Stepping out of the box: The senior dancer who proves it’s never too late to start living
Darryl Butler, 72, is something of a late bloomer. At the age of 53, after 30 years of marriage, the father of two came out as a gay man — and at the age of 65, the shy and introverted former school teacher joined a dance troupe. Here, he explains why it’s never too late to embrace who you are.
I’ve alwaysseen myself as a learner, not a teacher. I do teach — it was what I did for a living for many years, and today I teach movement and dance classes for older people in the Northern Territory town of Batchelor, where I live with my husband, Graeme. But teaching is just an activity, not a label. If I had to put a label on myself, it would be ‘learner’, and the way anybody learns is to bump up against the edges of themselves.
This is true no matter how old you are, but it’s easier for children than it is for adults. Kids bump up against their edges all the time. They often find themselves in situations that present an opportunity to learn something about themselves or the world around them. As adults, we tend to hide within ourselves. It can almost be like we don’t exist. But unless you bump up against your edges, you’ll never grow beyond them — and dance is a great way to do that.
I’m a very cerebral person, and throughout my life, I tended to live inside my own head. But I always knew there was an intelligence, a creativity, in my body that I didn’t really understand. I decided that, before I got too much older, I wanted to explore what my body could do.
I decided that, before I got too much older, I wanted to explore what my body could do.
In 2012, I saw that Tracks Dance, a Darwin company, were holding auditions for a show called Eight to Eighty: The Architecture of Age, and I went for it. I prepared a one-minute routine and I got a part in the show, partly because of my audition, and partly because they just needed male dancers over a certain age and there weren’t many of them available.
As soon as I got my first taste of performance, I fell in love with the ephemeral nature of dance. It exists only in the moment that it’s performed, then and there, and then it’s gone forever. It can never be quite the same, even if you do the same show, night after night.
That same year, I joined the Grey Panthers — a troupe of dancers aged over 60 — and I’ve been with them ever since. I also decided to take the choreographic program offered by Tracks Dance. I got so much out of the course that I ended up taking it again, and now I’m preparing for my own studio residency with Tracks Dance.
I love choreographing work for myself and other older people. Part of the appeal of dance for older people is the health aspect, of course — I’ve had health scares, I’ve had heart issues, and I’ve long understood the importance of exercise, even before I got into dance — but it’s more than that.
Dance is a creative outlet, and I want to encourage other people my age to think of it that way. For most of the Grey Panthers, dance is an outlet many of them have never had in their lives before. It’s an opportunity to let go of some of the restrictions and inhibitions you’ve built up over the years.
For me, dance also provides an escape from the everyday. I love my husband with all my heart, of course, but Graeme requires a certain amount of care these days, and it’s nice to have a passion that takes me away from those domestic concerns for a moment.
Dance provides an escape from the everyday.
When Graeme and I first came to Batchelor 13 years ago, we made a point of being a visible part of the community. One of the things about living in a small town as a gay couple is that you’re on show all day, every day. The teachers at the local school have told us that we come up as a topic of conversation for the students from time to time, and that’s a good thing — being out is incredibly important, and being who you are is incredibly important.
When I made my own decision about who I was, back in 2000, I had to square that with the life I had established for myself as a husband and a father, and I had to be honest with the people who were closest to me. I decided I would tell my wife, my parents, and my children — anybody else could find out however they found out, but I didn’t want those people to hear it from anyone but me.
One of the first things my wife said was, ‘Well, what does this mean for me?’ The truth was, I didn’t even know what it meant for me yet. I gave her an undertaking that I wouldn’t make any unilateral decisions about our future. In the beginning, we actually thought we could manage it and we could stay together. But after six months, she decided she needed to move on. I had been thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to make that decision by myself.
My parents didn’t say much. My father was fairly enigmatic. All he said to me was, ‘Be careful’. I never asked him what he meant by that, and now I’ll never be able to, because he passed away earlier this year. But both my mother and father were very supportive when I got together with Graeme. They’re also very loyal to my former wife, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be — I am too, albeit in a different way to when we were married.
My children, my two sons, were very good. I had a long conversation with one of them about what it would mean for our family, and the other one didn’t have any words to say at all. He simply gave me a hug.
I probably shocked a few of my work colleagues, but most of them were nonplussed. One just said, ‘And?’ Another said, ‘Well, didn’t you know?’ And I said, ‘Well, no, I didn’t, actually!’ It was a realisation I’d only come to recently, around the time I was struggling with my health and wondering if my life was on the right track.
I didn’t really experience any of the negative things that some of the people who come out later in life seem to. Most people were very supportive, and I found it very easy to make friends in the gay community. A lot of people who had been through a similar coming-out experience were willing to help me through the process of reinventing myself, which is what I needed to do.
I’m still bumping up against the edges of myself and trying to learn new things. I sometimes write poetry, for instance, and I’ve written words to dance to. I think dancing to the spoken word is quite a lovely thing to do. But honestly, when I’m not dancing or teaching, most of my time is spent running around at home.
I’m still bumping up against the edges of myself and trying to learn new things.
Graeme can’t help in the garden anymore, and we have half an acre to tend to. It’s particularly difficult at the moment, with the hot afternoons and the dry winds coming through. I’m looking out for the rain, but it looks like it’s going to be late this year.
Oh, well. Better late than never.
Image credit: Tracks Dance Company 2019 Global Positioning. Photo by David Hancock (l-r) Doug Capp, Francisca Kleinebeck, Boronia Halstead, Darryl Butler, Jenni Sanderson, Mary Hinchey, Marge Duminski, Ellen Hankin