Performance, Age and Gender: Brief Anthropological Reflections

By Yiannis Papadakis

From the start I liked the title Act Your Age because it encapsulates a number of important themes related to gender, performance and ageing. Ageing has become a significant demographic and economic issue, and so the focus on this topic provides a useful wake-up call to face these issues squarely. In ‘traditional’ societies elsewhere and in the past described as ‘age-class systems’ by anthropologists, such as those of the American Indians, old age was revered, linked to power and knowledge, and the control of tradition included dances. In present day, where capitalism is characterised by mobility, age is often treated as a disadvantage as one incurs more obligations and less flexibility due to serious relationships with partners or families, or due to set habits. Age is now coming to be treated as a burden, as waste even, while youth is venerated.

The contemporary western-driven emphasis on youth and beauty, or rather on beauty as youth, raises pressing questions both in relation to gender and dance. Gender-related, given that women are encouraged, if not forced, to embark from a fairly young age on a constant battle against ageing (with a multitude of products advertised as ‘combatting age’), a battle re-enacted each time a woman looks at herself in a mirror. Ironically, young women are often eager to ‘perform maturity’ through make-up, body language and clothes, but as they age, they feel that what they should perform is youth. While men have faced rather less pressure (not surprising given the largely androcentric power relations of many societies), lately the problem of ageing and bodyism seems to be affecting men in western societies as well. The rise of men's magazines has been already linked to the rise of male anorexia. Dance has been perhaps the cruellest expression of this predicament, since it has provided a platform on which, more than in any other art form or social expression (barring modelling), the youthful body has been literally and metaphorically elevated and revered, with dancers becoming particularly fearful of age.

The concept of embodiment provides an interesting means for reflecting on these issues. It is uncanny to see how children may ‘perform’ their parents through body language (and it raises various questions related to individualism, another revered notion of modernity). Yet, embodiment is not only acquired through those closest to us. The western media has a worldwide impact by presenting powerful sexualised images. Teenagers in many societies, as well as grown-ups, come to embody those images, knowingly or unknowingly.

Sociological discussions of performing oneself in daily life, beginning with the seminal work of the American sociologist Erving Goffman, show how individuals constantly play ‘roles’ in their daily interactions and in different social setting or ‘stages’. Yet women, who tend to be judged more relentlessly for their looks (both by men and by other women), may be forced to ‘perform’ more than men. As professor Marjorie Garber points out: ‘the woman constructed by culture is already an impersonation. Womanliness is mimicry, is masquerade.’

As a social anthropologist used to a different kind of events, my participation in the Act Your Age project was a source of new insights and possibilities. In Cyprus, I was asked to engage in discussions with artists and audiences after the performances; an invitation you rarely see in dance, or in the artistic scene as a whole. In this respect, I felt that locally this event broke new ground in creating a dialogue between academia, artists and audience members. My own contribution was to offer some academic views on issues related to gender, performance and ageing. The discussions took place in an honest spirit of constructive criticism. New ground was also broken in another way, through workshops such as From Limits to Possibilities led by Giulio D’Anna. Together with his father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, D'Anna created the performance Parkin’son. Based on this work he involved people with Parkinson and their families, psychologists and dance therapists in the workshop, giving art a practical and applied social content.

Some of the issues I raised above were negotiated in individual ways in performances I saw, both in Cyprus and in Maastricht: Lia Haraki’s Changing Skin explored the biographies of older dancers, as well as the practical difficulties of working with them. Silvia Gribaudi’s What Age are you Acting? presented a stark confrontation with the issue of the naked body for a man and a woman. In Blind Date the two older dancers Arthur Rosenfeld and Liz King performed the predicaments of internet dating above 60, and demonstrated the possibilities of mature dancers, both in terms of thoughtfulness and of bodily expression. In other words, their performance did not only highlight the expressiveness that comes with a long experience in dance, but also demonstrated how intellectual maturity can provide a solid base for creating art.

The final presentation of the project in Maastricht I thus found interesting and challenging, because it facilitated a dialogue between artists, academics, audiences, and policy-makers and offered public workshops tailored to various groups, film screenings, a photographic exhibition and more, scattered all over the city. In the past, I often felt a disturbing divide between art performances and a wider, public, socio-political interaction, but by the broad variety of the programme and through inviting encounters to take place, Act Your Age gave art a welcome social grounding and orientation.


Yiannis Papadakis (1964, Cyprus) is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus. He participated in the residency month in Cyprus and in the Act Your Age festival in Maastricht.