Our cultural bias toward youth is nowhere more evident than in the world of dance, where age 25 is often considered over the hill. But Teresa Johnson hasn’t let that stop her. “I’ve always felt and lived as though I’m younger than I am,” the 62-year-old dancer and choreographer explained last week over tea. In a knee-length yellow skirt and white T-shirt, her long, straight hair tucked behind her ears, she could almost have passed for a college girl. “Inside, I still feel 20,” she admitted.
This Sunday, Johnson will present Dance at the Top of the Hill, a showcase of pieces created by choreographers in their forties, fifties, and sixties. The dances range in style from contemporary dance to ballroom and jazz to belly dance. Each one features at least one performer older than 40, and many of the choreographers will be performing in their own work. Johnson will perform a solo, as well as appearing in a group swing dance number.
Johnson was 52 years old in 1999 when she discovered Lindy Hop, a vibrant style of swing that rekindled her lifelong passion for dance. Soon she was dancing with a partner 34 years younger than her, performing flying aerial maneuvers, and winning competitions. In the eyes of most people, she was a phenomenon, but Johnson was just doing what she loved. “As the aging process began noticeably, I pretty much just ignored it,” she explained. “It never occurred to me to slow down or limit myself in any way.”
Then, as her 60th birthday approached, she began to worry about her age for the first time. When a close friend of hers died, thoughts of aging and illness began to consume her. “I got into all this negative chatter in my head: ‘All the good stuff is over, I’m just going to deteriorate now,’” she remembered. “I went around that way for months.” Finally, in an attempt to overcome her fear, Johnson consulted an energy healer. “He had me talk for about 10 minutes,” she recalled, “and then he stopped me and said, ‘Sounds like you’ve been suffering from “poor me” syndrome.’ And I laughed and said, ‘You’re right.’”
Out of her struggle to come to terms with her own aging process and the result of her efforts-a renewed vigor for life-Johnson realized she could make a difference to others. Last year, she launched the Web site youthful-seniors-advice.com, where she tells her life story and gives suggestions for active aging, ranging from workout recommendations to reflections on Chinese medicine, attitude, and spirituality. She discusses her own healing experience, and includes biographies of her role models, including fitness guru Jack LaLanne (who just turned 95 last week) and Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning, who danced well into his nineties and died earlier this year at age 94. On the site, Johnson encourages readers to reject the notion of being “over the hill.” “Whatever your passion is in life,” she writes, “keep doing it!”
For Johnson, that passion is dancing, and for this show, she’s drawn together five men and five women who share her enthusiasm. Among them is Steven Lovelace, co-owner of Santa Barbara Dance Arts, a longtime dance instructor and beloved figure in the city’s performing arts community. Reflecting recently on what it means to be included in Dance at the Top of the Hill, Lovelace wrote, “I am so honored to live and work in a community that supports the work I do after almost 30 years. I actually feel like a piece of history in the creative life of Santa Barbara.” Misa Kelly, director of SonneBlauma Danscz Theatre and another participating choreographer, wrote, “This concert celebrates the power of passion : necessary to manifest one’s destiny-no matter at what stage in life.”
Dance at the Top of the Hill shows for one night only, Sunday, October 4, at 7 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org. To learn more about the show and about active aging, visit danceatthetopofthehill.com or youthful-seniors-advice.com.