Without being body-conscious, I’ve been thinking about my body and what being an embodied soul really means. It’s a marvelous thought really, considering my Body separate from Me. Most of the time (always!) my body is me. I am this white freckled short girl-woman. But yesterday as I was in kirtan with Vish, Jai Uttal, and Gaura, I thought about how my body is really my house. Wherever I go, my inner being is sheltered by this physical form. This thought was prompted by the fact that I didn’t know where we were sleeping that night. It’s usually somewhere nice or decent, but I don’t always know where it’s gonna be. That’s how it is on the road, a different bed every few nights. This can drive you a little crazy after a while. The thing that really hit me though was that my upbringing set me up for and really prepared me for this traveling lifestyle.
I grew up as a temple-kid, which in my case meant that we never had a house. My mother and I lived in different places throughout the temple property, a room here and there, never our own kitchen or bathroom. My mom’s least favorite living situation was this yellow wood trailer/cabin thingy that was planted in the middle of the cow pasture. We had no electricity or water and had to walk down to another building to shower. In the summers the electric fence kept the cows inside the pasture and got my mom electrocuted quite a few times. I personally never understood the austerity of our situation until about 20 years later when I compare it to the comforts of my life now, our own bathroom, A/C, beautiful furniture and plush pillows.
Still, if I look at my life in terms of lessons I’m meant to learn, I feel like a major one is this: not to be attached to my surroundings (because I am!), not to depend on external markers of safety for security (because I do!), not to wrap my identity into my belongings. Really, even my body is a belonging that won’t always be with me. Somewhere inside my body is this eternal being that is going to continue living, loving, and learning always. And I feel a new gratitude towards the body that I have now, the unique body I live in for this life. If we believe in karma and the inner workings of the laws that make the world go round, then we must begin to see how the bodies we have are designed just for us, to serve our life and our life-purpose. In the ultimate sense, the body is our host in our journey through lifetimes. Far out idea.
Seeing the body as a house gives me a little glimpse into how the mystics and self-realized sages of India would happily sleep anywhere, under a tree, outside, on the ground. It struck me as an extreme form of renunciation, and I can’t say I ever related to it before. Now I sort-off get it. If you see your body as your house, then an actual house made of wood, bricks, or glass would be superfluous.
Well now this white girl body is going to stop philosophizing and give her soul a rest by sleeping on a new bed which happens to be very soft and inviting 🙂
I remember the first time I saw Gangi dance Odissi. I was stunned. Star-struck. And at that time, I was a ruthless critic, quick to focus on the weakness of a performer and swift to judge their ability as a dancer. I know most dancers do this. And I do think that there is a way to look at someone’s dance and make an immediate assessment. Over the past few years, however, I’ve softened. Now I prefer to notice the beauty a person creates, their sincerity, their love for the art. Dance for me is about much more than being good or excellent; it goes deeper than that. The value it can create in a persons life is unrelated to his/her actual skill-level. So I’m much less interested in critical assessments of dancers. I want to encourage those who love dance to dance.
When I first saw Gangi dance Odissi though, I was not in this softened place. It was indeed with a real critical eye that I concluded that she’s got real talent. I was fascinated by the way Odissi flowed through her so gracefully, so much more so than Bharata Natyam which she’d also studied.
This assessment of mine was in 2008. Since then Gangi has pursued Odissi in many ways. She went to Bhubaneswar in India to study with Sujata Mohapatra, and now she’s preparing for her Manch Pravesh – the official solo Odissi debut – under the guidance of Swathi Mahalakshmi. And the date for her Manch Pravesh is finally finalized for December 1, 2012. After much back and forth, we settled on doing it close to home at the Hippodrome in Gainesville, FL instead of India. All of us in her family are super excited about this day, and we are supporting her in different ways. Her brother and sister, for example, are using their skills to accompany her with live instrumentation.
Here is a sneak-peak into her “classroom”:
A small sample of her dancing:
Feeling like the Voice of Reason has built huge structures within me and is shooting down beauty, spirituality, and grace. I can’t imagine connecting to devotion because I’m running, looking for shelter. But there is no shelter within because my land has been occupied.
This is what the Voice of Reason is telling me:
Dance is not important. Doesn’t change the world. It’s extracurricular. It’s selfish, being there on stage seeking everyone’s attention.
Bharata Natyam is not relevant. It’s outdated. You have nothing to contribute. Your desire to dance is a foolish dream. Wake up to reality.
All I can say in response to the Voice of Reason is that “I don’t like you!” Because the Voice of Reason speaks with authority and finality, it’s hard to ignore. But maybe I should rename it the Voice of Smashing Down, the Dreams Terminator, the Hater and Subjugator. When and how did I allow this Voice to take over so much of my territory? This is how I think of it. That Voice is not me. I’m in a constant battle against it. Yet isn’t that it’s victory, that I engage in the fight at all!
