Maria Genné: Everyone Needs to Dance
Ida Arbeit—dancer, choreographer, and amazing person—died peacefully early on March 15 at 101 years old. Eight days earlier, she had performed as a featured dancer in a taping session for an upcoming public television program about the Kairos Dance Theatre. Ida was an exemplary model for creative expression throughout her life. Lifelong creative expression is what Maria Genné is all about.
Maria Genné is the founder and director of the Kairos Dance Theatre, an intergenerational dance company based in Minneapolis that uses dance and storytelling to transform individual lives and build community. Ida’s dance career spanned decades, including work in the 1930s with the WPA Federal Dance Project. She was part of the Kairos company since 2008. “Ida had such a wonderful eye for choreography,” says Genné. “She was always looking to what was next. Ida said, ‘I am not about the past, I am about the future.’ She was a true collaborator with me, and the company was honored to have shared her experience and wisdom.”
Genné believes that, as a society, we focus on the deficit side of elders rather than appreciate the gifts they can offer. And she particularly feels the lack of opportunity for older adults to participate in creative expression. Kairos works to increase those opportunities for people of all ages and abilities.
“Dance is my primary language. Even as a young child, I would do anything to dance. But I am also an educator with a passion for helping others express themselves.” Early in her career, Genné collaborated with teachers to bring creative movement into the classroom. Then she taught creative dance for children and later expanded to include families. Eventually, she included elderly parents and people with disabilities. “I’ve always taken a look and found that the picture was not big enough. It had to include the whole community.”
Genné sees herself and her company as catalysts for social change. “Social justice is in my blood,” says Genné. “My mother worked as a field secretary for the NAACP in New York with Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins. My dad was on the NAACP board in Chicago. Equality was very important in our household. I grew up knowing that you needed to walk your talk. We take our intergenerational performances to schools, nursing homes, museums, parks, and community centers, bringing a vision of what community can be: all ages, all backgrounds, all abilities, all dancing together.”
The Kairos Dance Theatre has been recognized nationally for its Dancing Heart™ program. The program engages frail elders, including those with mid-to-late stage Alzheimer’s, in weekly dance, music and storytelling programs led by professional artists. The program has won two national awards: The Archstone Award for Excellence in Program Innovation from the American Public Health Association and the 2008 Mind Alert Award from the American Society on Aging. Beginning last January, The Dancing Heart expanded into independent and assisted-living sites, engaging more active older adults in vital art creation. The company will be replicating the Dancing Heart program for national dissemination beginning next year.
Photos Courtesy of Kairos Dance Theatre