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Benefits of dance
- Rajyshree Ramesh, Germany

(Courtesy: The Natya Kala Conference 2010 souvenir)

July 14, 2011

A recent article in The Hindu about teaching Bharatanatyam for its therapeutic benefits to women and housewives acknowledges the importance of making dance accessible to all genres of participants. Even while dance continues to enjoy a professional standard, with the necessary training being imparted that grooms dancers for a performing career, such an acknowledgment coming from one of the stalwart gurus of Chennai, who is known for the professional dancers he has brought forth, underscores the fact that it is equally important to make the same professional standards of training available to those who may not be aiming at or reaching out for the stage. It exposes the relevance that is being given to its practice in a modern world, where we are looking beyond categorizations and segregations. It is an important step in the right direction. This aspect however also poses challenges to teachers, both in the methods of teaching and the approach to dance in general.

Those teaching abroad have long faced these challenges. These experiences however I think enable one to refine one's sensibility towards the relevance and essence of movement and expression as such. In countries where dance or the particular styles of dance like Bharatanatyam are not part of the mainstream cultural practice, one does not always have young aspirants, where parents are keen to send them to classes. Often adults of all ages enroll themselves. Also class frequencies are difficult to maintain. As a teacher one thus faces situations, where traditional methods of teaching don't work in all the cases. One has to set priorities and negotiate possibilities, wondering if and how such students should or need to be put through the rigours of learning. Nevertheless, the interest of these students becomes a driving and motivating force to teach them. Over the years one realizes that it is possible to enhance their abilities, give them the benefits of movement and expression and help them acquire the knowledge in the art. But of course it also means that performing on stage might not be the product. The sense of achievement has to be negotiated from different or rather differentiated perspectives.

Thus, we face the challenge of looking at the teaching methodologies and of the qualifications of a teacher. While the widely accepted fact is to think that a teacher should be in a position to know music, nattuvangam, have a grounding in practice and theory, narratives and contents, dance items and/or their choreography, which are all important qualifications, today's realities, especially if one is wanting to claim the therapeutic benefits of dance, require an approach where teachers understand not only the performing aspects but also the movement aspects like the functional and structural aspects of the body. Rigorous exercises alone do not necessarily help. They have to be performed effectively to yield results. These movements, though the teacher might be in a position to perfectly execute them, might not emerge from the bodies of the students. How does one correct them?

Adult bodies have certain movement 'habits' already, which might be difficult to change. There are compensatory movements, which are not necessarily harmless in the long run. There are issues with mental concentration and memory. Across Europe, one finds teachers as well as students, who in a one-hour weekly class forfeit all that is relevant. Such a methodology neither leads to therapeutic benefits one can boast of nor stage craft in presentable dimensions.

An analysis of the movement vocabulary and how we incorporate expression into it as has been known in the traditional practice of nritta and abhinaya reinstates the fact that it is the precision of form that constitutes both performative abilities and therapeutic benefits. The more one delves into the angashuddham aspect, the better are the benefits. For e.g. the potential of deriving the benefits that are being discussed today through the practice of dance forms like Bharatanatyam are possible only if practiced with the precision and linearity that is inherent to this art form, and one is able to locate them correctly while executing them. At the same time, it is this aspect that requires such a long time to perfect, time an adult or today's student often does not have. Giving them the benefits of proper learning can still be realized. It does not require just rigour. It requires a drawing of one's attention to the relevant movement, of effectively using kinesics, of knowing how and where movement is initiated and connects the body in an integrating manner that finally becomes its expression. It calls for institutions that provide such qualifications, because it requires for teachers today to know more about not only how movement expresses, but also functions and is structured.

Dance teachers do not have to be physiotherapists, but having access to movement studies and acquiring movement observation skills in a more defined manner, become relevant. Considering the amount of scientific knowledge that is available today, we can tap from it. Knowing anatomy on the chart is not what is at stake for a dancer, but experiencing it in the body - experiential anatomy. We do not have to fall prey to the dichotomies that have existed in the West, but keep the holistic approach of the concept of sharira as body and mind (Vatsyayan, 1996) which is so intrinsic in Eastern traditions. This is all the more important, because the classical dance forms of India carry a lot of potential in them IF taught and practiced properly. This 'IF' is a big one. There are some misgivings about what proper practice could be, because of the varied approach to aesthetics. Today therefore we have to at times look at the bottom line of aesthetics and ornamentation that styles and schools practice and impart. While these are important, because they too have a kinesthetic function, they are the add-ons, the individual movement signature, the beauty and meaning one derives from executing movement and expression.

Giving them the lines right requires rigour and discipline, and takes forever. This is the common notion. But it need not be so if potential teachers can be given a systematic training in not only looking at our dance forms as a cultural practice, but a dynamic movement science, being negotiated at the moment of actual execution. The past is relevant, the future important, but the present is crucial. It is especially important because we want dance to become a general subject, to be learnt for the benefit of all. Subjects like languages, science or history are part of the general curriculum in schools. By learning these one does not necessarily have to become a linguist, scientist, computer specialist or scholar. Nevertheless the general knowledge one gains in these fields shapes future abilities. Similarly, it should become an accepted notion that dance can also be learnt for what it is worth. Just like in the other subjects, those showing the aptitude would then continue to make it a career with the acquiring of necessary skills for a stage craft. But unlike in other fields, perhaps we need to consider how a differentiated training should be imparted for those becoming performers and those becoming teachers at the secondary level of qualification; then each requires another approach to the same movement vocabulary. Therefore, taking on board, gurus who have a long standing in professional teaching, who acknowledge the importance of imparting dance knowledge for the benefits it gives today's practitioners, is an important step towards the future.

Rajyshree Ramesh is a dancer, certified movement analyst and Movement Researcher. She is the Artistic Director of Academy of Performing Arts and Dance Theatre Productions in Berlin, Germany.

Dear Rajyashree,
Recently I see more and more a connectivity between the formation of sentences in spoken or written language and the movements in Bharatanatyam as we learn it in your classes. So do the sentences bring us to certain points in logical space, stay there and move on, as movement leads us to certain places in space, stays there and goes on. In your article I was guided from women and housewives into the problems of dance education in modern cultures, have been following the big bow from professional on stage performance to therapeutic, humanitarian and cultural aspects, made a step forward into the future, a step backwards into the past and have done SAMA in the presence, in the now guided by the article.
Heinz, 28 August 2011

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