At TEDx in Auckland, New Zealand, the remarkable Billie Jordan explained how and why she formed the Hip Operation Crew, the oldest dance troupe in the world, average age 80.
Her dramatic story highlights the unwitting cruelty of agism: society has extremely low expectations of old people. You're expected (required?) to slow down and pull out of the flow of life. Your useful working life is over, and your reward (or punishment) is to retire from living, out of sight, out of the way ... without actually dying. This may be meant kindly, but it is totally demoralizing and a kind of abuse. "We should increase the pace, turn it up full throttle," says Jordan.
Why does Jordan care how older people are treated? Traumatised by the Christchurch killer earthquake, she moved to Waiheke Island where she felt isolated and depressed, and an intense fear of dying. Nobody expected anything from her. She felt worthless. She saw no future for herself. It was like being ... very old.
She empathised with the old people she saw, rounded them up for flash mob duty. Then she decided to set an impossibly high goal. She announced boldly that she would form the local old people into a dance group and send them to the world championships of hip hop in Las Vegas. And by gum that's exactly what she did. "We made this pact. If anyone died during a dance, we would step over them and carry on dancing."
Her demanding style and high expectations horrified the locals at first, and transformed the dancers. They stopped talking about the past and all their talk is now about the future.
Of her 22 dancers, four use mobility aids, five have had open heart surgery, all have arthritis, six are deaf, one is blind and five have dementia. "It's manageable,"says Billie drily.
Do watch Billie Jordan, once, twice, three times. She may transform your view of old age. This is compassion in action: relentless. And funny.
The Hip Operation is a sort of boot camp for the elderly. As for the dancers, their doctors say they're happier and healthier than they've ever been.