The pandemic and...dance? What do they even have to do with each other? How can they be spoken of in the same breath? Now, engaging in any art pursuit in times of the pandemic seems a fine thought at a facile level, but what does it really mean? Especially when we’re dealing with the natural, unforced expression of children? It’s easy enough to understand poetry and painting allowing our inner selves to speak, or music relieving boredom or lightening feelings of anxiety or a sense of doom—even if you’re only listening. But let’s take a deep dive into an artform that is sometimes seen to be less accessible and more complex and difficult: dance. Firstly, we must grasp how natural it is for us to express ourselves via the body. Return to that first sentence. Think of dance, then think of the lockdown...and boil both down to their essence. They are perfect antonyms. Lockdown means immobility, paralysis. Dance equals movement, fluidity, freedom. Let that be our starting point.
From the days of the ancients, the concept of aesthetics—or engaging with beauty as an end in itself—took some time to be disentangled from other human functionalities. The word ‘art’ itself derives from the Latin “ars”, a term whose literal definition covers “skillfulness”, “technique” and “craft”. You can see that sense subsisting even now in the word “artisan”. The idea of this conveying a connotation of pure beauty, of being a connoisseur or one who has developed aesthetic capabilities or an appreciation of beauty, emanated from the acquiring of skills. The older Greek term that referred to “art”—tekhne—likewise combined it with the sense of “craft”, as is obvious from the word itself (being the parent term for words like “technique”, “technology” etc). In India too, the arts in the times of the ancient classic on aesthetics, Natya Shastra, were described as “kridanyakam”—objects in the realm of play and sport, affording us entertainment. Arts existed, but as a concept it was still nebulous and blurring into other categories.
We have travelled a fair distance since then, of course. Beauty, as a pursuit in itself, has long been established as a valid goal. But can it still have a functionality? Can beauty do anything? How does it affect us as we immerse ourselves in it? Here, I would like to present to you a retrospective of my research—you could broadly title it as the “Therapeutic Value of Indian Classical Dances on the Mental and Physical Well-Being of a Learner”. I would like to focus on the incidental benefits of learning ‘Indian classical dances’—take a moment to appreciate the fact that this term is a very comprehensive one, encompassing skills relating to theatre, music, painting, literature, mathematics and body movement. We will see in detail how what we’re talking about is not just not skill or technique or mere entertainment, but something much beyond that.
But for a moment, let’s return to the pandemic—and children. It’s lasted almost 18 months now. A year-and-a-half is an extremely long duration for young minds, all the more aggravated since a near-total social deprivation was imposed on them. It was like jail. School closures left them bereft of vital socialising space—peer presence and interactions in actual, buzzing classrooms and playgrounds filled with laughter, the sheer physicality of sports, and so many other precious microcosms of life that lead to the overall development of a child. In its stead, they got long hours in front of a screen, trying to understand lessons through black, stamp-sized boxes, online tests with or without understanding, not to speak of a total blocking out of physical activities.
Now, counterpose that picture against what I have observed in my work on children as a researcher, practitioner and teacher of Bharatanatyam—you could think of them as a set of tangible, invaluable benefits that were confirmed to be so even in feedback from many parents. Benefits that must count as holistic, since they encompass the physical, emotional, aesthetic and logical universes.
1. Indian classical dances need both the mind and body to achieve the desired result: the creation of rasa or aesthetic appeal in the audience. Performing nritta or pure dance entails the use of over 10,000 muscle fibres from the major, minor and subsidiary body parts, named anga, upanga and pratyanga by Bharata muni.
2. All classical dances involve meticulously controlled, simultaneous, symmetrical motion—they are ideal movement systems, very compact in their delineation. For example, in Alarippu, the smallest item of Bharatanatyam, which lasts only three minutes, we find about 350 coordinated movements involving the head, eyes, neck, shoulder joint, arms, elbows, wrists, fingers, waist, knees, legs and feet. Interesting choreographies can make it more challenging and, consequently, beneficial.
3. All muscle fibres are connected to the nervous system and brain. Like a battery to a bulb, the muscular system needs the brain and nervous system to spark life into it—the special demands made on it by Indian classical dance forms instil in a child a much higher level of neuromotor efficiency. The ears listen to the music and words, the brain translates it into the appropriate elements of abhinaya and movement, and the whole body cooperates to convert it into a beautiful piece.
4. The tala system is a very unique thing that exists in all Indian classical dance forms. These rhythmic patterns may seem complex to the uninitiated, but it’s a marvel how young minds respond so spontaneously to them. Think of what young brains accomplish here: rendition of talas in the hand, uttering the mnemonic syllables or bol to perfect timing, and then performing it with accurate pauses that help complete a rhythm cycle in the complex, knitted pattern of a korvai. I have observed in my classes, in dance and music examinations and on stage how young artists gain immense confidence when they render talas! Whether it is the paran of Kathak or the jathis of Bharatanatyam, they act as a tonic to the brain or, as I call it, “food for the brain”. The rhythmic patterns contained in a jathi, or a sequence of dance, have to be converted into body movements. Many parts of the brain are targeted during the learning process of these movements. Dance, thus, entails visualising movements in response to rhythm: the immense benefits for the mental faculty of memory can well be imagined, besides the sheer joy and delight it brings to the learner.
