By Thessaly Tracy
Ancient Indian dance originated as an act of worship. It is also thought to be the direct gift of the Gods themselves. Through more than two millennia of human history it is possible to trace the spiritual moorings, structure and characteristics of modern bharatanatyam, the national dance form of India. The 1st century C.E. book for performers, the Natya Shastra, refers to it as “the highest form of yoga.”
Indian dance requires of its devotees supreme perfection of movement and depth of emotional expression to convey higher spiritual ideals. Its deep awareness of human form and emotion allows bharatanatyam dancers to explore the immensity of human expression. It expressly encourages the dancer to connect with the divine within herself.
Once danced by the “devadasis,” or temple maidens, it was nearly lost to time in the early decades of the last century, as the British East India company found dancing in temples vulgar and unseemly. They passed laws to prevent this affront to their Victorian Christian sensibilities. It was preserved largely due to the determination of individual teachers and students and is now considered an important rite of passage for many young women. You can see a small sample of bharatanatyam in the movie The Life of Pi.
Adorned like a Hindu bride in jewelry and silk, the dancer onstage is striking and evocative. The first time I saw the dance performed, I felt like I was plugged into an electrical socket. Every nerve in my body was alive watching the dancer. Though I understood none of the music to which she danced with such grace and precision, I understood very well the universal emotions expressed on her face. Stories I had never heard came alive for me in a way that was beyond description. I was afraid when she portrayed fear, felt that rush of romance when she looked coyly at the ground while portraying her lover’s gaze.
Something changed in me as I watched her, though I was not capable of grasping at that time just how much. Her feet seemed to be tapping a Morse Code prayer that not only elevated the dancer to spiritual heights, but took me and the audience along as well. For the duration of the performance, perhaps an hour, I was taken to some higher place. It was a feeling I did not want to end.
It would be another nine years before circumstances would bring me full circle to confront and participate in the part of me that changed that night. I would be a very different person in many respects, and not just because I was ten years older. In the ensuing years I had also been married, divorced, and dabbled in no less than three “careers,” none of which suited me very well. When I returned to India in 2006, I was no longer a young seminarian with a promising future, I was a middle aged woman with very little direction. I was desperate to find my place in the world, but was floundering at finding it in anything my own culture had to offer. By chance, online, I stumbled across a videotaped performance of “Indian Classical Dance.” What happened inside me upon once again seeing the dance you can call an epiphany, a mad inspiration, a folly, or foolishness. But it was powerful. I knew I HAD to learn this art!
I was 37 years old. I had never taken a dance class. My experience with the performing arts had been limited to playing “Buttercup” in the HMS Pinafore in the six grade school play. All of these things I would explain to the four or five bharatanatyam gurus that I sent frantic e-mails to in the days that followed.
Only one responded.
I was neither surprised nor particularly disappointed. One was enough. Fate had brought me together with a Ms. Shobana Bhalachandra of Chennai. Two weeks after my not so brief moment of “inspiration” I was on a plane bound for Chennai.
Nine months later, I am sitting on the warm, slate floor of Shobana’s dance studio. I am frustrated, and bordering on tears, having lost my balance learning basic stepping technique. It’s not the first time. It’s at least 90 degrees in the open-air dance studio, and outside in the sun it’s even hotter. When there is any wind at all, it feels like a hairdryer is aimed at you. I can hear the sounds of endless traffic, see the dust erupting in clouds just outside the compound’s gate. I wonder what I am doing here. I am stuck, and the result is a terrible, consuming frustration.
“Traezzee, (as my teacher pronounces my last name), are you sure you want to pursue this art? You have been doing it for nine months, far away from your family and home. For some this is a natural gift, but we know it isn’t going to just come naturally for you. You work hard, that cannot be denied, but you have started very late. You should not think overmuch of performing. I’ve seen how you paint; it’s a natural God-given talent of yours. Why aren’t you focusing more energy there?”
“I will get good at this if I keep practicing won’t I?” I asked desperately.
She sighed. “I don’t know Tracy.”
I left that class chastened, my body panting from heat and exhaustion, my mind numb. I drove my motor scooter to the historic Hindu temple not far from my home. That temple, nearly 1,000 years old, had long served as a kind of oasis for me. It was a place of calm nestled quietly in the maddening chaos of India.
Deep in the shadows of the sanctum I kneel before a large idol of Nataraja. The Lord of the Dance. The temple is mostly quiet at this hour, safe for the muffled sound of Brahmins chanting in Sanskrit coming from somewhere in the shadowy, echoing chambers. I look at this dancing Shiva. He looks back at me, eyes full of calm, all-knowing compassion.
