Last weekend I attended a Bharata Natyam dance workshop in Maryland with renowned dancer Leela Samson. As usual, I was the only white person among the 20 participants. I did feel a tad self-conscious, but hey, there is no guarantee that I’d be less so if my skin-color was different! I do admit that I have a strong tendency to feel self-conscious in new environments, and I had not been in this traditional setting in a while; I wasn’t sure how I would do.
Since I graduated from Kalakshetra in 2007, I’ve felt torn about the purpose of dance, and specifically my purpose. If I look at my actions and thoughts since I left India, I jumped of the traditional Bharata Natyam bandwagon quite soon. Really, I remember being in my last year at Kalakshetra and questioning the point of me striving to be such a good Bharata Natyam dancer. Even if I didn’t formulate this exact thought, my question was about finding myself in the dance. Where am I in all this? And with it, a feeling that I was not to be found in the reproduction of perfect steps or dances. When I came back to U.S., I felt aimless. I just couldn’t get excited about performing my traditional dance pieces.
Having said all this, it felt incredibly nice to be in a class with Leela Akka. It was good to be in a Bharata Natyam class period. Above that, I’ve always felt refreshed hearing Leela Akka’s perspective on dance. She shared very openly and honestly about the state of Bharata Natyam today and how it risks loosing its audience completely. One of the reasons for this is that we’ve lost its universal symbolism and reduced it to specifics. We’ve processed and cooked and baked it so much that now we are saying to people “Don’t come to this temple. You wouldn’t understand.” Other details I enjoyed was hearing Leela akka say her famous phrase (famous to me and my classmate Vincent at least): “It’s not on.” When she doesn’t agree with a certain thing, she says this, “That’s not on.” 🙂
The funny thing is I already knew the dance she taught (as much as one knows a dance one hasn’t touched in over 5 years). I danced this in 2007 at my 4th year kutcheri performance at Kalakshetra, but I honestly never gave it a thought since. In general, I had a very mixed up time at this performance, my first real experience of how paralyzing stage-fright can be. When I watched the video recently, I was amazed that my inner conflict didn’t show:
Re-learning the dance in 2012, I was actually glad that I had a prior idea of it because this allowed me to go deeper. I wasn’t worrying about memorizing new phrases. Instead I could concentrate on receiving Leela Akka’s deep interpretation of the lyrics and to absorb her love for it. This felt so right, to focus on the depth beneath the intricate layers of footwork and mudras.
In an intimate setting like this, I think the desire for feedback is natural. Though Leela akka was generous with her encouragement to the group, she made personal comments to only one or two, saying they were natural and should consider being professional. I was okay with not receiving specific feedback; I’m learning to depend more on my own discernment. Still, it is a challenge for me to rely on myself when I’m in the presence of someone whose opinion really matters. So that was a good exercise for me, but hearing from others that I was ‘athletic’ and ‘poised’ surely helped. It was an invaluable experience to dance in front of other dancers and Leela Akka. I really wanted to dance confidently without being self-conscious, and I more or less accomplished that goal. It felt great to work within the traditional form and feel how my body was still with it. And here it is: