I also teach a modality called “Ageless Grace,” a brain and body fitness class that’s great for neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself through movement, in a nutshell.) Yesterday, two sixty-something year- old public school drama teachers who are buddies showed up at class for the first time. These gals were all in: without hesitation, they mimed playing baseball, violin, conducting traffic, swan-diving and synchronized swimming. They made scary faces and blew kisses, pretended to have temper tantrums and to dance the mambo. They were having a ball. Their enjoyment was infectious for most of the other students.
One woman, also 60-ish, was far more reserved. She joined in every exercise, but often with a disdainful expression, as if she was thinking “this is so stupid.” I’ve learned not to let my ego go on a tear whenever a student in one of my classes is clearly not into it. The classes are outside the mainstream for many people, beacause they are about presence and play, with no other endgame. We don’t keep score, no one wins or loses, there are no metrics to determine if we are improving or not. There’s only this: how do we feel? Are we having fun? Are we doing our best? This is unfamiliar terrain for some people.
At the end of class, Two-Drama-Gals asked me to tell them a bit about how Ageless Grace developed, and I gave them the spiel about the founder, how she is from Raccoon Valley, Tennessee, that she became interested in gerontology because of her own aging parents, how her background as a movement teacher led her to study neuroscience, then she piloted the program for seven years with a Duke University-affiliated hospital. What neuroscience research is increasingly discovering, I explained, is that the best thing you can do for longevity and brain health is exercise that simultaneously works the body and the brain in spontaneous ways. This is true whether you are a middle-aged-to-old fart trying to stave off your increasing sense of stupitude — forgotten names (like, your brother’s), lost keys, whole conversations completely unremembered, the sum of two plus four; or a little kid learning a new skill.
“Oh,” said Drama-Gal-Number-One matter-of-factly, “so you mean, you have to play.”
So much for all my jargon.
“It’s such a shame,” she further commented. “Kids I teach now, it’s much harder to get them to play then it used to be. They have trouble accessing their own imaginations, with all this technology.”
Now that’s sad. People without confidence in their own imagination can be easily influenced, for one thing. I look back on my childhood and it seems all I did was play. I was alone a lot, but I was constantly acting out stories or building vast imaginary worlds in my head. My three kids, too, did a lot of playing. They were big into dress-up, elaborately staged Beanie Baby plays, forts, and bizarro games they simply made up. Like “Baker Heads,” in which Nate and Lucy wore Mia’s Pampers “Pull-ups” on their heads, their faces framed in the leg opening (this made them look like 18th century toothache patients), and talked in funny high-pitched voices. They found this hysterically funny.
Afterwards, the woman who had seemed uncomfortable in class hung around while I did some paperwork and prepared to close the studio. She has a tall, lanky frame and diffident manner. Together, these give her the air of a watchful stork. I would have thought she would be the first one out the door, but she was the last.
“I want you to know,” she confided. “I very much enjoyed myself.”
Not what I expected to hear.
“I’m so glad,” I said.
She hesitated, and then continued: “I have a very difficult time playing. I always have, even when I was a child.”
“Well, you did great just now,” I told her. “And good for you, you did something difficult today, taking this class. That was brave.”
She did her best. We all do what we can.
Now run along and play.