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The Fullness of Midlife

“My body is really wise.”

“My body is really wise.”

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Linda Graham

Linda Graham was for 36 years a member of the Hope College Department of Dance. A graduate of the National Academy of Arts, she received her BFA (Theatre) and MFA in Choreography/Performance from the University of Illinois. A former member of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and DanceMoves (NYC), she co-founded Aerial Dance Theatre [now known as H2 Dance Co.], performing and co-directing until 2005. She has set works on the Joffrey Ballet, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and the Grand Rapids Ballet, among others. Her choreography has been produced in the USA, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, Mexico & France and for the Emmy Award winning children’s television program “C’mon Over.” She has also co-created, choreographed and produced community events such as Global Water Dances and flash mobs, choreographed musicals, operas and 100+ original works for students. A recipient of a Michigan Dance Association Choreographer's Award, Michigan Dance Council Maggie Allesee New Choreography Award, National Association of Regional Ballet Monticello Fellowship for Young Choreographers (2 times),"Partners In Dance" award from the Grand Rapids Ballet, she also received a Creative Artist Grant from ArtServe Michigan. In 2015 she established the National Academy of Arts archive at the Sousa Performing Arts Library, University of Illinois.  She is interested in the intersection of movement as communication between humans and animals, the history and beneficial utility of training, and how dance, relationship and imagination fosters stories, thereby cultivating and empowering individuals and transforming communities. 

Barb: My guest today is a recently retired professor of dance from my alma mater, Hope College, here in West Michigan. While we never crossed paths there, I learned of a video that Linda had recently shared that spoke directly to an issue we at MiddlesexMD acknowledge: that our bodies change as we grow older, and often in many ways we wouldn’t choose and don’t much like. Linda’s words about reconciling with our body led us to invite her to the Fullness of Midlife. Welcome, Linda.

Linda: Thank you. Thank you so much Dr. Barb. It’s really an honor and a delight, and I’m a little nervous to be here, but thank you. 

Barb: Yeah, I’m eager to hear what you have to say. While I may not be aware of it impacting my day-to-day work, it absolutely does impact my day-to-day work because I’m encountering individuals who are expressing, in one way or another, some journey that they are on regarding their bodies. So for someone who has used their body as an art form and for creating beauty, it must be a unique experience. So I’m eager to hear what you have to say. 

Let’s start with some background for the listeners. A dancer, a professor of dance, so you, obviously, have a very unique relationship with your body that most of us have never had to think about or journey through. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Linda: Well, okay. I’ve danced for as long as I can remember, and I’m really lucky. I think I’m really lucky that I had the willing and capable and strong body that early on in my life. It happened, and it was just serendipity that I received some good training for that body. I’m from a large family, and as a kid, my parents put us into all kinds of physical activities like gymnastics and dance and figure skating. When I was about 12 I received a scholarship to attend a dance conservatory called The National Academy of Dance. The training that I received there really set the technical, physical foundation for the direction of my life. 

The Academy shaped my body in my early teens. Then at the academy and later in my 20s as a professional dancer, I trained and rehearsed probably four to six hours a day. So when you’re a dancer, it’s kind of like being an athlete artist, and it’s a lot. An extreme injury in my early 20s really limited my performance career. Then that led towards a focus on teaching and choreography, and that brought me to Hope College. 

[laughs] Ha! I was also a single mother at that point—I was in my 30s—and for many years I have to say while teaching and doing the choreography and academic administration and raising two kids by myself, I really didn’t have the time or energy to commit to self-care. And there was some wear and tear that happened in that time period that later—I mean this fall, I had a hip replacement, and I wrote a letter to my hip apologizing for that period of life [laughs]. And I said, “I know this was hard on you.” And my hip still served me well through that time. I had digressed. In my 40s, I picked up being chair, stopped performing and creating for the stage, and suddenly I was really no longer exercising regularly at all. And I also started into menopause, at which point I should have called you. Immediately. 

Barb: [laughs] Yes.

Linda: And that was my mistake. Big time. Hypertension set in, along with some extreme migraines, and I gained weight. But in the last ten years I have to say I’ve kind of wrestled some of that down, and I’ve been able to make some really positive changes with my body. 

Barb, did that answer your question? I feel like I kept wandering away.

Barb: It absolutely did, but I think it’s really fascinating that you, who really depended on your body for your career, so to speak, even when you weren’t performing maybe yourself, you were teaching it. I think it’s heartening to know that even you, in the busyness and chaos of work and parenting, could neglect self-care. Because I think, you know, we are hard on ourselves. I preach a lot about self-care. But do I practice it? Yeah, not as much as I probably should, so I think, again, hearing it from someone who is a professional, so to speak, it gives us all a little grace for the times we haven’t met our own metric of excellence. 

