Adding extra flourish to Bharatanatyam
- Neha Desai

October 4, 2014

Arpan, a performing arts organization founded by Dr. Joyce Paul Siamak, is dedicated to promote folk and classical dance forms of India in Washington. In her more than 20 years of teaching experience Joyce often hears parents of students express their difficulty in getting their wards to practice postures and classical dance routines at home. It is a constant challenge for teachers and parents alike to encourage children to learn and appreciate classical dance forms when ‘filmi’ Bollywood flamboyant dances seem far more appealing and fun. Dances like Bharatanatyam with its intricate nuances take years to master. But in this generation of fast internet, quick access to information and easy distractions it is difficult for young students to find learning classical art forms gratifying.

For Joyce, engaging her students without compromising on the discipline and hard work that Indian classical dance forms demand has been the topmost priority. Embracing this challenge, this summer, Arpan launched its Summer Intensive Workshop with a new approach, a six week long summer camp focused on fast paced learning of Bharatanatyam and opportunity to engage with professional choreographers. The workshop was structured for three levels of expertise taking into account the unique needs for each level. Beginners learned adavus (basic steps), hastas (hand gestures), yoga for dance, and Natya Shastra shlokas. The intent was to give the new students a flavor of Bharatanatyam before they decide to commit to further intensive training regimes. The intermediate students were introduced to complex techniques and repertoire pieces of levels much higher than their current expertise. Finally senior dance students were given the opportunity to explore their individuality by choreographing their own dance piece and trying a hand at basic nattuvangam.

As a part of her work regime, Joyce enjoys engaging in various research activities especially in the area of dance and instruction. She is currently researching on the application of techniques like games and crafts in learning. In this regard, a unique feature of this workshop was the introduction of ‘Natyam crafts’ and ‘Natyam games.’ It is an amalgamation of Joyce’s skills in research, Performance Studies, Instructional Design and teaching experience. ‘Natyam craft’ involves usage of art and crafts to teach students concepts of dance as opposed to the traditional classroom style teaching. The central idea behind ‘Natyam games’ is to apply game mechanics and techniques to engage and motivate students to study the art form while at play. This concept of ‘Gamification’ is increasingly being used with great results in corporate arenas for employee engagement as well as customer retention. ‘Natyam craft’ and ‘Natyam games’ is one of the first attempts to tap the human tendencies of collaboration, competition and achievement and imbibe it in the study of Bharatanatyam.

One of the games introduced was using clay modelling to provide form and structure to concepts learnt in class. For example, remembering the hastas or natya shlokas by heart is often a tedious and boring task for young students who have to learn these by heart and practice the same gestures again and again. The Sanskrit terms and names also can be very challenging to remember and very easy to forget. But when combined with fun activities like modeling clay to look similar to the hastas, students subconsciously were paying more attention to the accuracy of each gesture and racking their memory to remember the names. Making this a group activity tapped into the impulse of students to do better at every step and gain more points for their teams. Another such game was the traditional trading cards with a twist. Students were given ‘alta’ and were allowed to have fun painting their own and their friend’s hands. But it did not end there. Each student posed for a picture with different hastas, made trading cards from hasta names, traded cards to collect all twenty eight cards of each set and even competed to put them in order. These and many more games added an element of fun while students retained the concepts they had learnt.

Another highlight of the program was to tackle head on the common complaint that students express… It is so slow and boring! Yes, we are dealing with a very impatient generation but Joyce realized this is exactly what works to their advantage. Students want to learn more and at a faster pace. They grasp concepts fast and retain it with equal fervor. An effective way to keep them engaged is by continuously challenging them. This was an underlying guideline in planning out the dance schedules and curriculum of the Summer Intensive workshop. Each session was designed such that students learnt much more than what a regular class would teach ensuring that the students were receptive and excited to learn something new every time.

Would we disagree that beats of commercial music are catchy? Are students really to blame that they tend to gravitate towards fast and what seems more ‘fun’ filmi music? But how can we forget that Indian classical dance is boundless and has many facets. Students were in for a real surprise when Joyce introduced them to the complex pieces of Thillana and the mathematic concepts behind it using charts, tables and elaborate spread sheets. Challenging beginner repertoire students to learn the intricacies of Thillana in twelve sessions was a game changer.  Each session ended with excited students and lots of colorful spread sheets. The cherry on top was the Odissi lessons taught by Joyce’s longtime friend and professional Odissi dancer Priyanka Wilkins.

Learning Bharatanatyam was definitely the central focus of this workshop. But like a drop creates multiple ripples in water, the realm of this workshop went far beyond just learning the art form. This was a platform for students to build essential skills imperative for daily lives like negotiation, team work and knowledge sharing. Students were given avenues to improvise their techniques, choreograph their routines and add a flavor of individuality in their work. Intermediate students were also given opportunity to teach basic concepts to beginners under the supervision of their guru. Making them responsible for the development of their juniors encouraged students to polish their own skills, and practice more often which added to their enthusiasm to learn.

The finale of the camp was the Community Sharing held on August 14th under the aegis of Allied Arts Foundation in Redmond Public Library. This was a platform for students to demonstrate what they had learnt as well as to observe and enjoy performances by their seniors, a glimpse of what more they can learn. True to its name, Community Sharing was open to all: attended by parents, students, professional dancers and connoisseurs of Indian classical art forms. It was an atmosphere charged with enthusiasm of young students who were eager to let go of all inhibitions and show off their achievements with confidence.

The Bharatanatyam Summer Intensive workshop has received an overwhelming response from parents and students. Joyce’s engaging style of teaching had students longing for the summer sessions to go on. Parents were surprised to see their kids not only proactively practice dance at home but make it an integral part of their lifestyle.

Joyce is currently working on taking ‘Natyam craft’ and ‘Natyam games’ one level higher by introducing new games that transform everyday toys from objects of fun to become objects of learning. Arpan continues to revamp and revise its curriculum to establish new educational standards. Along with teaching, Joyce envisions using dance as a medium for creating awareness about causes that support women and to bring about a social change.