Considering my inner battlefield, no wonder it’s a struggle to find an incentive to dance. The spiritual feeling, the deep devotion, the soothing rhythms, the bone-deep exhaustion, all feel like a distant far-off dream. Another lifetime.
Part of the problem, I think, is that dance has been so merged with performing that the two have become synonymous. The goal of Bharata Natyam is to perform. To share in front of others. I’m contemplating the difference between professional dancing and devotional dancing. If dance was a ritual dance done for the pleasure of the Lord, where has that aspect of it gone? Yes, I do believe God is present everywhere and able to look trough the eyes of the audience. Still, dancing on a stage for people is no longer the simple act of devotion that dance may have once been. Of course, I’m not sure what it was in the past. It’s all too easy to glorify and deify a “golden past” and dismiss the complexity that was present even then, when the Temple girls danced in the rituals of worship. Truly, I’m not one to have nostalgia for a glorious past; life on earth has always been complicated (just read a few pages of Ramayana or Mahabharata!). Nevertheless, I wonder: what does it mean to dance for God, for the Divine, to use dance as a form of worship?
It could just be me (or the Voice of Reason!), but I feel that a stage-performance isn’t simply worship; it’s also a spectacle, a show, a performance. Yes, I have been deeply moved by stage-performances, and they can be incredibly deep and powerful. Still I wonder where the line is, if there is a line, between being a professional dancer and a dancing servant of the Lord?
I don’t know if my question is clear, or if I’m entirely sure what I’m even asking here. But I remember recently, Anapayini, a dancer I love a lot, enacting a prayer to Nrishingadev at the Alachua Krishna temple. Somehow it was in between other activities and there was a lot of chaos in the temple-room with people standing around and talking. I myself walked in about half-way through but was immediately captivated. Unmindful of the chaos around her, Ani’s focus was on the altar, on offering her dance to Nrishingadev. She chose not to let peoples’ talking disrupt her dance-prayer. She wasn’t dancing for any of us, but for the Lord. It was incredibly sweet and beautiful. I felt like I was privy to an intimate prayer which wasn’t really meant for my eyes but that I got to see anyway. That, to me, was an example of dancing for God alone, an aspect of dance that is otherwise absent.
Hm, how did I go from my battle with the Voice of Reason to philosophizing on dance? From one type of reasoning to another!
I better just get out of my head and get up and DANCE right now! As one of my friends used to say, just shut up and DANCE!
I imagine that I’m looking across this pond and dancing to the sunrise, just me, nature and the rising sun.
You can’t reduce me to words, to gestures, to symbols.
“I’m sad” is a small container for the vast rolling emotions that bring symptoms of sadness to the surface. The small drops of salty water rolling down my cheeks only point to the oceanic depth of my being. “Sadness” itself is a symbol then for a concept that is so much larger. And this is really what dance is. We are harnessing expansive truths and using a few gestures to convey large concepts, pointing back towards something that truly can’t be seen only felt. A few movements that mean so much. Which instead have come to mean so little. Is Truth one-shaded? One-dimensional or even 3-dimensional?
I’ve been thinking about how imperfect the body is as a tool for expressing the tremendous journey that our soul is constantly on. The body is a tool, like words, like movement, that we use to express where we are at. Our actions channel the workings of an often mysterious inner being, our own self. Yet I am not my expression, I’m the expressor.
Never reduce me to a word, an idea, or a symbol. You can’t catch my soul in your net of words, your concepts. I expand beyond them, as I expand far beyond my body even now. Can you see my thoughts? Didn’t think so.
My body can express facets of my emotional experience: laughing, crying, shaking, sighing, reddening. Still my laugh is not my happiness, only a small expression of it. Sometimes it’s so deep I cannot laugh. You see me silent but I’m not silence.
Ours is a world of words, labels, and divisions that we embrace and struggle against. I am none of these things, yet you may know me through them. As long as I’m a traveler on this Earth, I have a form that demands definition.
Be an artist in your life and give shape and shade to words and ideas, creating nuances, so that when I am trapped in one, at least it’s a beautiful trap, reflecting part of my truth.
But I’m not confined or defined by this experience. I’m full of consciousness and energy: you cannot catch me as I transcend all boundaries.
