free zone / NGO zone

Wałbrzych: A Double Dose of Energy

Institute of Reportage

“At first, we were just telling people that we’re organizing gym sessions for the elderly, because nobody would’ve come to do theater,” says Wanda Radłowska, cofounder of the Wałbrzych-based Dose of Energy Dance Theater Group in the article by Justyna Pobiedzińska (Polish School of Reportage.)

1981, Poland, the Lower Silesia, Jawor. Wanda Radłowska, 30, an accountant, gives birth to daughter Magdalena in the city hospital.

2005, Poland, Lower Silesia, Wałbrzych. Wanda Radłowska, still an accountant, is now 55 and is gearing up for early retirement.

These two facts will lead a group of elderly people from Wałbrzych to create a dance theater that will turn heads in London.

Wanda Radłowska and Magdalena Radłowska - in the centre

Mother and daughter write applications to the EU, look for sponsors and brand new ideas. The theater is their creation, from beginning to end. Magda comes up with the words, arranges the choreography, directs. Wanda acquires funding, organizes the set, the audience, and the actors. Plus, she dances. Her and a bunch of other retirees from Wałbrzych. And a couple of youngsters, too.

PEOPLE LIKE TO HAVE FUN

It went like this. Wanda wasn’t taking retirement all that well. She wanted to do something more than just watch television. No wonder she had a hard time finding her place. Before retiring, she had three full-time jobs.

She joined the Association of Retired and Disabled People and worked in the cultural animation sector. Thanks to her, things finally started happening in Wałbrzych: the people from her association went on trips, they participated in sporting events, benefit performances. Wanda noticed that people like to put on costumes and do things that make them laugh; they love the microphone and love performing on stage. In the meantime, her daughter graduated from the University of Zielona Góra, where she learned the art of socio-cultural animation, from the Contemporary Dance Studio in Poznań and was completing her studies at the Choreography Department of Middlesex University. She decided to prepare her diploma performance with the retirees from Wałbrzych.

GYM SESSIONS FOR THE ELDERLY

Magdalena: “Community dance is something I learned in London. I saw how it can open up the elderly, how big a kick they get out of it. I wanted to do the same for the Polish elderly, who basically get no attention. But to be frank, there’s not much going on in the dance theater scene, too.

Wanda: “We were jealous of the English, who established a theater with an all-elderly ensemble some twenty years ago, it’s called »Company of Elders.« There is even a waiting list for prospective add-ons to the cast. While in Poland, we were forced to advertise as organizing gym sessions for the retirees, otherwise no one would’ve shown up, not for theater they wouldn’t.

Nowadays, everyone in Wałbrzych knows about their project, so there’s no use for all that smoke and mirrors anymore.

Magdalena: “Convincing people to participate in our project wasn’t all that hard. We just needed some time. I gave Mom a few lessons, so she could start coaching her friends in aerobics. Mom’s very charismatic so there was more and more people eager to sign up, there were even couples we signed up together.

“Senior Citizens in Action” project

Mom started including dance and improv elements into her classes. After a while, a few people dropped out but those who stayed on were ready to form the core of a dance troupe. When Mom and I decided that they’re ready, I started training them in dance and acting. The senior citizens seemed to enjoy someone young taking an interest in them and treating them like people with great creative potential and not senile grandparents. We just had to tap that potential, and the rest came naturally.

LONDON

The dean of the Department of Performing Arts, professor Christopher Bannerman, came to Wałbrzych from London to see his student’s diploma performance. He was delighted with “Waiting Room,” created by the mother-daughter team. Bannerman claimed that the Wałbrzych retirees were able to communicate emotion through movement better than most of the professional dancers he has seen. Their life experiences supposedly gave them moves that the young ones take years to learn.

A theater was born in 2008 thanks to success of the “Waiting Room.” Nowadays, the Dose of Energy theater employs the young and the old, sometimes even grandparents with their grandchildren.

