly, as we all witnessed in the State of the Union speech and during his visit to Ukraine. Biden is older, but he is wiser now—an earlier combativeness is tempered with humor, curiosity, and a genuine interest in finding common ground.
Age can also cause real deterioration: everyone has the responsibility to assess whether they are able to do their job and step down if they can’t. At 89, Feinstein is facing scrutiny after her intention to serve two more years before retirement. But as we select leaders, we must weigh the benefits of age against the dangers, guarding against our own internalized stereotypes. According to a European Journal of Aging, “Stereotypes contribute considerably to ageism both towards oneself and towards others.”
And we have a responsibility to teach the next generation about the complexity and joy of age, as well as its dangers. Young people can internalize negative views of older people, attitudes that shape their own self-perceptions as they grow older. Hundreds of phrases—long in the tooth, out to pasture, and ready for early bird dinners—signal our cultural disdain for our elders. While data on aging confirms increased mental and physical changes as we age, such research rarely reveals experiential or spiritual growth, or our internal satisfaction about the benefits of age.
To return to politics, during his long life, Jimmy Carter has been giving us lessons on the expansiveness gained by reconfiguring a life over time. He went from being a peanut farmer to the Presidency, and from the Presidency to becoming a peace advocate, builder, and Sunday school teacher. Each new journey required building on past strengths and shedding attachments to what he no longer needed. As he enters hospice care and faces the ultimate test of letting go, he is doing the same.
Dancer Keely Garfield offers a Zen koan that inspires her work as a choreographer and chaplain: “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall? Body exposed in the golden wind.” As Jimmy Carter’s life fades away, we are getting a glimpse of that “golden wind.”
Growing older is a constant dance between how we feel about our age, how we judge other people, and how we are perceived by others. In a dream, I become blurry as I move out of the limelight. I’m fading, but I don’t disappear. I am no longer bold colors carried by the soloist, but rather the wash of light giving the weight and structure to what will be the dance. If I relinquish my ego, I have the opportunity to just become.
Jan Erkert is Professor Emerita and former Head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois.