Reclaiming Adult Dance | Interview with Elizabeth Arifien, Creative Dance London

Words by Katie Hagan

Elizabeth Arifien founder and creative director of Creative Dance London is on a mission to change the perceptions of adult dance. In our culture of comparison, adult classes have long been seen as somewhat secondary to professional dance, a skewed depiction given the styles’ values and objectives exist on totally different spheres that shouldn’t really be brought into juxtaposition.

To reclaim adult dance, Creative Dance London has cultivated a balmy oasis of intergenerational and 60+ improvisation-based contemporary dance workshops and classes; no mean feat given the past year has been marked by disconnection and isolation. Katie from DAJ chatted with Elizabeth earlier this month to find out more about Creative Dance London and its hopes for the future. 

DAJ: How did Creative Dance London (CDL) begin?

Elizabeth: Creative Dance London was founded officially in January 2021 as a community interest company. But it was at the beginning of the first lockdown that I decided to evolve the grassroots community dance sessions, CD60+, which began in 2010 and was founded by Dr Jackie Richards. 

Jackie wanted to bring neighbours from diverse backgrounds together to enjoy creative contemporary dance. At the time she was an energetic, active adult seeking new opportunities and was uncomfortable about being stigmatised as a ‘pensioner’ or ‘elderly’ person. Dance-wise, there was little variety in terms of classes — only line-dancing, aerobic or arm-chair exercise — hence CD60+ was born. Jackie handed the reins over to me, and I merged my community organisation Visceral Creative with CDL to create a world where there is a clear and inclusive contemporary and improvisation-based dance presence for adults.

At the moment we run National Lottery funded weekly dance sessions for adults 60+ on Mondays and Wednesdays and hope to have intergenerational classes very soon. We have just completed a series of sessions funded by Local Connections for adults of all ages, which both older and younger adults thoroughly enjoyed. 

DAJ: Dance classes are so frequently divided into levels and ages. Why do you want to create intergenerational spaces? 

Elizabeth: We learn so much when generations collide and move together. We can experiment with experiences and stories through improvisation. Jess and Morgs did a cross-generational work with ENB called ‘Cinderella Games’ over a year ago now and I would like to see more crossovers in terms of adult and professional dance.

We design our weekly dance sessions and intergenerational series in similar ways. We use lots of imagery and the imagination to allow people to visualise and escape from their current space. We help people think beyond their situation and have a narrative coach to guide the group. One task may involve picking a word to move in and around, another may be based on using tangible objects or asking people to bring things that mean something to them.

Documentation and reflection are important processes too. These feed into CDL’s overarching aim of transformation — we like to see participants grow and develop in unexpected ways. 

People get so much out of a session if they feel heard. On the Monday and Wednesday classes, participants can go away and develop their work and bring it back for discussion the next week. They are almost on a journey really; building a sense of identity and dance practice in a way that resonates with them.  

Listen to this beautiful poem written by Creative Dance London participants and watch their moving virtual performance, focusing on the importance of community, connection and creativity.

DAJ: Do you think dance can change the mainstream perception of the older generation? 

Elizabeth: The words that Western cultures use to talk about older people are so demoralising. Trigger words such as ‘old’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘isolated’ carry negative connotations that do not reveal the reality of many older peoples’ experiences. There’s also a misleading preconception that the older generation doesn’t want to learn – when in fact they really do!

Older people love to interact with different disciplines and improvise. During our workshops they feel seen and valued. What is also nice is that they don’t have to conform or follow difficult steps. In that sense it is very liberative, almost like a form of therapy. We place precedence on setting this tone and creating this space and it is great to see their transformation week-by-week during our Monday and Wednesday classes. 

DAJ: Yes, there is a negative language that stereotypes anyone who is at retirement age. At the same time it reinforces the problematic infantilisation of dancers, especially those beginning their careers at a later stage.

Elizabeth: Exactly. I have worked as a professional for a long time yet I am at a point in my life where I want to attend adult classes as my body has changed. Some professional classes don’t mesh well with who I am right now. I think it is really important to create an intergenerational adult dance scene that is for adults of all ages. This will allow everyone to get to know the body they are in now rather than the one they were in at 18.

DAJ: I’d like to speak more about working and collaborating with older dancers. What is it like? 

Elizabeth: Choreographing on older dancers is such a moving experience. I am in awe of the beauty of their movement and the stories their bodies tell. Yet, this is frequently ignored by the mainstream. 

We are working on a project called ‘Taken By The Hand’ which will be a short fashion film revealing a long-standing yet hidden community of older dancers in Tottenham. Often underrepresented for their creativity, athleticism and tenacity in mainstream culture, ‘Taken By The Hand’ will enlighten its audience on life after retirement through dance, rich storytelling, authenticity and humour. We’re so excited about this project and can’t wait to reveal more very soon! 

DAJ: A big part of CDL’s identity is to do with community. Why is this the case?

Elizabeth: Professional dance can certainly learn a lot from community work. I have worked across both sectors throughout my career and have taken so much of my learning in community work to professional dance. 

If we all stayed in our lane, how are we supposed to grow and evolve? We all long for being connected and feeling heard and so much of that is what I have lifted from community work. 

I think there needs to be a narrative shift around community dance. There needs to be a reclaiming of the form, as the creativity and stories that emerge from it are so rich. Social media and digital workshops will play a big part in this reclamation, particularly in terms of how community dance is presented and engaged with. 

Image: Louisa Mayman.

DAJ: How do you define community?

Elizabeth: We ran a series also called ‘Taken By The Hand’ from October last year to January 2021 and it asked the question ‘What is community?’ and looked at what we can learn from our environment. The aim of this series was to explore different communities on the planet and what we can learn from them going forward. We looked at the coral reef and how as an ecosystem, it is the linchpin of its community. The reef then contributes to supporting the ocean and so on.

DAJ: What’s next for CDL? 

Elizabeth: Our dance classes in Tottenham have been going for ten years so we want to go back to live sessions as soon as we can. I think we are all desperate to feel that connection and improvise together — to feel each other’s bodies and awareness in one space.

Very recently we welcomed the composer Sabio Janiak who hosted a sound healing session online. We have some exciting projects on the horizon and are excited to be collaborating with some really cool dance companies very soon. Now is the time to keep an eye on CDL!

For more information about CDL, head to its website and Instagram. Header image: Louisa Mayman.