Leaping to Earth
Bharata Natyam dancers look not to the skies but to the self

by Judy Margo

I have friends who talk at great length about abstract airy things that they have come to believe in, or that they have disproved for themselves. While they talk, I often look up into the air over their heads to find the elusive subject of their eloquent monologues. As much as I look up, however, to where I think the action in their heads is, I never can quite see what they see. "Hmmm," I nod, feeling somewhat obtuse. "That was a lovely collection of words." The thing is, I don't really think that I am stupid. I've come to the conclusion, instead, that, when I look for answers -- or even when I'm simply looking -- I look down and to the sides more than I look up. I don't focus much on intangible chunks of air. I go for solid, earthbound realities.

I think it's interesting, then, that when I chose a dance form to study, I found I was drawn to Bharata Natyam, an ancient classical dance form from Southern India. At a very basic level, Bharata Natyam is a storytelling dance form, inextricably linked to religious devotion to Shiva and his cohorts. It is thought to embody the activities of the gods, and is one of the oldest known dance forms. It is performed primarily by solo dancers. Through my study of Bharata Natyam, I have derived a sense of self that I believe is now part and parcel to who I am as a whole person -- and not just as a dance student on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As ballet is the "classical" dance form of the West, Bharata Natyam is a classical dance form of the East. And while there are certain similarities between Bharata Natyam and ballet, they are also profoundly -- philosophically -- different. The major difference emerges in the Eastern vs. the Western dancer's object of focus. The focus of Western dance, typically, is out and upward, perhaps reaching to the proverbial heavens.

Bharata Natyam, being an Eastern discipline, has a much more concrete, earthbound focus. The dancer is required to follow strict patterns with the eyes, often focusing on her own hand movements, on the space immediately in front and to the sides of her body, or sometimes, on the musicians. There is often a side to side glance, in which the imagined focus is Shiva on one side and Radha on the other.

Additionally, the dancer is required to lean towards the ground when dancing (for this is what signifies that the performance has begun). This forward-leaning stance originates in part from the small rooms in which the dancers originally performed, as well as from the worshipping aspect of the dance; the dancers often focused their bodily attention on icons of the Lord Shiva as they danced. The effect of the precise eye and hand movements, in concert with the angle the dancer maintains in relation to the floor, is quite dramatic and unusual to the Western eye.

Having studied Bharata Natyam for a little over two years, I am by no means an expert. Students of this form are students for life, as is true of many disciplines. However, the movements of this form have most definitely become part of my day-to-day physical being, as well as my spiritual and philosophical selves. During class we are constantly reminded to lean forward more, to sink deeper into our pliés, and to remember our sense of balance and focus. The ideal is for the dancer's center, their torso, to appear motionless while their limbs are performing tasks both simple and complex.

Many of the adevus (the basic dance units) we do start from a plié position. These movements can be seen in sculptures from ancient Indian temples, in which the dancers bend their limbs in ways not genuinely possible for the human anatomy. These images portray the body in an exaggerated way, such that the distance between the inside of the two bent knees should be equal to the distance from the bellybutton to the chin. It's not a very easy stance to maintain for long, particularly when you add complex arm movements to it.

When I'm standing around with friends, I often find myself leaning into that forward stance, with my hands flat against my back (the resting position in class). I believe that this constant physical reminder of balance centered around the base of my spine has had a powerful effect on me. I enjoy the feeling of standing firm on the ground, my feet and legs forming a solid base.

I've always been one who pays great attention to political meanings behind body language, in addition to spoken and written language, and there is something very powerful for me in stomping my feet and making broad, precise gestures with my hands. Ironically, while Bharata Natyam is a physical embodiment of the activities of the gods, it serves to remind me of how earthbound I am. As my body leans and sinks into its movements, my mind picks up on its downward, groundward orientation. This has heightened my sense of spirituality based in the everyday. I am enjoying a heightened awareness of my own sense-making of the world, and of the connectedness of my intellect and my physical actions. For me, that's the beauty of Bharata Natyam: not what it looks like, but how it makes me see.

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