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In the heart of downtown Manhattan, a group of five dancers come together each week in the company Paradigm. Only one thing separates these artists from the thousands of other aspiring dancers sweating, moving, and performing their way across New York City.
“We’re all over 50,” says Gus Solomons, Jr., who feels there’s a great range of expression in which older dancers excel. “That’s kind of a criterion for being a member of Paradigm. It’s an attempt to show that dancers need not stop dancing when they can no longer do tricks. And some of my dancers can still do tricks.”
In 1996, Solomons began choreographing dance numbers for his friends on a lark. Now, the Paradigm dance company is a perfect example of how older generations are remaining active and healthy by continuing to do what they love.
According to the National Institute on Aging, regular exercise can reduce the risk of certain diseases and disabilities that tend to develop during the latter half of one’s life. Physical activity can benefit people suffering from arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
For the Paradigm dancers, the alleged “limits” of older bodies are seen as an opportunity for growth.
“I don’t think about aging. It’s the nature of this program, but it’s not what I wake up thinking about,” says Valda Setterfield, 74, one of Paradigm’s dancers. “I’m a pretty energetic person.”
Setterfield has been performing as an actress, dancer, and singer for 20 years. Although she no longer attends ballet classes, she stays active with Paradigm, and, like many of her fellow dancers, chi-gong form classes. She says she’s happy as long as she’s learning and doing new things.
Carmen de Lavallade, 78, has been dancing for 50 years and says she has no intention of letting age stop her.
“I know that my energies are going to change,” de Lavallade says. “But I never wanted to dwell on that. I feel there are always things you can do. Every age has their own story to tell, and I can tell it with my body.”
De Lavallade says that she now finds herself being able to connect better with the audience, perhaps a benefit of greater life experience. This is just one of the benefits of aging, says Gene Cohen, the director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University.
“You have a greater perspective and knowledge about things,” he says. “You may need less energy and strength to work at something as long as you used to, because you know how to do it faster and more efficiently.”
For the Paradigm dancers, the aches and pains that accompany the arduous life of a dancer have not disappeared. As de Lavallade says, “I don’t think anybody gets by with not hurting.”
“But there’s always something you can do. And that could make life exciting. You just don’t give up because you say, ‘I’m getting old,’” she adds. “There’s no such thing as old. The Sphinx is old. The pyramids are old. We’re just beginning.”
Solomons gets up each morning at 5 a.m. to do gym exercises, from cardio to yoga. He also bikes everywhere in Manhattan as a way to maintain his active lifestyle.
“Dancing is now easier to do because there’s less at stake, but it’s harder because the body isn’t more resilient,” he says. “I think the example of Paradigm is a good one for showing not only the benefits of staying fit but the artistic benefits as well.”
Physical activity does not have to cost a person anything, nor does it require joining a dance troupe. Staying healthy can be as simple as taking a daily stroll around the block. The NIA recommends setting aside time to do something as simple as raking leaves or choosing to walk up stairs instead of taking the escalator.
“If you’re involved with physical exercise, you’re challenging your bones and your muscles,” says Cohen. “You’re reducing the risk for osteoporosis, which increases the risk for fractures. By building up your muscle strength, it’s further supporting your whole skeletal system and your strength and also balance.”
Michael Blake, 50, another one of Paradigm’s dancers, feels that it’s important to start moving and improving vitality as soon as possible. Blake’s participation with Paradigm is particularly remarkable given that he underwent a hip replacement only five years ago.
“I see it in my dancers and students – students are dropping like flies,” Blake says. “They’re half my age and they’re always getting ill because they don’t take care of themselves. Exercise is key. Eating well is key.”
The Paradigm dancers all know that taking care of their bodies is of the utmost importance in their business.
“I don’t run around telling people what I think they ought to do,” says Setterfield. “But I think that if someone sees a group of healthy, lively people the same age as they are, there’s some kind of impetus there that makes them maybe think, ‘I could do this, too.’”