The theater fosters intergenerational friendships. The youngest of the actors is 12, while the oldest is 79.

The first show, produced thanks to the “Senior Citizens in Action” program, was called “Com.post.” Its narrative was formed on the actors’ memories of the Communist era. The group performed it in London. The 200-seat auditorium was filled to the last seat. The audience gave the Polish troupe a standing ovation. Nobody expected that the trip will end in such success.

Dose of Energy in London

SPACE INVASION

Dose of Energy also attacked the non-theater areas of Wałbrzych. The youngsters and the elderly organized flashmobs and happenings at the market, on the streets, at the park, and in the bus; there were 9 such actions, total. This “infusion of movement” into the heart of the city only increased the theater’s popularity.

Magdalena: “Our field activities were a different kind of animal than our theater. Before hitting the city, Mom and I asked for volunteers from the actors. At first we had just a handful, but after a few “infusions,” the majority of the cast joined our outings.

In September of 2010, in cooperation with solo dancers from Poznań and Wrocław and the local philharmonic, the Dose of Energy team staged Verdi’s “Traviata” in an old mine. Magdalena Radłowska served as one of the production’s choreographers.

Their most recent show, “Legs,” was about the beauty of the human body no matter its age; about women who are still beautiful and sexy despite their advanced age.

OUT OF CHARACTER

Wanda: “My daughter has taught me so much. Thanks to her, I rediscovered movement and started looking at the world in a different way.”

Magdalena: “This teaching thing goes both ways, you know. Mom taught me discipline and responsibility. And our time together isn’t all that easy, our visions are not always compatible. On the stage we have to forget we’re family, and sometimes stepping out of character is just difficult.”

Wanda: “We’re still learning the ropes, laying the groundwork for what’s to come. And there’s the problem with staffing. Most of our actors are elderly and not in the best of health. We lost some good people. Actually, we’re constantly recruiting new members.”

To ease the burden of administrative tasks, Wanda Radłowska established the Joy of Life Association. Eighty members joined the organization in the space of just few months. Working together for a common goal changed their lives.

Wanda: “I’m more active, I’m in better shape and healthier. I don’t bitch about life as I used to. I’m busy all the time, writing new projects, organizing activities for our elderly, and I still have to take part in our classes. I don’t have any time for boredom or stagnation. I try to support my daughter, but during class she takes the reins and becomes my teacher. That’s not as easy as it sounds. For me she’s still my little daughter in need of help, and now the roles are reversed.

Magdalena: “We started understanding each other better thanks to our theater.

I used to resist the idea of old age and had a hard time accepting the fact that Mom’s not getting any younger and her body’s changing.

Nowadays, thanks to Dose of Energy, my attitude towards aging has changed considerably. I also made my peace with the fact that I will get older, too. Our society often has a negative attitude towards the elderly – we often perceive them as complainers and think they spend all their time at the doctor’s or in church. But the Polish senior citizen is changing and, more often than not, chooses to be active. We help them tap their hidden potential, to rediscover and start enjoying themselves again. In this respect, Mom and I make a great team. I wish there were more mothers like mine out there!”

Dose of Energy in London

TO BE CONTINUED...

The work of the mother-daughter team has been noticed, recognized and appreciated. Wanda Radłowska has received the Książ Castle Prize in the “Active Senior Citizen in the Wałbrzych-Świdnica Area” category and the Prize of Lower Silesian Voivodeship Marshal. Magdalena Radłowska has received scholarships from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and TVP’s Creative Valley. She has also received multiple awards at dance festivals in Poland, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, France, Sweden, Ireland and Germany.

Both ladies claim that this is only the beginning.

Justyna Pobiedzińska.
Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.

The photographs used in the article come from the private archive of Magdalena Radłowska and Association of the Creative Initiatives "ę".

Inter-generational dance theatre project was one of the winners in the "Senior Citizens in Action" competition, organized by Association of the Creative Initiatives "ę" and  Polish-American Freedom Foundation.