Linda: I think that space is important to give yourself. Yeah. Yeah. 

Barb: You know we go all through periods of change, and I think for you it was maybe injury? But for a lot of the women I’m talking with, it’s more about aging. A lot of times joints limit activity, which compounds some of the physical changes we are experiencing. I’m just wondering how you came to this idea of reconciling with your body and when. Kind of talk a little bit more about this concept because I’m not sure I’ve thought about it this way. But I think it’s a really healthy way of approaching it. 

Linda: Okay. It sounds so de-sensitive, because it feels like you’re having this conversation with your body? But I think that really is something that was trained into me early on. I remember having teachers who called your feet your dogs. “Point your dogs.” [claps] They’d do this thing. [claps] “Point your dogs.” And your thighs are your horses. And there was this body awareness that grew out of that training. I’ve survived it all. You know I’ve always dealt with fatigue and injuries and other physical challenges, so having to regularly acknowledge imperfection and the limits and the pain, despite my extremely fine and well-crafted powers of denial [laughs], which isn’t good. But you have to respond eventually constructively. Adapting to the reality of your physical state is part of the profession. And it consequently informs your life—informed my life. So being able to kind of disconnect and then talk to myself, have that conversation, has been very very helpful in resolving and being able to move forward with “what happens next” for that body?

Barb: Has it always been a conversation you’ve been aware of the need to have, or is that something that you’ve just really acquired this more advanced awareness of? Because I feel like the sooner we recognize the benefits of having this conversation with ourselves, and reconciling it, probably the healthier the journey will be. I’m curious. Did it start in your 20s with an injury, or did it come more recently with, you know, you mentioned a hip replacement?

Linda: Well, over the years I’ve had all kinds of injuries—broken ribs, broken fingers—and sometimes being able to talk to yourself has been the saving grace of getting out of some difficult moments. But you know, I think, having that conversation is part of being aware of your body. Listening to it. Because whenever we talk about listening to our bodies, that implies by its very verbiage a conversation. So if you are listening to your body, are you talking to your body too?

So over the life stages of my life, I’ve found it very helpful in listening to my body, to open the door to the conversation by asking my body questions. And then hearing what it has to say. My body is really wise. It’s much smarter than my brain. And allowing it to have its say means being quiet and asking the question. Although I have to say sometimes my body just kind of jumps on me too with something. 

I’m going to use an example on this one. I chaired the dance department for 10 years, and to do that, I put off my sabbatical for about 16 years, and that’s not something I recommend anybody ever do. Ever. When I finally did go on sabbatical, half way through it, I received my contract for the next year, and in it, it welcomed me back as chair. And my body literally vomited. I vomited. I had my backfill. Eww. And my body was letting me know it’s time to let this administration go—the administrative component of what I was doing—it’s time to get back to creating and being physically active in a studio. 

So, back to that question. You know, listening to the body requires a conversation with the body. And that means being open to hearing what your body has to say. Which is you have to be quiet and listen to it in a different way. 

Barb: You know it’s interesting you say that because I have just recently been in all the same therapy—physical therapy—with a very skilled person who is helping me understand my body and, after having months of back pain and hip pain, I just came to this realization that, you know what? I can’t keep ignoring it and I can’t keep wishing it away, thinking just because I’ve been healthy all these years without it doesn’t mean I’m where I need to be right now. So it’s been an interesting journey to understand the intricacies of trying to achieve physical wellness again. And this idea of I’m so grateful that I finally did listen to my body because I can see now the benefits that will come of trying to address these problems, rather than the other workarounds which just create bigger problems, right? [laughs]

Linda: They do! They do. That’s all in the denial and the bargaining and everything else. 

Barb: And you talk about that in your video, about denial, bargaining, accepting. So, did you create the analogy of thinking about aging and the changes in your body, or how did you come to that?

Linda: [laughs] Well, I guess a lot of this really came to the forefront in my thinking when I was going through the hip replacement because I had been in denial about needing a hip replacement for a long time. And when it finally hit that that was what needed to happen, it happened very quickly. It was with the x-ray, it was really obvious, and the doctor said, “You know, we have an opening in less than two weeks, and we’re really hoping we can do this really fast.” And I realized, yes. I wanted to do that because I wanted to get on the other side of this pain which was so debilitating at that point. 

But the other part of me realized that my hips have been a huge part of my career. I’m extremely flexible, very strong as a dancer, a lot of jumping, a lot of splits, a lot of jazz—a lot of intense wear and tear happened to those hips. They served me well. They gave me a career. They birthed my children. And now I was looking at losing it, by saying goodbye to my hip. Although I’d had many surgeries before, I’d never had something removed before. I’ve had things worn out, but I hadn’t had anything actually removed. So now it meant I was losing that part of my body that had been so essential to my life for 62 years. I ended up writing a letter—again that conversation—to say thank you. And in that letter, I talked about my grief process. You know, I went through all these things with you, and I tried and tried and tried, but like a worn out servant who has done their job so well, that now they can no longer do it, it was time to say goodbye.

