How the art of dance has influenced and shaped every aspect of my character. ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul’. This expression accurately describes what dance has always meant to me. It has always been the one thing that has helped set me free both literally and metaphorically. I was introduced to the art of dance at the tender age of five, and since then, have fallen deeply in love with the art of Bharathanatyam. After almost sixteen years, I am now a professional dancer with a diploma in the classical Indian dance form, Bharathanatyam from SIFAS (Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society). And I can confidently say that dance and my achievements in it have shaped me to become the disciplined, resilient, confident and compassionate woman I am today. Beginning my journey in an art form that required a high level of commitment and hard work at a very young age instilled discipline in me. Bharathanatyam is a very beautiful art form but one that requires extreme physical rigour and precision. It is both physically and mentally demanding.
When I first started learning Bharathanatyam, I thought it would be easy since the dancers I saw performing on stage danced with such ease; their movements seemed so effortless. However, only when I started learning it properly did I realize how difficult it really was. There were many basic ‘adavus’ (steps/movements) that I had to master first before I could even begin learning full dance sequences. Each basic step that I learnt required a lot of precision, and to attain such precision in the execution of my adavus, I had to practice relentlessly. As a result, I would practice my adavus for an hour in the morning and for another hour at night every day. This became a habit for me that continued for years. When I started pursuing my dance exams, and doing stage performances, I had to work even harder. I had dance classes every day after school that lasted two to three hours. On top of my dance practices, I also had dance theory to study in my own time.
As such, I had to manage my time very carefully in order to be able to do well both in dance and school. Years of committing myself to dance has thus definitely taught me to be disciplined. I do not get to do things when I feel like doing them. I complete the tasks at hand when I have to as efficiently as possible because that is the way learning dance and coping with school has taught me to be from a very young age. Besides discipline, years of learning and performing has also made me resilient and strong-willed. As is clear from what I have already shared, Bharathanatyam is not an art that can be easily mastered. A lot of effort and dedication is needed to master and perfect an art like Bharathanatyam. Even with effort and hard work, there are instances when an adavu or a dance sequence seems impossible to learn and execute. I experienced this when I was transitioning from an intermediate dancer to a professional dancer.
This was when many of the dances I had to do required not just sophisticated adavus strung together one after another, but also abhinaya, which are facial expressions that help to convey a story, mood or the idea of a dance. This proved very difficult for me when I first started trying to learn it. The adavus were very complex and had to be executed at a very fast speed, and I was just too shy to do the abhinaya. I was frustrated because despite trying and practicing, I still wasn’t as good as I wanted myself to be. However, the discipline that I had already cultivated guided me in practicing relentlessly. I would stay back after my scheduled dance classes to ask my senior dancers for help and advice. I used to sit in front of a mirror at home and practice my facial expressions to check if I was emoting a particular expression appropriately. I even watched legends dancing and tried to learn specific techniques from them. My friends used to call me crazy and said that I was obsessed with dance. But my resolve to somehow master the more difficult adavus and emote expressions beautifully drove me to keep trying.
Eventually, after persevering tirelessly, I gradually began being able to dance as beautifully and effortlessly as I wanted to. I began executing my adavus with the kind of precision I had always wanted and people who saw me dancing on stage came up to me to tell me that I was a beautiful dancer. These experiences taught me to be resilient as I realized that hard work and perseverance always eventually paid off. This realization is the key that led me to becoming confident. I say this because realizing that resilience was the key to achieving my goals in dance, made me unconsciously develop the mindset that as long as I put my mind to a task at hand, worked hard and gave it my best, I would definitely be able to achieve my goals and complete the task, however much of a challenge it proved itself to be. Besides this, I also owe the confidence that I have today to my countless dance performances. For many, getting up on a stage and facing hundreds, if not thousands of people would be a nightmare. However this is not the case for me.