I don’t like making requests of God when I pray. I have health, and enough to eat, and comfortable shelter. It seems greedy to ask for more. Especially here, where even food and water are not available to some.
But on this day, I do it anyway. “Shiva … if this is not where I belong, if this is not what I am supposed to be doing … give me a sign. I will quit. I will go home. Just tell me what to do, and I will do it.”
I don’t suppose I really expected an answer. God had never, in my experience, been the immediately responsive type. I lingered a few moments longer, embarrassed by the tears still drying on my face. Then, just as I was about to go, I was confronted by the sight a woman in a dark blue saree, circling the shrine on foot, lost in her own prayerful intent. She walked with an almost drunken lurch, dragging her right foot behind her body and limping forward with the left. She smiled at me briefly before passing on, another face in the anonymous crowd of Indian faces.
I had my answer. After that, there could be no more excuses. Anyone with a healthy mind and body, no matter what age, gender, or skill level can learn and benefit from bharatanatyam. As long as I did not have to struggle to walk, then I could struggle to dance.
One year became two. I found myself increasingly immersed not only in the physical aspects of the dance, but in the culture and the history that had given rise to it. I moved out of the guesthouse where I had spent my first year, and into an apartment with a dancer from Japan who would become one of the closest friends I have ever had. In the morning we danced. In the evening we attended performances. On occasions we would go to social events that would generally be comprised of other dancers.
Having a social circle comprised of other dancers not much more than half my age kept me young in spirit and provided me with some of the most important friendships I would ever develop. I met and developed close friendships with women from Japan, Germany, France, Singapore, Thailand and a myriad of other places. But the dance community in Chennai is also very competitive, as ostensibly spiritual as the dance may be. I had to confront the fact that I was older and had far less experience and knowledge than women half my age.
Two years turned into three. Though I was still no prodigy, Shobana began to take me more seriously. My lack of inborn talent was becoming overshadowed by my enthusiasm and dedication.
“I wish I you could have come to me when you were twenty.” She would sometimes remark to me now, perhaps a little wistfully.
In the summers I would return home to be with my family. They seldom asked many questions about my “folly.” It was clear they thought me a bit eccentric, but just as clear was the fact that I seemed happy. They no longer tried to dissuade me from returning to India when late summer arrived. I think they had lost all hope that I would ever be employed in another “normal job.”
I still dreamed about performing. I literally dreamed about it at night. Every night.
Classical dance in India is reflective of Hindu social and religious mores, and as such is highly ritualized. The most important ritual in the Indian performing arts is called an arangetram. An arangetram is a dancer’s first public solo performance, and occurs only when the guru acquiesces to it, usually after anywhere from six to ten years of practice and learning. As I reached year four, a distant interest in being able to perform an arangetram became an all-consuming desire.
Shobana, who had actively discouraged me from my desire to perform, now felt differently. In the middle of my fifth year she gave me a set of ankle bells. It was her way of telling me I had permission to schedule my maiden performance. I was going to do an arangetram! There was an article about me in the weekend section of Chennai’s largest paper, “The Hindu.” Very few people are ever known to have started this art form so late and gotten this far. That a foreigner had done it was unheard of.
The publicity made me nervous. I had spent five years living amongst and socializing with the best students and greatest performers that India had to offer. I knew I could never measure up to the standard I had set for myself.
When that magical, long dreamed of night finally arrived, Shobana stood in front of the audience in the temple hall where I performed. Puja bells rang, and Bhramins chanted not far away, and my own orchestra warmed up nearby, but backstage I could hear Shobana’s voice above the din.
“Five years ago, I told this lady that she should quit.” She said. That moment, that statement, created the kind of hush seldom found in a busy Ganesha temple.
“And I am so very thankful now … that she refused to listen.”
With those words the curtain rose, and I, adorned in silk and jewels, and with bells on my feet took the stage. I am sure it was not the most earthshaking performance that discerning Chennai audience would ever see. But it was groundbreaking. I am told that seeing a foreign “auntie” with the dedication required to achieve that skill was inspiring.
I revisited India last January. Two years had passed since my performance in Chennai, and a year since I had started my own school of bharatanatyam in Asheville. One afternoon, two young boys, shirtless and no more than 10 years old, ran after my scooter as I pulled out of a parking place at that temple where I had performed.
“Dancer Auntie!” they shouted.
“Yes?” I smiled back.
“Super!” they shouted at me.
We are all super. We just have to believe it!
Thessaly will be performing a full program of Bharatnatyam on September 26 at the Masonic Temple on Broadway at 7 p.m. For information on the concert and classes visit the website or call 828-301-0331.