5. If we consider Bharatanatyam, a dance form with a lot of variety, vigour and inherent challenges, it helps in gaining general coordination, spatial awareness and even improving mental strength—convincing the body to push its limits. The motor cortex is an essential part of the brain: it’s the region responsible for our ability to learn and train in new patterns of movement. A rigorous, dedicated training in this art form thus strengthens the motor cortex immeasurably. My experiments show that the sheer variety of movements in training increases the oxygen transport capacity to the brain and improves IQ. Most school-going children training in classical dance are, almost inadvertently, also excellent performers in academics.
6. The holding of postures and coordinated movements strengthens the cerebellum, refining motoric control. Children who attend classical dance classes twice or thrice a week have a strong hippocampus region, marking an improved capacity to memorise, recapitulate and recall things learnt. The learning of long, complicated dance sequences not only helps in that aspect but also improves sequential perception. You can imagine the spinoff benefits in learning patterns in any language (including English spellings!) or in other subjects that call for sequential learning.
7. A vital part of the study related to the release of several hormones from the pituitary gland during an enactment of dance. These include adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin—happiness hormones that help in coping with depression in children and youth. Imagine the effects during the pandemic on children who train in dance, compared to those who do not. I can testify that the majority of my students benefited from this and were able to cope with their online studies and tuitions better.
8. Another vital aspect of psychoneurological development through classical dance: the direct positive effect it has on the neuromaturational clock. Children who suffer from neuromaturational delays are slow learners/bad academic performers, besides often being plagued by finger agnosia and choreiform movements. The parameters we worked on included alternate, synchronous and simultaneous movements—these curative, therapeutic movements are found in all classical dances. Engaging in even isolated aspects of classical dance actually eases neuromaturational delays and the child starts performing well. Imagine the value of full training.
9. Children sitting at home without any exercise—a phenomenon rampant now due to the lockdown—tend to develop weakened lungs and heart. Routine shallow breathing creates a low reserve capacity. In my experiments, it was found that the vital capacity (lung capacity) and the stationary heart rate both improved in students learning dance and dropped in those who did not. The unique alternation of slow and fast movements in classical dance and the special deep breathing techniques needed for performance helps the lungs attain a steady state with improved capacity. Each of our 10,000+ voluntary muscle fibres have intramuscular capillaries passing through them. A trained muscle fibre is in a constant state of vibration; this presses on the capillaries, pushing the blood back towards the heart, thus helping in venous return. The resting heart rate of trained artistes is as astoundingly low as 50-60—a sureshot marker of cardiac resilience and longevity.
10. The use of bare feet beating down on the ground—found in all classical dances—works wonders on children. Little knowing that they are performing a perfect acupressure exercise, these children benefit from the pressure applied on different parts of the planta (or base of the foot) and knees. The spinoffs come in terms of immunity, regularising blood pressure, better eyesight, and the stimulation of almost every organ system.
11. Everyone now knows about yoga asanas. But do you know that the karanas and tandava movements mentioned in the fourth chapter of Natya Shastra are nothing but dynamic yoga movements? Take Kuchipudi, Odissi or Bharatanatyam. The hundreds of movements they entail all require breath control, flexibility, agility, keeping the spine straight and focusing on keeping the body controlled and poised…make no mistake, Indian classical dances are perfect dynamic yoga.
12. Creativity. Till now, we focused on the more tangible, physiological benefits. But the real juice, the source of endless delight for children, is the way Indian classical dance offers limitless scope for creativity and self-expression. The same music can be depicted or choreographed in multiple ways, using the myriad foot movements, mudras, jumps, swirls, walks, karanas and angaharas. The same music can be translated into nritta or pure dance, nritya or expressional dance, and natya, that is, dramatic elaboration. The joy that so many children felt as they choreographed their own variations and uploaded them on YouTube can only be contrasted against the boredom and angst felt by the vast majority of children out there.
Bharatanatyam dancer Deepanshi Karwall
Translated into psychological terms, I can say Indian classical dances develop both the imitative and experimental sides of a child. She first imitates the Acharya and, after perfecting the movements, starts her own experimentation. The creation of the nava rasas have been codified in the shastras, corresponding to the basic emotions—anger, happiness, sorrow, wonder, hatred, love, fear. These combine in various ways to form the more composite emotions like greed, jealousy, excitement etc. Ekaharya Abhinaya is a type of expressional communication where children enjoy becoming multiple characters while enacting the Dasavatara, Krishna leela, or scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. As children play with these during the process of learning abhinaya, it actually enhances their emotional sensibility.
Taken in totality, therefore, a training in various aspects of Indian classical dance not only fortifies child physiology and emotional well-being in innumerable ways, it helps inbuild an aesthetic sensibility that forms an inexhaustible reservoir for them to draw from. Through exposure to a whole complex emotional spectrum via an exemplary literary corpus, certain balanced personality traits also have a high chance of getting instilled: a capacity for humility, poise, sweetness of speech, endurance, patience, sensitivity and human understanding. Our classical dances, combining as they do the poetry and literature of our world, music and expressional movements, have everything you need to fill the emotional void that modernity often leaves you with, not to speak of the present phase of elongated trauma for children. Our policymakers need to seriously reimagine the whole pedagogical structure in such a way that our artforms are brought centrestage, as sources of vital nourishment, rather than as also-rans within a framework of industrialised education.
Guru Kanaka Sudhakar is a Bharatanatyam exponent, choreographer, mentor and research worker