Stand up, sit down, rub your thighs, make a noise, grab a partner, and suddenly you're an improvisational dancer.
That's the simple message more than a dozen older citizens are getting this week during an unusual series of workshops at the Lawrence Senior Center. Members of the Dance Exchange, a top-notch modern dance troupe from Washington, D.C., are working with older Lawrence residents all this week.
"We want to make them feel more comfortable with their bodies," said Tom Truss, one of the Dance Exchange members leading a Tuesday morning workshop. "They are learning what they can do with their bodies, and what they can do with them is make art. We're allowing them to make art.''
LIZ LERMAN, the founder of the Dance Exchange, has made a point of working with older people since the group's beginning. Within the exchange is a dance group specifically for older people, and she uses both older and younger professional dancers in her work.
Her company will be performing its eclectic, cross-generational dances, including her new work "The Good Jew?" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass., under the sponsorship of the Kansas University New Directions Series, which arranged for the workshop as well. The workshop participants are tentatively scheduled to perform in a Dance Exchange piece on those nights as well as an informal concert at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, Ninth and Vermont.
TRUSS AND Bea Wattenberg, an older member of the company, led the Tuesday morning workshop with a decidedly gentle hand. The group sat in a circle, and the leaders began by asking each participant to say her name and physicalize something about what they did or how they felt, from sleepiness to quilt-making.
As they were still sitting, Truss took them through a series of improvisations based on picking, cracking and preparing a coconut. He then let the women improvise a few gestures, which they eagerly did, and they strung the gestures together in a series that got them out of their seats and moving to some improvised piano music.
Finally, the group broke up into pairs, and the women and Truss worked out variations on the core improvisation. Some women began by rubbing each other's backs and then posing; others began apart and then came together in a hug.
FOR MARY Coral, the Dance Exchange workshop fulfilled a longtime goal.
"I had heard about Liz Lerman about six years ago, and I knew what she did was very important," said Coral, director of recreation for the Douglas County Senior Services, and a participant. "But I found I didn't have the money. . . Then Jeannie Mellinger (education coordinator of the KU Concert, Chamber Music and New Directions series) asked me last year what I wanted, and I told her Liz Lerman. She said oh, they're coming next year. I was delighted.''
Coral's strongly stated belief about the Dance Exchange is it helps dispel prejudice people have against older people.
"She breaks down the barriers between people," Coral said of Lerman. "It presents a truer image of what age is, rather than the cultural stereotypes that once you're over 30 you're washed up. It's ageism. It's kind of nauseating. It's very oppressive.''
Naomi Tisdale, for one, finds the workshops stimulating. She said she heard about the workshop from Coral and decided to give it a try.
"You discover parts of the body you haven't used before,'' said Tisdale, a Lawrence resident.
And the rewards aren't limited to the students. Truss finds his work stimulating as well.
"Certainly there is a very deep joy in that I share something I love," he said.