Dance made me fall in love with the stage and I can quite honestly say that today, the one place where I feel like I truly belong is the stage. Surely as a child, dancing on stage for a crowd seemed daunting. But the truth is that as I began performing at many events, I began falling in love with the stage. This is because dancing on stage, and having people congratulate me on my performances, made me realize that people enjoyed and appreciated what I did. It made me feel confident. It made me realize that I was indeed good at what I did. An experience that made an indelible mark on me was a performance that I did when I was about 15 years old. I performed for the Singapore Youth festival, a dance competition that all local schools in Singapore compete in. For this performance, we did an Indian folk item that involved the ‘karagam’, a traditional Indian headgear that is elaborately decorated and that is also quite heavy.
We had these ‘karagams’ fixed on our heads for the length of the performance. However, during the performance, my karagam unfortunately came undone. It started tilting to one side and I could feel it as I was dancing. Any inexperienced dancer who didn’t have enough stage presence would have stopped dancing to handle the karagam. But my experience on stage made me quite instinctually hold the karagam with my right hand, while I continued executing the dance movements with just my left hand. I managed all of this with a smile on my face although I was extremely scared and upset that something so unfortunate had happened. When I got off stage, my dance teacher and friends came running to me to tell me how professionally and confidently I had handled the situation and how proud they were of me.
This was one of the experiences that made me realize the kind of confidence that dance had instilled in me. Today, I apply this confidence and resilience in all other aspects of my life. When I am faced with a challenge, I rise up to it and give it my all even if I am nervous or anxious. Dance may have given me discipline, resilience and confidence, but there is one other priceless gift that dance has bestowed upon me and that is compassion. When dancing, in many instances, I have had to re-enact war scenes and love scenes through my dance repertoire. These dance items require me to feel and understand what the characters in the story would have actually felt. I have to understand these characters and analyze them in great depth; why they feel the way they do and what drives them to behave in the way they do. Such deep analysis and understanding of the character I represent is necessary before I can myself become the character; emoting and eventually embodying the character through my movements and facial expressions.
This has very slowly allowed me to bloom into the compassionate person I am today, because it naturally inculcated the nature of wanting to understand the circumstances, emotions and sufferings of those around me. Stage performances have also undoubtedly helped in feeding my compassionate nature by allowing me to connect with others through the art of dance. About two years ago, I did a solo dance item about a mother who loses her five year old son to war in ancient India. While I danced this item, I actually cried on stage, because I put myself in the shoes of a mother who finds her son dead with an arrow pierced through his chest. At the end of the performance, there were so many women who came up to me to tell me what a beautiful and soulful dancer I was and how they could relate to my performance in a profound way. These experiences I have had through my stage performances have made me realize the beauty of art.
They made me realize that dance gives me the power to connect with complete strangers. I did not need words or speeches. All I needed was my passion for dance and the ability to truly feel and emote whatever I felt through dance. And by teaching me to understand the emotions of others and connect with them, dance has taught me to feel deeply and stay compassionate. It is clear that dance has without a doubt made me a stronger person. I would not be who I am today if not for dance. It is quite clearly the one thing that I see as my identity. I am a dancer. Although many might feel that an art form like Bharathanatyam serves no practical purpose in the 21st century with respect to the fact that it is time consuming and cannot possibly earn one a hefty paycheck, I will still never regret learning Bharathanatyam or the time and effort I put in mastering it.
I say this because dance is not just a hobby for me, it is a way of life. It isn’t something that I want to do; it is something that I have to do. The emotions that I experience every time I lose myself to a piece of music are both beautiful and intimate. Dance has always given me the freedom to artistically express myself. It has been the one thing that has stood by me through all the ups and downs in my life, serving as a healthy outlet that allows me to express myself, be it frustration, anger, sadness, or happiness. Dance has molded me into the person I am today; someone who believes in herself and her capabilities, someone who drives herself towards excellence in each and every one of her endeavours. I attribute all of my successes to dance as it always gives me the strength to keep moving forward, and to keep fighting for my dreams till they come true.