Meet Hip Op-eration, the world's oldest hip-hop crew, average age 79

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Billie Jordan

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Growing Old Disgracefully

Meet the world'€™s oldest hip-hop crew. They're called Hip Op-eration, the average age is 79, and they're New Zealand'€™s most unlikely celebrities. Growing Old Disgracefully aired this week on SBS's Dateline program.

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"What if they die?" That was the first question people always asked me when they heard about my audacious goal to train 27 of my elderly neighbours aged 65 to 96 years old to become hip hop dancers and perform at the World Hip Hop Championships in eight months' time. People have this very set idea about how you're supposed to die. You have to die lying propped up on a pillow in bed with a crocheted blanket over you with your eyes closed and someone holding your hand. The thought that one of my dancers might die on a plane or on dance floor was shocking to people. It was bad enough they were doing hip hop; something only young people do, let alone dying somewhere "inappropriate".

So we made a pact as a group; if anyone died during a performance we'd just step over them and carry on dancing. Also, if we were going overseas, everyone had to take a Tupperware container with them - for their ashes. My crew said they wanted to go out dancing and I fully supported them in that endeavour.

I knew my group would encounter people who would try to transfer their own fears and insecurities onto them, so I gave each of them a little red book. I told them to take note of every person who doubted them in their mission to get to the World Hip Hop Championships and enter their names and addresses in this book. The plan was that once we got to Las Vegas where the champs were being held, we would send everyone in the red books a postcard. The thing is, once we were there, we learnt a valuable lesson: those people in the red book weren't worth our time and energy. So instead of going to the post office and sending postcards, we ordered another round of margaritas and clinked our glasses.

Hip-Operation dancer Leila Gilchrist, aged 72, and her badass moves.

Hip-Operation dancer Leila Gilchrist, aged 72, and her badass moves. Photo: Brad Churcher, SBS

Over the past four years since I started my dance group, I have learnt a lot more from my elderly crew members than they have ever learnt from me as their dance teacher, choreographer and manager.

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I have learnt that even if I reach 100 years old I'm going to encounter haters and people who want to put me down. You don't get immunity from put-downs with age - in fact you are judged far more harshly. So the sooner we find ways to ignore it, the easier our lives will be when we're older.

Also, when we become old, we need to make a concerted effort to socialise with younger people and do the activities they like to do. There's nothing that's going to drive you to your grave faster than hanging out with people who have old minds who don't want to continue to learn and grow. Avoid those people like the plague. Seek out the company of young minds and young people. Do what they do, learn what they learn. My dancers have established the most extraordinary bonds with lots of young hip hop dancers in Auckland and they have a mutual love and respect for each other which has only been bought about because my dancers wanted to engage with the young people, learn from them and do what they do.

Hip-Operation dancer Len Curtis, aged 75, blings it up.

Hip-Operation dancer Len Curtis, aged 75, blings it up. Photo: Brad Churcher, SBS

It's also very important to do activities you have never done before; go completely outside your comfort zone. Not only is it proven to help fight dementia, as you use all parts of your brain when you learn something new, you'll also feel more capable. If you do an activity you did when you're younger you're likely to feel "less than" because you may find you're not as good at it as you used to be. So it can feel like a loss instead of a pleasure.

Also, always have a goal and make it a big, ambitious one; let people know you may be old but you're still human with the same mind you had when you were 20. I remember people coming up to me and saying, "Well - it doesn't matter if your dance group don't reach their goal to get to the World Hip Hop Championships - it's just good they're getting out the house and getting some exercise". Could you imagine anyone ever saying that to someone who was training to be an All Black? "It doesn't matter if you win the World Cup - as long as you get out of the house and get some exercise". Why does everything old people do only have value if it's good for their physical health? What about their mental health - their desire to work towards reaching a difficult goal? So make your goal as big and as obnoxious as you can.

Every single member of my dance group say they are having the best time of their life right now - they feel liberated, have no work pressures, their children are independent, and they answer to no-one. They are focused on what the future will bring and are chasing down opportunities every day to enrich their lives further. So don't slow down the pace of your life as you get older, accelerate the pace and turn it up full throttle. Not only will you live longer, but your funeral will be a lot more interesting. Make it your personal mission to ignore the doubters and the ageists and do everything you can to live a happy and fulfilling life right up until you take your very last breath. It may be seen as rebellious and breaking from tradition - especially if you don't care where or when you'll die. But there's a lot of fun in causing a global disruption on your way out. Just do it and go out dancing!

Hip-Operation dancer Rosemary McKenzie is 75.

Hip-Operation dancer Rosemary McKenzie is 75. Photo: Dateline, SBS

See more of Billie and the world's oldest hip-hop dancers on Dateline, Tuesday, 9.30pm on SBS