So that was part of me dealing with this upcoming surgery where I was literally losing a part of me, because my body has been my identity. 

Barb: Yeah. And again, I think most of us maybe wouldn’t say it that strongly, but I certainly see how our bodies translate into how we feel emotionally and, maybe in my role, sexually. A lot of women connect their physical they see to their sexual confidence. I think this journey of acceptance is… I’d like to understand how to better encourage women to achieve that. I don’t know if you have any additional insights. I like your idea of a conversation because it’s only through conversations that we have deeper understanding, right? 

Linda: Right in any area. Yeah. 

Barb: Maybe just allowing women to understand that’s a place to start would be helpful for them. 

Linda: But I think also by having the conversation, you offer a little distance. When you are looking here, it’s almost too close. But when you put it out, and you can look at it—I think this is one of the benefits of being an artist because it’s what we do all the time, because we take what’s in here, we create something, we throw it out there, and then we can look at it. There’s kind of a cathartic, therapeutic value to that too. 

Barb: In your video you say comparison is the death of joy. 

Linda: Yes.

Barb: That kind of smacked me, and I thought about it outside of just my physical changes. Can you speak into that a little bit too as to your understanding of that? Because I think it’s a really important reality. 

Linda: I think all too often we compare ourselves to what we used to be able to do, what we used to look like, you know, our earlier circumstances, whatever those were. I cannot take credit for that phase. It is something that has become something of a mantra for me, but it comes from Brené Brown. So just to give credit where it is due. Yeah.

I think it’s really true comparison [is] the death of joy. We do that to ourselves on a daily basis. Like, “Oh, this wasn’t as good as what I did yesterday.” We tend to, by doing that, take ourselves out of our present opportunity, whatever that might be. Because you might be doing something really really well, but then you compare it to something you did four years ago, in a totally different circumstance, and suddenly it seems lesser. And that isn’t fair to the moment you are in right now. 

I think we tend to really do it a lot with our bodies, with our self image, and I think we do it at all stages of life too. It’s a constant struggle; that idea of comparison. I think if every woman could just wake up every morning and look in the mirror and say, “You’re great. You look good today. Yup, you’re good,” and go out and meet the world in this positive, “This is where I am. I got enough sleep to do what I need to do which is its own kind of thing sometimes—getting enough sleep [laughs]. But get your sleep, get out there, have a good breakfast, and have a good day. 

Compared to the three weeks before when you were in Hawaii, you’re going to have a miserable day. Don’t do that! Don’t compare yourself to when you were in Hawaii 40 years ago and you weighed half as much as what you weigh now. That’s really not fair. 

Barb: You also talk about owning our story. I guess I hear you speak to that now the way you’re talking about living now to face who you are and what you are today. But I’m wondering, how does that prepare you for the next phase of life?

Linda: In my last few years at Hope College, I was teaching a course called the “Senior Seminar.” The one that I taught that I created was called “Leap of Faith.” This is a course—it’s a capstone course—but it is a course where all of these seniors have to write a 20-page life-view paper. When I first started teaching it I thought, “How absurd that they have to write this paper about their journey through life so far because they’re so young [laughs]. What can they write about? [laughs] That is so unfair.” I actually got 60-page papers from these kids. They had a lot to say about their lives. 

But when I first started teaching it I was talking about a friend of mine who is the chair of the dance department at the University of Illinois. We’ve known each other for many many years. We performed together 40 years ago. Only an old friend can tell you things like this. Here I am talking about this life-view paper, what goes into it, and she said, “Have you written yours?” And I went “ummmm.” And she goes, “My, you are the kind of teacher who puts herself through the same rigor that you expect of your students, and you haven’t written this paper?” And I said, “Okay,” and I promised her I would write it. 

Ah! My word! Talk about hard! It was so hard! So, in the paper I had to write about what’s the why behind my who. Who am I, and why am I, and what are the stories behind that who? So writing about the stories that shaped who I have become led me to understand and articulate my personal strengths and weaknesses in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before. I wrote a manifesto, I explored and identified my core values, and basically paved the foundation for the next stage of my life in retirement. 

Teaching the senior seminar class was the perfect preparation for that. I don’t know that it worked so well for my students, but it was great for me. It took me two years to write this life-view paper, and I still go back to it. 

Barb: I’m glad to hear that. I’m glad to hear that it was. I’m just imagining that and feeling overwhelmed with where do you start, so it sounds like a remarkable journey. 

