One of my favourite opportunities in Hyderabad has been learning the basics of Kuchipudi, a South Indian classical dance form. Coming from my own background in western dance, it was a completely new paradigm for me--- sometimes it felt like learning to walk all over again. We were drilled on technique, built up muscles we didn’t know we had, and completed our final showcase after five long hours getting into the proper costumes and makeup. While the technique may have been new to me, the process was not, as back in Canada I had gone through many a dance class and performance before.
However, what astonished me about dancing in Hyderabad is that I was never only dancing in class. Dance, both formal and informal, was integrated into the rest of life in ways I had never experienced before, from wholesome interactions in social dance to its role in local religious life. I am grateful that through dance I was welcomed into meaningful facets of strangers’ lives.
Back in Canada and America, I think that most of us tend to experience dance in two ways, either as a professional performance or out in parties and clubs. If you’re not someone who has committed to learning and performing dance, it’s probably not a big part of your life, and when you do dance with friends, it’s most likely in a low visibility place where you don’t have to worry about being seen. Dancing like nobody is watching can definitely help a lot of us to finally get out of our heads and enjoy the personal experience, but I’ve started to ask myself, why can’t all our dancing be seen? Why do we have to keep our unpolished, rhythmless joy contained for only ourselves?
In Hyderabad, I’ve had my fair share of ungraceful moments. From almost being hit by motorbikes to spilling my chai everywhere, there have been countless times I wished that no one saw me dance out of the way of screeching tires and burning beverages. This has not been aided by the fact that, because I look noticeably foreign, I tend to attract attention no matter what. Still, just like back home, no matter how many eyes are on you when you mess up, playing it off with confidence will always be the best course of action.
I got to apply this same mentality to dance in my first festival experience of my trip, Ganesh Chathurti. My CIEE advisor invited us over to her housing colony for their celebrations, where we dressed up, and joined hundreds of neighbours in a loud dancing procession of the Ganesh idol, on the way to being submerged in the lake. I didn't quite know how to dance to those kind of drums, and I didn't know if I'd be welcome to participate. But after dancing a bit too timidly, then dancing a bit too hard, I learned that nobody really cared, even though I was definitely being seen messing up and goofing around dancing. I’d never experienced a religious ceremony that involved bopping to the best of Bollywood beats down the street for hours but I would certainly recommend it now.
Everyone from kids to older women in the procession all had the same general approach to dancing as well. This entailed creating small circles with strangers, where someone introduces a move that gets copied, so that everyone can do the same dance and contribute to its development together before breaking off to form new groups of strangers in the procession. (Check out a bit of that at play at Ganesh Chathurti in the video!) Of course, this was a really enjoyable contrast to dancing with friends where you never want to be watched closely, nevertheless imitated for your relatively simple dance moves. This got to be more social, less introspective.
Of course, not everybody wants to dance with strangers paying attention to and copying your moves. For some people, it can be really stressful to focus on following someone else’s lead or to try to take it themself, so it could be really difficult to get out of one's head and just have a good time. I was glad to find that I didn’t need to copy new moves well in order to at least get the idea and still follow the same rhythm laughing with strangers. And it wasn’t just this festival! The same thing happened during Krishna Janmashtami, Navratri, and even when we went clubbing in Mumbai.
The gist of this social dance experience seemed to be a much more casual and accessible approach to dance. You don’t need to be an ordained professional to participate, wether the dancing is religious or secular. Of course, there are many other traditions in South Asia that are more restrictive and rigorous with their religious dance practices, and that certainly has its own advantages, so I don’t pretend to claim that this is a universally followed approach to dance.
Still, this idea of casual religiosity and artistic expression also applies to the more formal areas of dance, like Kuchipudi. As a part of my class, I got to see a few different dance performances around the city and within the university.
While I’m used to watching classical dance take place in silent, dark, highly polished auditoriums, it was remarkable to see these performances presented a significantly less rigid audience. People would filter in, filter out, take pictures, be chatting-- no problem. This was shocking to me, especially since most forms of Indian classical dance are explicitly religious practices, which involve years of training, ritual rites of passage, and a continuous adherence to the practice.
Maybe my view of religion as a silent, highly focused practice has been too narrow-- who’s to say that arts and religion have to occupy our full unadulterated attention in order to be affective? That’s certainly putting a lot of pressure on the performer, and it makes the audience members seem lifeless, silent, and rid of their everyday individuality. Besides, if religion is adopted as a lifestyle, it is not just relegated to certain spaces and contexts, but is casually integrated and present within everyday lives.
There is so much more for me to learn about dance in South Asia, but until I find an opportunity to come back and keep exploring, I will gratefully leave having learned not to care if I’m being watched while I dance, performance or not.