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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Let's Dance!

Ruth St. Denis' words resonates with me: "I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words."

I have always felt a consummate merger of vigor and harmony in the grace and strength that defines the art form called Dancing - be it the classical, traditional forms, or the folk and modern interpretive forms.

The years from 3rd grade to high school spent learning Bharathanatyam might seem like a waste at a passing glance as I barely extended myself... but, in retrospect, it helped me recognize, notice, understand, and appreciate not just the physical co-ordination and mental acuteness that comes from practicing the mudras and bhavanas but the sense of inner beauty, the cosmic connection of all vibrations, the missing link so-to-speak between functional human form and its potential sublime purpose...

I admit that early on, especially during the crucial pre-teen age, I was a difficult and reluctant student. I lacked the discipline my guru expected and at the risk of sounding incorrigible, I felt that my guru lacked the ability to direct and guide me strongly. And, to this day, the only pictures I have of my dancing are from those days and they are pretty darn embarrassing, making me want to bury my head in sand like an ostrich :)

But, fortuitously, later on, I had the opportunity to work with another guru whom I sort of idolized. She was graceful, young, dedicated, lived and breathed elegance in motion - so much so that to this day, I remember her,
Patakas tripatako ardhapatakaha kartarimukhaha
Mayurasyo ardhachandrashcha arala shukatundakah...

chant accompanying the asamyutha hastha bheda (one-hand gestures) practice, not my first guru's. No, she was not anybody "famous", she was just another young alumna from Kalakshetra struggling to cut the red tape and get on the favorable side of the Sabhas and Critics in those days.

The early induction at 3rd grade helped learn the Nritta (adavus and jathis) with enthusiasm as it just felt like good exercise helping my hams and quads get strong... Not too long ago, I borrowed from those memories, trying to teach Ana to sit in muzhu-mandi - i.e., balance on the balls of the feet, with the knees bent so that the thigh does not touch the calf and the heels do not touch the buttocks, almost in a sitting position - grasping the hands together, palms facing and gripping each other tight, and jump on the balls of the feet about 25 times at a stretch :) Nah, I couldn't do it - about 5 times is when I was out of breath and lost balance, with my heart racing as if after running a marathon. Yeah, I am in terrible shape :)

The Nrittya (hand, neck, eye movements to convey emotions and messages) was a bit difficult to master initially as I was terribly self-conscious. The progress of Natyam, from simple Alarippu to Jathiswaram to Varnam to Padam to Thillana, got me hooked. To this day watching an accomplished Bharathanatyam dancer perform Thillana gives me goosebumps.

After Arangetram (debut) and a few local performances in temples and functions, not to mention the mandatory group dances for School Annual days, I started developing an aversion - possibly because of the roiling teenage hormones which left me angry all the time, or possibly because I didn't see myself as graceful and elegant as Dr.Padma Subramaniam or Yamini Krishnamurthi, or possibly that I could not imagine finding a partner so I could emulate the Dhananjayans...

I love the invocation with
"Angikam bhuvanam yasya
Vachikam sarva vangmayam
Aharyam chandra taradi
Tam namaha satvikam sivam."

The classic songs on Shiva as Nataraja were my favorites (one that comes to mind even today: Natanam Aadinar, Vegu nagarigamagave kanaga sabaiyil...)

But the Kurathi (gypsy) dance and the Thaambalam (large plate with a lip) dance and Paanai/Chatti (Terra Cotta Pot!) dances that my guru at that time got me to practice felt a bit gimmicky... possibly because I had an older brother who loved putting the fear of failure into me - of the pot breaking under my massive weight and looking like a fool jerking the Thaambalam with my feet as I danced along :)

Plus, the lack of respect for the performer during those days got to me. I was particularly cross when guests turned the chairs around and were chatting with each other during my performance at my brother's Upanayanam. Feels silly now, but, back then, I was easily miffed. It didn't occur to me then that my performance was possibly terrible, thereby boring the guests :) Blame it on self-importance and teenage!

Anyway, I gave up dancing for good, focused on college and higher education, knowing full-well that I was not mentally cut-out to pursue a dancing career. But, I could never give up on dance itself.

Years later, in grad school, I ventured out of my realm, out of sheer curiosity, and enrolled in Ballroom Dancing classes as well as Modern Interpretive dance classes. It was a wonderful experience which helped me appreciate all dance forms as nourishing to the soul.

The primary hurdle at that time was: coming from Bharathanatyam, which is usually solo, but can be duo or group as well, where bodily movements are extremely 'dignified' as I saw it, certain motions in Swing and the Cuban dance forms seemed provocative... (Bollywood dancing is a separate issue I am trying to come to terms with...)

But that wasn't the issue: the issue turned out for me to be the requirement that the woman usually is expected to be a Follower - the man Leads the dance and the woman faithfully Follows, moving together as one unit in Ballroom and Latin dances.

Picking up the subtle cues given by the Lead and following in step gracefully is in itself quite a challenge. I loved that my teacher then simply said dancing is just like walking, walking to music - music that goes in through the ears, stirs the soul and lets the body express the inexpressible.

