Ageism and Jazz Dance - When Is A Teacher Too Old?

I've been involved with jazz dance as a performer, teacher, choreographer, and author for over forty years. That is one long history, and one that exceeds the career lifespan of most professionals in the field. I've found jazz dance to be the right place for my creativity, and my expression. But now, at the age of 61 years, I'm finding that jazz and theatre dance are not that hospitable to me. Or more correctly, that the people in charge of jazz and theatre dance are not that hospitable. Although my powers as a teacher and choreographer are still sharp, and my activity level is superlative (I currently teach six days per week), I'm seeing signs of program directors opting for the youngest (and least experienced) teachers in place of engaging someone like me, a professional with the wisdom of years of experience. It seems that fitting in with the organizational structure is more important than engaging a highly qualified teacher.

I still have support from some directors, who mostly are older and respect my knowledge. Since they ARE older, they have a sense of the quality of what I have to offer, and appreciate that there is still someone out there bringing that level of quality to jazz dance teaching.

The problem lies with younger directors, who aren't knowledgeable of the past, and who bring a different expectation to jazz dance training. They may not be that interested in the highest quality, but more interested in the "flash" of name recognition. Which is perplexing to me, as in the last year alone I've had feature articles and interviews twice in
Dance Studio Life and once in Dance Teacher magazine. I'm still regularly called upon for my experience, by those in the know. But younger directors aren't comfortable with engaging someone older, mostly likely more informed, and who surely knows more about the jazz dance idiom than they - the directors - know.

Some examples? Well, I can point to these:
  • In 2002, 2003, and 2005 I was invited to teach at the Univ of Tampere, Finland, bringing my approach and the Mattox approach to the three year university program. The assistant director, slightly younger than me, highly supported my work and my impact on their dancers was notable. But then a new overall director was appointed, a much younger person, and he favored what was called "show jazz" - meaning flashy commercial work, as opposed to a more serious approach that would require a more depth of study. Needless to say, I haven't been invited back since 2005.
  • I taught at Shenandoah University from 2013-2016, as jazz dance professor and musical theatre dance coordinator. But with a move to "brand" the musical theatre program as primarily developing performers for "rock musicals," I was told that despite being "excellent at all aspects of my work," I was not the "right fit" for the future and told to find other employment. It's not a coincidence that the musical theatre program director was in his late 30s, and was enamored with performers with current Broadway rock musical credits as being instrumental to his branding focus. This I found to be ridiculous, as if there is anyone who has lived through the rock period and knows the dances and influences of those times, it would be me. But…I can't say that I was just in a number of new Broadway shows like Hairspray, Spring Awakening, and Legally Blonde. So that was it for me, and my career at Shenandoah University. (And while were are on the subject of these three shows, lets note that the choreographers Jerry Mitchell and Bill T. Jones are "up" in their years, not exactly just out of grad school. So, why the edict that a new teacher had to be younger?)
  • My most recent incident came with an application for a professorship at a lesser known university program, that asked for a candidate with strong experience in musical theatre dance AND a classic modern dance technique like Graham or Horton. Well, me being highly skilled in musical theatre dance, having been the dance program director at Shenandoah and the head of jazz and musical theatre dance at the Univ of California, Irvine, AND having multiple years of teaching Horton modern dance in universities, AND having more than a dozen impressive videos of musical theatre dance and Horton classwork to show, AND having this year's visibility of three mentions in national magazines - you'd think that I'd be a top candidate for this position. Well….no. Today the email arrived, telling me that my resume was "highly impressive" but that competition was strong and I was no longer under consideration. I was not even interviewed. So, there appears to be at least three others with a resume of experience even more impressive than my twenty year career in university teaching. Think so? Probably not. More likely there were three others who were younger, who fit the university assistant professor mold better than me, and who quite possibly were personally familiar with the deciding powers.

Is there a problem with how I relate to younger directors, causing this impression? Well, possibly, in that I bring so much to the table and that history carries presence. Perhaps a presence that a lesser experienced director cannot handle or just does not want to handle. The SU director told me "I see you as a more traditional choreographer." Why, because of my abilities? I've choreographed everything from golden age musicals to rock/theatre presentations using music by Bruce Springsteen, to avant garde plays, to site specific dance dramas based on race relations. No, I think its more that I'm just the older person, and that in order for this younger person to claim his territory, he has to reduce any competition, and enforce his authority.

The resulting effect on the field of this inequity is that less qualified teachers are now populating dance programs, bringing a lesser quality of training and information to today's students. I'm not afraid to make that statement, as I just don't see how a young musical theatre dance teacher, brought up on
Glee and High School Musical, will know the details of the work of Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, etc. Program directors do a great disservice to their programs when bypassing teachers with first hand experience in favor of younger, greener teachers. It means that future dancing will suffer. In every single case? No. But in most cases? Yes. That's my opinion.

The real unfortunate aspect of this trend is that it can't be reversed, and that the quality of dancing in the field will just suffer. Will
A Chorus Line ever look as good as it did with dancers from that time period, trained in the jazz dance styles of that decade? Will dancers hired for a bus and truck version of Fosse end up being the new translators of the Fosse style to a future generation? Dancers who did not live through that time period, and who mostly likely only learned the choreography in the limited rehearsal period of the tour?

Yes, this is a rant, but one that I think I have the right to make. Anyone with multiple decades of experience, and who is still viable as a teacher, can make the same claims. Of course if a teacher is stale, or hasn't kept up with a dynamic physicality for later year teaching might incur reduced opportunities. But an active, viable, producing professional, who has the wisdom of the years to offer - much more than a new teacher can offer - should not be denied consideration based on age. It's happening more than we realize, and I do feel that it will severely impact the quality teacher's career, as well as the future of this field of dance.