My Voice - 2021


The Adult Indian Dance Student

By Preethi Sriram

My journey in Bharthanatyam began around the age of six, when my mother started me in Indian dance classes. I took classes every Sunday up until the age of 13. When I was young, I was also put in ballet classes. The difference between the initial ballet classes and the Bharthanatyam classes felt like polar opposites.

I recall, the precocious child that I was, feeling like the movements being taught in ballet were too simplistic, and the way that we were treated was how a child is treated.

Looking back, the movements taught in the beginner ballet classes were of course geared toward preschool beginners, and maybe the level I was put in was too simple for my mental age. Within Bharthanatyam classes, I never felt treated as a “child." The movements and motions felt that it had meaning and did not feel simplistic or silly.

After the initial stages of Ballet and Bharthanatyam, there came the additional differentiation of teaching styles. In ballet, at least my initial experiences felt less structured, while it was a different feeling with Bharthanatyam, where the teachers seemed to start out strict. I actually appreciated the strictness and discipline of learning from the Bharthanatyam teachers when it was conducted in a fair and just manner, and the teacher reciprocated and modeled what was expected for the student.

As a child, I enjoyed dance class as I made friends through the class, and enjoyed seeing them and playing with them. Class was a means to see my friends every Sunday and being part of shows and festivals was a way to have sleepovers and play video games the night before the festival. If I compare it to food, from a child perspective, dance was the sprinkles and the socialization was the ice cream. Or the classes were the “chore" and the sleepovers and parties were the reward.

In high school, we moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, which changed the direction of my straightforward journey in dance. At that time, switching teachers put a detour in the journey as different teachers have slightly different styles of teaching, and I was required to start from the beginning.

As high school was coming to a close, and SATs/college applications became the central focus, dance classes went to the periphery, and soon I stopped taking classes. I still had not gotten very far in the actual content for the classes. I did not “graduate" from Bharthanatyam or have an Arangetram that I heard many other students within my age group accomplishing.

But something about the classes and the music and the dance itself had stayed with me. The art form itself has intrinsically impacted the way I think, and it is something that always seems to lure me back.

Now, as an adult student, my age as a dance student is beyond the age that I actually tell anyone what age I am. With regards to end goals, that too has evolved from my childhood. In my childhood, classical dance was about having an Arangetram, or the first full solo piece to show that the dancer achieved their milestone and “graduated" from their training.

Not having ever completed the Arangetram or “graduation" the “first time" has made me that much more interested in the art form not as an end goal, but as life long journey.

While the art form in itself is humbling in its content and the amount to be learned, I have become that much more humbled learning that there is so much I thought I knew of the art form, but so much I did not know. As an adult, I realize there is so much for depth, philosophy, history, and technique that I could have never fathomed as a child within the dance form.

I am at the age where there are other expectations and responsibilities that come with the stage of life, but even with that, going back to the dance form as a beginner, is something that I do not mind.

Within Indian philosophy, life is cyclical, and I understand that lesson through my dance journey now as an adult of restarting dance classes: To use the word “restart" seems as if my journey is linear, but I have started and stopped numerous times as an adult for various reasons, and the journey feels almost cyclical. I have made a place for Bharthanatyam in my life or from another perspective, it is the siren that keeps calling me back and wants me to come to the place I belong.

This series of articles is about the journey and unique insights of an adult dance student learning classical Indian dance. An introduction to the experiences and a perspective of taking classical Indian dance as both an American and an Indian, and how this shapes her personal journey, begins this series. Further articles will delve into specific topics and experiences from the perspective of the adult student.

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Preethi Sriram is a classical Indian dance enthusiast and lifelong learner of dance. Contact: SriramPreethi@hotmail.com