I was still in school when I quit my dance class. I had been going for more than 5 years and was one of my teacher’s favorites when I called it a day. I don’t think she quite forgave me when I quit. Mrs. De and her husband, typical Probashi Bengalis, ran a small dance school. I was introduced to it in primary school, where Mrs. De would conduct Bharatanatyam classes for young children. Soon after I joined, she suggested that she’d rather have me in the smaller, more focused class that she conducted at home because I seemed to be picking up fast enough. This worked perfectly because we discovered that she lived in our neighborhood, just across the main road.
Special classes meant special treatment. On Sunday mornings, when our small batch of students traded Doordarshan (I am that old, yes) for intensive dance sessions, we were rewarded by Mrs. De with a little treat of Bourbon biscuits in the break. We were small enough to look forward to this treat. Those were simpler times. In the years I studied under her, I performed on stage—traditional Bharatanatyam compositions, folk dances, and more. My rabbit costume for a Panchatantra presentation has gone down in family history as perhaps, the most hilarious of all but I recall it fondly—stuffy sponge masks and net tutus and green room laughter—all of it. Whether it was performing at one of Mumbai’s largest and most elite auditoriums or leading the group at a small dance presentation in school, I found what I now know as “Rasa.” I took exams—wrote down beats meticulously, practiced my steps physically and mentally—and quite enjoyed that phase of my life.
Rhythm has always been my catharsis, my therapy. I’m one of those people who lose sleep if they listen to music in bed. I start tapping and swaying in my head, internalizing the soul of the piece and surrendering to it. Rhythm does not lull me. It gives me life. It gives me hope. It gives me a reason to look out the window.
Then why did I quit all those years ago? A combination of teenage rebellion and physical issues, I guess. Somewhere down the line, I was made to go to Taekwondo classes with my brother because self-defense suddenly seemed like something everyone should know. I hated it. I groaned every time I went. I hated the mindless shouting, the punching and kicking in the air. I hated the teachers. I hated that one had to do an ungraceful split of the legs and if it wasn’t good enough, the teacher would come in from behind and kick at your foot from inside, sideways so you stretched further. There was nothing gentle, nothing kind, nothing graceful, nothing expressive about this activity. But almost all the kids in the neighborhood were going, and so was I. Until I finally protested and quit.
By then, the damage had been done by then. My dance teacher started noticing that the self defense classes were messing with my stance and she felt I was becoming too stiff. I wonder if it was her anger at watching a good student lose her talent or her inherent impatient nature, but I began getting reprimanded for ungraceful movements and one day, when she hit me in the calf with a 30 centimeter wooden ruler, I invoked all my teenage hormones and vowed never to go back to dance class. I cried silent tears in bed and felt my ears burn with the embarrassment of going from the top of the class to the bottom. Finally, my mother gave up and informed the teacher that I would not be coming anymore. And just like that, a very integral part of me died. I wouldn’t dance in any performance in school again. I chopped off my hitherto virgin hair—hair so long, I could sit on it. I gained weight from lack of activity and as time went on, got caught in the demands of mainstream education and then, with work. Somewhere in my work life, I met with an accident that messed up my spine—I couldn’t use my right hand effectively for a few months to do even everyday tasks and when the neurosurgeon said I should learn to use my other hand to write and brush my teeth, I almost broke and all chances of going back to any kind of dance form died there. Months of therapy later, I was able to find my confidence again and I busied myself with a job that I loved.
I met and married MK soon after. In the quiet of my then sparse home, I reflected a bit and realized that a content emotional relationship made one feel graceful and in unison with a deeper sense of self. I saw a board for a Bharatanatyam class in a local community center and went one day. The teacher was quite dismissive and apprehensive of my capabilities of going back to dance, so I cowered and came home quietly. For years thereafter, I just stayed away from the very idea of dance.
Years passed. Avanee came along and in her, I found the grace and brightness of a natural dancer. I wondered if she would like to pursue dance and asked my cousin, a competent dance teacher herself, if she knew of anyone in my city who taught Bharatanatyam. In Dr. Pallavi, Avanee found a loving, encouraging, and dedicated teacher. One who would weave stories in basic hand movements and use dance as window to the world. I would hide behind doors and in little corners in the passage and watch the children dance. I would watch Avanee keep up with the beat. I would see her trying to emote. I would see her giggle as she missed a beat in “Dhrut”, a faster speed. I longed, once again, to be in class. I longed to surrender myself to rhythm. But a voice held me back. Don’t ruin her experience, it said.
Months of approach-avoidance later, I asked Dr.Pallavi if she ran another batch for oldies like me but she was fully booked. She recommended me to Anuja, a senior student of hers who was about to start classes of her own in another location. I spent another couple of days wondering if I should even bother to talk to Anuja. Finally one day, I mustered up the courage and sent her a text asking if she’d take a fat old woman like me. “Why not?” she replied. We started on Dassera. I was her first student. We were both nervous—nervous and happy. We did a small puja invoking Nataraja, the god of dance, and popped a pedha in celebration. The studio owner wished us both luck in a motherly “Do well!” and we set off. Anuja is at least ten years younger than I am but as a guru, she fits the part. She is patient, encouraging, and understands the psyche and physical capabilities of her student. Rusty from years of not dancing and not being in the best physical shape has slowed my movements but she’s always sure to tell me that I still have my stance. There are no wall to wall mirrors in this studio to make me conscious of how terribly I am doing but Anuja reassures me that the situation is not nearly as bad I make it seem. We are making steady progress.
It has been slightly over a week since I went back to Bharatanatyam but at a point in time when I am struggling to make sense of things in the routine juggle of being mum-wife-entrepreneur, that one hour a couple of times a week comes as therapy. It comes as physical exercise. It makes for a good hobby. It calms me. But more importantly, it gives me, me—it helps me focus on other aspects of my life, it gives me a joy that I cant get elsewhere. It reassures me that I am a woman capable of grace and emotion despite having birthed three children. I come back sweaty and heavy-legged after every class, but as I sit with MK on the katta below our building and sip on cutting chai from the neighboring chai shop, I feel a sense of accomplishment.
Mrs. De, thank you for making sure that the dancer in me never died. I won’t let you down this time.