Linda: Oh, it was! You have to be very intentional about it. There were exercises. There were certainly things to be read, and things that we did in the class that I put myself through. But then I would repeat that several times because the first few times you do some of those quizzes and things like that—at least for me, I was responding in a way of who I wanted to be rather than who I am. So being honest with yourself, that takes its own kind of onion-peeling time to work into. Anyway it was a wretched and terrifying experience, and it was a great thing to do, writing a life-view paper.  

Barb: But I imagine some of that was relative to your physical being as well. 

Linda: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.

Barb: Back to the understanding and acceptance of what was changing in that regard. So I try to practice yoga, and I have some activities I enjoy. But this is a uniquely challenging time for a lot of women to find opportunity for movement, and at this age and stage, in this season, and in this season of limited accessibility to gyms and so on. Do you have any recommendations that you could make to listeners about investing in their bodies and maybe thinking about movement that would be attainable for a typical individual?

Linda: Yeah. I would say—well, speaking of yoga, first off, I have to tell you I’m a huge fan of yoga. Dancers are. Yeah. Dancers are in general. It’s something that we incorporate in our warmups. Most professional dancers, or former professional dancers—myself included—begin every morning with inhaling, exhaling, and some sensory work; some basic just wake-me-up material that helps you step into a good day. 

I would say for everybody, give yourself a dance party. 

Barb: Ah, that wasn’t the answer I thought you’d give! [laughs]

Linda: Give yourself a dance party! [laughs] I’m thinking because dance is kind of unique. It brings together social bonding—which we are really missing right now—but also it is physical, it’s creative, it’s mental, it’s musical, it’s expressive. It’s got a cathartic edge to it. It’s constantly changing. It has been shown to develop, evolve neuroplasticity and all these other things. But I’m just thinking, you know so many people I talk to, when they find out that I am involved in dance, the first thing I hear back is, “Oh, but I am not a dancer.” I just want to shake them and say, “But you are! Are you moving? Did you get up this morning? Are you moving in any way? Then you can do this.” 

The reason people generally say that is because they go back to that comparison is the death of joy. They judge themselves immediately. “I’m not a good dancer, therefore I’m not a dancer.” They can dance. Everybody can dance. Anybody who is moving can dance. Open your heart to that! 

So I would say give yourself a little dance party for five to seven minutes a day. Put on some music and move! Make a popcorn dance while you’re making popcorn. Dance with your child. Dance with your cat. Dance with your dog. Sway with the trees. When the snow comes down, fall down on the ground with the snow, if you can, or very slowly get up, depending on your situation. But whatever you do, don’t judge yourself and say, “Oh this isn’t good enough.”

Barb: That’s encouraging. 

Linda: Just give yourself permission to have a happy moment. Yeah, put the music on and move. 

Barb: Yeah. Well, thank you. Five to seven minutes sounds do-able, you know? This is an assignment that I think can happen, and for most of us, we’re probably most comfortable doing it home alone, with no one watching [laughs]. So there aren’t many barriers to give it a try. 

Linda: [laughs] Yeah. Like I said. If you want to have somebody to dance with, dance with a chair. Dance with the popcorn. Dance with, you know, whatever is outside the window. 

Barb: Yes. I also appreciated one of the things you said was that reconciling with your body is a journey we hope to be blessed with. And I think that might be a nugget I can share with some of the women I see who are somewhat distressed and having some negative thoughts about where they are in that journey. So I appreciated that vent on just be grateful we are here, reconciling with changes. 

Linda: Yeah.

Barb: And I think the women who are coming through this phase that we are, are going to be better at it. You know, I think we are going to embrace the changes that come along with having achieved this stage of life, along with some of the knowledge and wisdom that might come along with it as well. 

Linda: Well, and that knowledge and wisdom is actually in our bodies too, if we let it be there, you know. And be at peace with it. I think our bodies, again, are very wise whatever age they are at. They have something to offer us. It’s that reconciling with the aging body is a blessing. It is a blessing to be able to do it. 

Barb: So as we finish our time together today, Linda, one of the questions I like to ask guests is where do you find fullness at this stage of your life?

Linda: Oh, family, friends, animals, movement. I really do love having the time to explore and experience movement as communication between humans and animals. I enjoy training our dogs; those guys who were barking earlier. I love writing. I continue to love creating and sharing stories through dance connection and imagination. And, I always make sure I have something to look forward to most of these days—these cold days I look forward to a hot bath at night. 

Barb: Well, good. Thanks for sharing. Thank you for your insights. I really appreciate what you have to offer and I think our listeners will appreciate this as well.

Linda: I hope so. Everybody, do a little dance party today!


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