The America Diaries
Chapter One: Waiting in the wings

December 8, 2007

Embarking on a dance tour of the US by oneself is not something Indian dancers do. They are normally accompanied by fond parent (read doting, eagle-eyed mother) or the ubiquitous dance orchestra, among whom one female member would double as dresser, companion and all round "sakhi' / 'thozhi.'

But then, when did I do anything that others do?

Having banished the dance orchestra from my performance frame, I have, over the last 5 years, been accompanied by my CD (with superb commissioned music), my suitcases (always too many clothes and too little money) and myself. Years ago, my parents told me, very wisely, that I was not to hold onto them except for moral and emotional help and that I would have to stand on my own two feet and earn my reputation as a professional. Those words, which seemed harsh, have actually pushed me to carve my path today. Lonely? Yes. But the journey is being made through a personal pathway where I am not alone. Wonderful collaborators have joined me and continue to support and co-create with me, constantly pushing me towards the vision of what it is to be an Indian woman, an artiste, and a creator in the 21st century.

Back to the tour...the US has been my second home, having lived in New York City for ten years and studying in New Orleans for two. The streets and rhythm of the Big Apple are second nature to me - the sound of police sirens, taxi horns, fast walkers, glassy eyed commuters, sidewalk cafes and glitzy stores.

My last extensive dance tour of the US was in 1994 when I traveled with 20 other artistes with the still famous dance opera JAYA JAYA DEVI. That group work, choreographed by Smt Rhadha, sister of the brilliant Kumari Kamala, truly swept the US and Canada with electric group patterns and music by Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman. Being at least 10 years older than the rest of the group, I accepted that gig for the sheer experience of the 'circus tour'- dancing in one city and immediately taking the bus, plane, train to the next. It was a 10 week chapter of my dancing life during which I came to HATE curd rice and 'vattha kuzhambu' (flavoured with potato chips) almost daily and the smell of the Solon Motel in Cleveland, Ohio. Thankfully, I escaped every Monday to New York to continue my TV assignments and returned to a new city every Friday to continue the jaunt. The entire experience was invaluable – something that convinced me NEVER to do the 'curry concert' calendar again, although I truly enjoyed the dancing and the ecstatic diaspora crowds who thronged each and every one of the 23 shows to houseful auditoriums.

This time, I was 13 years older and hopefully wiser. This US tour had taken a year to arrange, hundreds of e-mails and photographs, bio datas in various versions and formats, innumerable discussions on the nature of my performances for each venue, lectures and talks in several big cities and small college towns. Except for the final performance, none of the presenters were the well known South Asian diaspora dancing women. So the nature of the preparation needed to be different. There were universities to visit, classes to teach, diverse audiences to address. And all started with the toughest gig, JOYCE SOHO in New York - the most marvelous and the most unforgiving city. My former home and now the first stop to unveil my signature work – '7 GRACES.' Four nights of this tough solo work which zaps me every time I perform it and which gets me nervous even before I step on to the stage.

The 30 day tour contained three full length productions – '7 GRACES,' 'about HER - in five chapters,' and 'NEELAM.' Each different on the outside but holding the same thread of thought and artistic impulses that have informed my work over the past 5 years.

Personal trainer, yoga, aerobics, meditation and kalari were my weekly routines along with daily dance rehearsals for 4 weeks from September 12 to October 12. I shut myself off from the world to get my body into fighting fitness, doing nothing else but all of the above. Oil massages on alternate days were also on the menu. Yoga, meditation and dance rehearsals were a daily feature. Kalari and aerobics were on alternate days. Johnson, my personal trainer worked with me patiently, helping with the upper arms and strengthening my legs and abdomen for my sarukkal adavus... yes I actually could do one cycle non stop after these sessions!

Sri Nandakumar, who danced with Chandralekha in ANGIKA and PRANA during her early days, has been my sister’s yoga teacher for the past 15 years. I surrendered to his experience and got great results. Working out a warm up routine for early mornings, stretching before performances and cool down asanas immediately after the shows, were a huge help for my middle aged body. Kamlesh, my aerobics instructor, helped me with cardio vascular workouts that just kept my heart pumping, although as my friend Geeta Chandran says, nothing helps an Indian dancer for stamina than the actual dancing itself! Still, rather than rehearse the same items daily, which would work the same muscles and become boring for me, I needed to tune and tone in various other ways that kept me challenged and motivated.

Touring the US all alone needs a tremendous reservoir of personal strength. You have nobody but yourself. Green rooms, rehearsals, tech time, perspiration, getting dressed, undressed, taking the train, bus, plane, packing, unpacking... you are IT. If you are not ready for this routine, then don't do it. It can be quite unnerving and very, very lonely at times.

On the morning of my departure, I weighed in at 65 kgs. I liked what I saw in the mirror, my 5'8" frame was not looking as Amazonian as before. My old jeans and sari cholis were fitting me well again. Would I maintain it through the numerous Starbucks Caramel Macchiatos - skim milk, no whip, extra shot - sessions and the wonderful food available so cheaply throughout the US? I am a foodie, constantly experimenting with new tastes which inevitably bypass everything to head for my Ajanta hips! I promised all my teachers and trainers that I would be good this time!

Three suitcases with costumes, clothes for all sorts of weather conditions and an all weather coat in my hand – I was ready and off.

Anita Ratnam