The Viennese Waltz and Foxtrot seemed staid yet elegant and made me feel like one of those Princesses in Fairy Tales, as long as I had a good Lead. But, when I started learning the Latin dance forms as well, I had to grow out of my skin soon or forget about the whole thing :)

D, despite learning ballroom dancing in school, does not like to dance. He would much rather walk into a hornet's nest, unclothed, and stir it enthusiastically, than Lead me in a dance. So, the Mambo, Rhumba, Cha-cha-cha and East-coast Swing lessons a decade ago were left behind for a non-dancing married life.

However, when circumstances (and budget) arranged themselves to allow me to take Salsa Dancing this Fall, I jumped at it. Well, I really wanted to take Belly Dancing lessons but the classes were at an impossible time, so, the second-best was Salsa Dancing at nights! All I had to do was get home from work, make dinner, feed the kids, get them ready for bed - nothing unusual so far - but then, once a week, anxiously wait for D to come home and watch over the slumbering kids while I rush off to dance class for the next 2 hrs!

And, it wasn't anything new, really. Salsa dancing is just a fusion of a few Cuban/Caribbean dances that I had learnt years ago, with catchy tempo and creative twists... So, I managed to enjoy these beginner classes after the initial jitters. And, it was nice to get Ana into the mood - she managed to see me off with a, "I wish I could go to Dance class with you, Amma", and "Have fun!" most days.

Anyway, now that the classes are over and done with, I admit, I am not looking to become an expert at all. I am not even looking to go out dancing and keep in shape. The surge of endorphins I felt when my teacher led me in 4 different dances on the final day, throwing in new moves and watch me hesitate just a bit and try to keep up, was reward enough, even if I had to nurse a cramped foot and aching back afterward.

Gosh, I have ended up with a voluminous chapter of Who-the-heck-cares? here, but, was a good cleansing that the soul craved and a much-needed dusting of the cobwebbed-memories...

The simple joys of turning on beautiful music, letting the body move to the rhythm, feeling the exhilaration of the soaring soul, is something I hope I can somehow pass on to both my kids...



At 7:27 PM, Blogger ChoxBox said...

lovely! is there anything you cant do?!

and bollywood dance? not sure about it.. especially when little girls perfectly copy the moves on TV.

btw have you ever done garba?!

At 8:23 PM, Blogger Sheela said...

::Choxie:: You're right... I am not sure how aesthetic some of the explicitly suggestive moves of the Bollywood-style dance are for kids... I am not sure if my old-fashioned sense of modesty is what prevents me from truly appreciating this new dance form - not to mention the skimpy clothes... which, you know, as D says, if you have it, why not flaunt it?! (for adults, I mean, not kids, of course!)

Anyway... Garba? Only twice in my life so far - but, Kolattam, a lot, especially for school functions :)

Just the characteristic music/rhythm and movements of various Indian regional dances are enough to warrant a lifetime of study for me :) I must admit Bhangra gets my heart racing just as much as Reggae :)

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Clerk said...

Hunting for useful sources that can help you to learn dance online is really time-consuming. However, if you are getting tired of searching for such resources over the internet, visit the website and go through dance directories.

At 4:51 AM, Anonymous ut said...

Chox said everything what I wanted to say :)

Bollywood dancing, I don't it anywhere close to my kids, but sometimes when I hear some songs, I wish some one taught me to dance for it.

I can move, but some one has to teach me how and I have to practice and fine tune the movements in order to make it look like anything close to dance.

At 4:52 AM, Anonymous utbtkids said...

Ok, the previous comment was from me.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Sheela said...

::utbtkids:: Thanks for the clarification - I was looking at "ut" and wondering what ate up the rest of the 6 letters :)

I guess it is one of those experiences hard to communicate and share - for me at least - about how sublime dance can make one feel... as I grow older, my inhibitions grow stronger and my body refuses to 'let-go' and embrace this exhilaration... too many pre-conceived notions about who I am supposed to be at this age... Oh well.

Just wish at some point in their life my kids feel this sense of cosmic unity that dance&music can evoke, even if they don't go out dancing... but, it's not up to me. All I can do is expose them to various experiences and hope for the best.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Reva said...

One more thing we have in common Sheela.. I learnt Bharathanatyam too! :)
And you know what? Got the noble fir.. yet to decorate it though.. will send you a pic when I do!

At 2:22 AM, Blogger Lavs said...

Just write a post about how you learnt singing and i shall build a temple for you!!!

**note to self-kick self for missing out the chance to meet this superwoman in person**

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Sheela said...

::Reva:: Wow, we have so much in common already! Very happy to hear J came around and you guys are getting into the spirit of the season with the tree! Will wait for your pictures - send plenty with your cutie-pie baby girl in it!

::Lavs::You are funny! and too kind! No, I can't sing to save my life - well, except in the bathroom or for the kids :) D is the singer/musician in our family I am only a humble listener basking in music - be it Carnatic or Classic Rock...

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous sole said...

Absolutely beautiful Sheela. You bring out the crux in such a beautiful way. How much more can a person know/do/share/teach/engage? I feel so useless in front of you. Really, I do nothing other than work, kids and home and not even a 100% happy with what I achieve. I could do so much more! May be I need to come to you for a one on one session on life and how to live it to the fullest! As I say time and again, you are such an inspiration Sheela :)!

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Sheela said...

Sole: You are too kind! And I think you see way more than is there to see in me. Thank you!


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