I thought it would be just an easy-going chat with Paulina. Maybe also with DJ Janeczka. What I found behind the door of a flat at Jerozolimskie street in Warsaw exceeded all my expectations. Fifteen seniors, chatting, dancing, full of life; elegance and indescribable enthusiasm.
- Welcome, welcome.
- Ma'am, let’s take a picture together!
- Wiesia, where is the sugar for the coffee?
- Let’s dance, yes, lalala lala….
- These sandwiches I should put them on the table, right!?
- Who was supposed to bring milk?
- …our Paulina is so wonderful, she cares about us so much.
- This is a photo of mine from a photo shoot; here is another one.
- Every Thursday I sing at Warszawa bar.
- They want to listen to Paulina, let them sit down. Welcome.
I have never experienced anything like that. Having in mind my grandparents I had a different vision of the elderly. It's a time for racking up diseases, fearing the evil of the world and the bad people around. Sitting at home waiting for the end to come. Here there is life. Joy. An air of optimism hard to find even among the youngsters. And in the middle of this, Paulina. Torn jeans, overwhelming energy. Firm and gentle at the same time. She is the boss, but also cares about everybody. She provokes action and yet leaves room to others. Even though she is younger than them, they are all equal here.
- Sit down everybody, they have only one hour to listen. Let Paulina speak.
For years I have been responsible for social projects, art - says Paulina Braun, creator of Dancing Międzypokoleniowy (in English: Intergenerational Dancing) - I did projects for different people, youth, elder, homeless, in different places. Everything, however, condensed in the UFO*. I was in the right place, at the right time. I had a group of seniors. I'll tell you something I haven’t told anyone yet, apart from a few friends. We planned with some seniors to do graffiti, but we didn’t manage to get enough money. We had to give up. At that moment, the UFO asked me to animate this place. It was exactly four years ago. A temporary architecture was established in a famous crossroads in Warsaw, an open space, just for the holiday break. It was difficult for the seniors, this object looked weird. They rather avoided it. But I wanted to invite them there so they could feel it their own as well. I animated this place, I did picnics, neighborhood meetings. And dancing. After the graffiti project I was already in touch with several seniors. I was looking for a senior DJ.
The first attempts were unsuccessful, but in the end I came across an interview with DJ Vika. Up to then she only played at parties for seniors, it was at the beginning of her career. I got her contact and invited her to cooperate. We organized an event which was a great success. DJ Vika was amazing. I also invited a DJ a generation younger. There was real integration. I’m myself a party animal, but I never liked these divisions, the younger with the younger, the older with the older, the poor with the poor... It is somehow natural, but if people from different backgrounds get together it gives energy, allowing breaking down barriers. Dancing provoked that situation. I saw what happened with young people, they were shocked. Older people with a smile on their faces? Dancing? What are they doing here? I remember one scene, young girls taking pictures with a phone, positive energy, joy. But also shock. At that moment I started to think it would be cool if they reacted positively, but without surprise. If it was natural for them to go to a club and meet their grandma or a friend of hers. I wanted to change the way of thinking and attitude. It has become my goal. UFO was over and I suggested DJ Vika, to continue, to organize more parties. I went on with it.
UFO, a place where professional and private life changed their course. Between the lines Paulina also admitted it was the end of her great love. And the beginning of a completely different one.
The first contacts with seniors were rather spontaneous. I rented a flat in Warsaw and decided to organize a dinner for my neighbors. I went to all, suggested a day and time and asked everyone to bring something to eat or drink so we could spend some time together and get to know each other. People of all ages came. We talked. Since that moment our life there was much better. Such a little thing like a common dinner opens up a wide range of possibilities. People start to talk and this has consequences. They start to help one other. They become friends. That’s the way I work – I bring people together and give them something to share, something that unites them. A common theme, a space. And if you leave people with that, the results are amazing. It always works, more than any project for which grants are awarded. Someone organizes something, people come, they spend some time together, but then they get back to their life and little remains. You have to give them something in common, unifying themes. This is the only way to have long-term effects. And this is also how Dancing is working. I only start the topic, organize a few things. But the rest of the work is carried out by those who believe in it. Someone sees it makes sense and persuades others. It takes time, sometimes even half a year, to come to Dancing. It's that person who convinced the new joiner, not me. Then there is a real change, the idea is spreading. But we start with the simple things. A dinner. Then we make conversations, share problems. With Henryk, a senior from our building, we became friends at first sight. He often drops by, borrows movies, helps me with projects, and meets my friends.
I think about my neighbors. I don’t know anyone. We don’t get any further than a dull “good morning”. And from elderly I'm even further. Why is it so? Where did I learn that? I feel so much mistrust, even fear, which prevents me from spontaneously approaching people on the street.
Is it natural to you? - I asked – don’t you have any problems approaching people? Seniors, sponsors, homeless ... no fear?
No, I have no problem with that. Since I remember I just come to somebody and start talking. But I think a lot of people have this inhibition as a consequence of the system we live in. We go to kindergarten, school, and there we have our group. We are stuck in our communities and with time we lose the need to look around. Our curiosity toward the other individuals disappears. The longer it lasts the more it becomes normal, the more barriers are created. People isolate themselves within their groups. And we need Dancing or similar initiatives to break it. There are a lot of parties for seniors, every day. But their seniors meet only other seniors. I’m not interested in that. It doesn’t connect people from different groups of society, it doesn’t change the vision about being old. I set the goal a little higher. In fact, I always make the goal hard to reach.
