As a classically trained ballet dancer expected to watch her figure constantly, Naomi Goldberg Haas went on tour with a modern vaudeville act and was delighted to see people of all shapes and sizes on stage. She set up Dances for a Variable Population (learn more here), a non-profit multigenerational dance company, in 2005 when she returned to New York to care for her ailing mother and study for her Masters degree. By 2009 she’d started free dance classes at senior centers, libraries, schools and social clubs, encouraging her students to throw caution to the wind and simply enjoy the freedom of movement. Here the 57-year-old choreographer, who is married to off-Broadway director Brian Kulick, tells Senior Planet how the classes morphed into public performances at iconic New York landmarks including Times Square, Riverside Park, Grant’s Tomb, as well as a full schedule of classes on an ongoing basis (see their schedule and locations here).
SP: Tell us why you enjoy working with seniors.
Haas: “There are challenges for older adults but there are surprises too. Older adults are more expressive, more comfortable in who they are. It is exciting to see the way they are thinking, interpreting dance.
SP: I imagine you must get some seniors saying they are too old or not fit enough to take part.
Haas: “We get that all the time and we ignore them! Everyone has issues, especially as you age, but we celebrate that. DVP has multiple dance classes for people wanting to explore the mastery of movement. It has to be an enjoyable experience – otherwise they wouldn’t come back. We have 10 teaching artists, who have a lot of experience working with older adults, and people attend multiple classes from Harlem down to Chelsea. Many return every year. We have two rules, you have to have fun and you have to appreciate what you are doing. We don’t accept people being negative.
SP: Tell us about the health benefits of dancing.
Haas: “There is a mind-body connection. We can teach the connection between what you are thinking and what you are feeling. We are very attuned to that. Lack of movement is a public health issue and classes should be freely available to change this. Older adults need to be mobile, for better balance, for social interactions. It’s so exciting to understand all the elements of dancing and flexibility. One point of exercise is it helps the brain cells.
SP: How did the dances in public spaces come about?
Haas: “People who have been part of our Movement Speaks dance program for older adults like to present a show sometimes. In public spaces they can be seen by everyone. We have older guest artists like Marnie Thomas Wood, from the Martha Graham Company, also taking part and together they can create something exciting for everyone to watch. We’ve been putting on a show in Washington Square Park every September since 2011. We also do weekday programs in the park in the summer months.
SP: Tell us about your own career and your transformation from the classics to less traditional dance.
Haas: “I trained at the School of American Ballet from eight until I was 18. Then I joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. It was wonderful to be with that company but my eyes lit up at different performances, less traditional dances. I joined the Flying Karamazov Brothers for a summer tour, it was wonderful to see the different shapes and sizes of the artists. Then I formed my own dance company in Los Angeles. I came back to New York because my mom was sick and my husband got a job here. It was then that I decided to set up Dances for a Variable Population.
SP: Who was your major inspiration setting up DVP?
Haas: “My grandmother was a yogi in the 1920s. She taught yoga on the beach in the Rockaways. She was vegetarian and involved with human rights. She was way ahead of her time, strong minded and independent. She used to say sex was for procreation, not recreation, she had some interesting ideas. She walked for miles every day; she thought movement was critical to happiness.
SP: What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Haas: “It means embracing your beauty. I equate attitude with charisma. When you totally accept, embrace who you are, you can embrace your own expressivity.”
Photo credit: Talya Charef