Three Reasons I’m Going Gaga:
1. If I had to describe myself in one word, I would say, I’m going gaga. Okay, that’s 3 words depending on how you count. It’s somewhat normal for me to feel confused and pensive about stuff that no one else around me seems to care about. Right now though it’s coming at me on a whole other level. It’s like an avalanche of stuff: a new career-opportunity (writing for media), graduate school plans, and lots of creative ideas. I’m grateful for all this, but it also makes my head spin. And on top of it, I cut my hair short which complicates my identity as a Bharata Natyam dancer further. It was admittedly a weak identification already, only ironically high-lighted by something so external as my hair. What will I do at the few upcoming performances I have? I don’t know… I wish I could dance without wearing any make-up, jewelry, or elaborate costuming. Western dancers do it all the time, so it’s really nothing radical. Still, I haven’t quite been able to reconcile my desire for sparseness with the glamour of Bharata Natyam.
2. Gaga Dance: After my dance-workshop with Leela akka, I flew straight into University of Florida’s dance intensive for my first experience of Gaga dance. I had no idea what Gaga was but trusted my friends in the dance department who all said I would LOVE it, and they were right.
In the words of Ohad Naharin, the creator of Gaga, “Gaga is a new way of gaining knowledge and self awareness through your body. Gaga elevates instinctive motion, links conscious and subconscious movement. Gaga is an experience of freedom and pleasure. In a simple way, a pleasant place, comfortable close, accompanied by music, every person with himself and others.”
Here is a great article from The New York Times that explains why its called Gaga and more: “Twisting the Body and Mind.”
3. Discovering Lady Gaga: If you’re like most people, when you hear the word “gaga” now you immediately think of pop-sensation Lady Gaga and her crazy antics. As the above article points out though, Gaga dance is not related to Lady Gaga and was indeed created before. Still, I can’t write a whole thing about gaga without saying a few words about the Lady herself. And this is so because I recently discovered that Lady GaGa is one helluva singer and a talented artist. If you want to see for yourself, check out her song “Speechless”. What I love most about her performance here is that she is so calm and unhurried. Also, in watching some interviews with her, I was surprised by her spiritual streak, her unusual thoughts about rebirth, and actually that she makes intelligent choices about everything that makes her gaga.
I wish I had the intelligence and spunk to embrace my inner gaga, but I suppose I’m in the process of self-acceptance.
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:
Last weekend, Vis and I headed to Nova Scotia just for one day to perform at the first annual Berwick Yoga festival. This was the first time that Vish and I traveled to perform as a duo, and I was surprisingly calm and centered. One the one hand, I knew that Vish can pull out a killer kirtan from his vast bag of magical tunes. On the other, I can’t quite say the same for myself. I’m a moody performer, or sensitive, shy – i’m not quite sure how to describe it. When I am in the groove, I can be free and on-fire, rising and falling with the waves of energy around me. My problem is that I’m not always in the groove when I’m supposed to be. My inner machinations get jammed up and I’m more like a stiff robot. At least that’s how I feel. And often it’s when I most need to be on my game that I’m not. So I don’t have full confidence in my ability to show up for the show-down (I really should not be calling a kirtan a show-down! But I suppose it sort-off illustrates my mind-set or how I’m approaching it sadly) Recently, however, I’ve felt a change within where I want to grow beyond my limitations. I’m inspired from many directions to change. One of them was seeing Revati, Gaura Vani’s 7-year old daughter, sing:
If Revati has the courage to simply sing, why can I not have this courage?
So yes, there is a growing willingness on my part to simply go for it.
Still when I heard from the organizers at Berwick that the participants were new to everything Yoga and still timid about opening their hearts, I felt my alarms go off. It became less easy to take deep breaths and the fear that I had awaited took its chance to slink in. What if they would fear the kirtan and judge us? What if they would feel uncomfortable? What if they would close off from me and remain unresponsive? Questions like these began to pelt me and my calm dissipated just as we arrived at the festival. It was taking place at the United Church’s summer camp in Berwick and the significance of that struck me in a different light now that my breath had less room in my body. But I tried my best to respond to the warm and friendly greetings by each of the organizers who went out of their way to make sure we had all we needed. Their friendliness did much to put me at ease, but I continued to be nervous about our evening performance. It was a strange nervousness because I knew that we could and would perform well. What I was nervous about I can’t quite say, only that I couldn’t talk myself out of it.
The most beautiful occurrence for me was the beginning of our offering. I was waiting outside for my ‘dramatic dance entrance’ and Vis was singing the invocation prayers acapella with flute in between each verse. He held the space in an unhurried way simply allowing his strong voice and the prayer to be enough. It was so beautiful.
Soon after I had my ‘tadaa!’ moment with our Bells & Bols dance, and our evening was in full-swing.
With all humility, the evening was a real success. I can honestly say that time has never disappeared so quickly for me in a concert before. I could not believe two hours had gone by. Everyone showered us with love and appreciation through continuous applause and joyful faces.
I never imagined this would be my life. But it felt so satisfying that Vish and I could really pull-off an entire show by ourselves. With gratitude to the open-hearted audience and to the warm friendliness that I now think of as Nova Scotian 🙂