Make the goal to be hard to reach. Yes, I understand it perfectly. This attitude distinguishes changemakers from many other activists.
Once I was at a conference. A girl came over and said she works with seniors as well. She wondered how I make seniors come, how do I make them want to be part of Dancing. I told her that I use the dude method. She didn’t understand. I'm not the one who stands and says: here is such a project, such workshops ... seniors have to attend, and you are the person who conducts. They could even like me that way but we would have specific roles, which create borders.. I'm just friends with seniors, the people I work with. They are my dudes. If we weren’t friends, it wouldn’t go. I don’t even have to say it. They know it. They feel that I treat them as partners. Magdalena drops in for a coffee, Roman texts that he is around and he wants to come over for a chat. The way I talk with them, I present them things… they know I’m their friend, dude.
It’s so hard to imagine. My grandmother being my dude? But I saw these people. I felt their authenticity, happiness and belief in a different life. Enthusiasm, which hides the obvious question... but it appears immediately after closing the door.
Paulina, they may die tomorrow.
Yeah ... I think that this is ... well, unfortunately I have to cry a little when I tell those stories ...but it's important. You know, if someone doesn’t think about that, doesn’t go deeper, doesn’t realize it. People look at the pictures and say it’s a cool party. But this project is a life in itself. Every day everything is intertwined. People, energy, those things that you can see from outside. But meanwhile there are funerals. There are difficult illnesses, tough stories. It's all intertwined, as in life. This is not a project that I decided to do for a couple of years. No, this group ... it's not even a group, in fact, we created a family. I have a group which I call V.I.P. seniors, recently we had the first meeting where I explained them why they are so important. They are the real heroes. They are all so special. Atypical and usual at the same time. Krysia, just a common lady, is able to do such amazing things. She hitch-hiked to a music festival. She comes to the party at 2 am. She knows that she represents Dancing and if we show how brave she is and how a senior can live then other people can be inspired. Or Leopold, who recently did a tattoo. They know they are the symbol of Dancing. I had to find them, activate them, but now we are together. We're friends, we know each other so well. It's hard to live with those stories. A hospital, illnesses, depressions. There are so many emotions, many stories every day.
This part of the conversation happened without them. Several weeks after the meeting with seniors I proposed to Pauline to meet just the two of us. We met at a bar that collaborated with Dancing by offering them discounts and free dinners. Paulina came late, running from a bartender training for seniors. In a few days they are going to open a temporary club. Temporary ... but the plans and dreams fly much higher.
We’ve been working for a few years and we still don’t have a structure. Today I think we will start the business. Four years ago I didn’t even dream that Dancing could turn into a business which in addition can do something good for people… We are working on several directions. The first one is events, Intergenerational Dancing. Today we organize cool parties in Warsaw. Soon we are going to open a branch in Trójmiasto (Gdansk metropolitan area). A branch with no office and no roof. But I’ve already a small team. My dreams are branches in different cities, and in the future in other countries. But to do that we need a structure. That's my dream. I focus on and work for this project now, but I look far away.
The second thing is the senior DJ academy. Not just a workshop, but a serious academy which provides new jobs for retired people who can learn an interesting way to earn some extra money, develop a passion, travel, meet new people. This is a totally new proposal. It gives so much energy, flow. Profession DJ.
Finally the casting agency, which is also already under development. It is divided into 3 sections: first - seniors; second - national minorities, which are an important part of Dancing; third - locations, seniors’ houses, which can be hired for film productions. They are all 100% connected with the whole idea of Intergenerational Dancing, they allow earning money for other activities and shows off the topic.
These are plans, but most of the things are already happening. Intergenerational Dancing is becoming a recognizable brand. After four, not always easy, years.
You know, sometimes it’s difficult. Over the years, sometimes I didn’t even have a place to live. I moved with my bag from one place to another, often I slept at a friend’s, even seniors. And when I realize how much I could still do, achieve, it annoys me that I have to go through so many problems. I still often don’t have enough money to pay for the rent. I miss the time to sit down and focus on one topic, so many things are happening, so many issues to think about. I wish it already had some structure, salary, a proper office. It takes so much time. We have to wait for everything and meanwhile people are dying. When I meet with potential sponsors, partners and tell them how I work, without employees, without salary, they don’t believe me. They say Dancing is already a brand and they didn’t expect me to do it that way, they were sure I have my office and normal salary.
What makes you work in spite of everything?
I see I can make a difference. That it works. It really changes something, people start to live again.
It is midnight. Tomorrow at 5.00 I have a train to Krakow. It’s time to say goodbye. Slowly I reach for the door. We will probably meet again, there will be a lot of chances to speak, listen…. She’s a young girl, she won’t die.
* UFO - Unexpected Fountain Occupation, architectural installation resembling a spaceship which stood during the summer of 2011 on one of the central squares in Warsaw. It served as a cultural center, housing different types of events for the local community.
More about Dancing: facebook.com/dancingmiedzypokoleniowy