Faculty of Education, 2018
Jan Bolwell: teacher, choreographer, director, organiser, and inspiration. I decided to give her a call and have a chat about her dance company, Crow’s Feet Dance Collective, a group of women over the age of thirty-five who have been producing a new show every year since 1999.
I wasn’t expecting, however, that two minutes into our phone call we would be discussing Bolwell’s brush with mortality, and how it inspired her to embrace a creative life—in spite of the fear and ego that so often stand in our way.
Jan Bolwell had been teaching at Wellington Teachers’ College for ten years in 1997, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and lost both breasts in a double mastectomy. Confronted by the intense fragility of humanity, Jan quit her job and began dancing again, something she hadn’t done since the early 1980s when she left Dunedin. After participating in a creative writing workshop, she wrote her first solo show (which was mainly a dance piece), called Off My Chest.
Why is it that an encounter with mortality is often the catalyst required to engage in a courageously creative life? This is the question that swirled in my head as I listened to Jan tell stories about her creative endeavours during such a tumultuous time in her life.
Around the same time as her own diagnosis, Jan had other friends and connections who were experiencing similar battles with breast cancer, many of whom were wanting to engage in something creative. Hence Crow’s Feet Dance Collective was formed and has, over the years, become a close community of women over the age of thirty-five.
Jan Bolwell has written all the shows for the dance collective, and many of them feature her own family’s stories. She has written shows about her father’s involvement in the Second World War, her grandmother’s life, and the experiences of her grandfather in the First World War.
Other plays she has written have a very political tone, and when asked about her engagement with political dialogues, she replied, “the very existence of a group of women over the age of thirty is a political act. We are challenging the stereotype of dancing communities, and ageism. But yes, many of our shows challenge political agendas”.
Jan has written a new show every year since 1999, and the next one, Once Upon A Dance, has been written in collaboration with Mona Williams, a dancer and storyteller from Guyana. The work tells the stories of their dancing lives, and is set to tour New Zealand from March 2018, starting in Dunedin.
My chat with Jan left me feeling inspired but frustrated. When will the rest of us wake up and realise that we are all mortal beings? We all have a finite number of days, and many of us will not be given even the small blessing of a warning. In the words of Jan Bolwell, “you need to do something that makes you come alive, that makes your body feel alive”.