“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” -Samuel Beckett
I love to plan, discuss, analyze, plan some more and over-analyze every decision. I enjoy neat to do lists, orderly plans and mathematically sound, rational decisions. When I first read this quote, I was skeptical, wondering how anyone doesn’t think while performing.
About eleven years ago, I began my journey as a dancer. For years to follow, I did not understand what bharathanatyam, an ancient Indian classical dance form, offers; I assumed an arangetram (a solo graduation) is the end of a dancer's journey. Frankly, I practiced little outside of my 45 minute weekly class because dance was merely another chore, one at the very bottom of a never-ending to do list.
As time passed, we learned complex dances with quick footwork; many of my fellow students were even quicker to leave. There were moments when I was ready to quit, frustrated with the inability to understand the rhythm or portray a specific emotion. Retrospectively, I’m glad my parents encouraged me to continue and my teacher Smt. Madhusri Sethuraman didn’t give up on me even after I had given up on myself.
As a younger girl I went to productions of older students without knowing their full value, without appreciating the rich and unique beauty that each dancer brings to his/her performance. Yet, I continued consistently attending classes and programs, following through on a commitment I wasn’t even sure I had made.
I gradually traded in boredom for inspiration; I felt the urge, a desire to perform myself. I knew what I wanted to get out of dance, but wasn’t ready to put my all into it.
This is when my parents informed me that an arangetram is no longer a distant dream, but a tangible possibility. I jumped at the opportunity, not knowing the full depth of what I was getting myself into.
During this year of preparation I learned that it is not enough to understand the gist of the stories or merely act like the characters. I had to become the characters, portray abhinaya (emotions) with nuances I have even experienced in my 16 short years of life.
I learned it is not enough to watch videos or just run through steps in my mind; dance (much like math in fact!) isn’t a spectator sport, it can only be learned through immersion. I had to dedicated myself fully - body and soul - to each and every step to ensure the technique was graceful and clean.
I was frustrated that I understood the rhythms in theory, but couldn’t execute it in action: I counted, I clapped, I stomped, I used a metronome, I listened, I sang, I cried, I laughed...until finally there came a time I did.
As I increased not only the time spent practicing but the effort put into perfecting the practice, I realized it is possible to dance unconditionally, even subconsciously. In the middle of hundreds of temple performances and productions I attended as viewer and performer alike, thousands of hours of practices, and millions of critiques (some harsher than others!), I learned to love dance.
This past year, I developed a new sense of self-confidence as a grew closer to the people around me, my parents, my guru (teacher) and my dance friends who became family. From weekly classes, to temple performances, to photoshoots, to daily classes, Bharatanatyam has become ingrained into my identity.
Dance was never my love at first sight, but it was something much better: a love that grew steadily over the years to something that I wholeheartedly embrace today. Just as people continue to learn new things even after graduating from formal schooling institution, a dancer must continue to set new goals and improve after their arangetram. I look forward to the many post arangetram classes, performances and improvements I will surely make.
Once I knew the dances inside and out, I could tell the stories backwards and forwards, and I was physically fit with the stamina for an approximately two hour long performance, I was ready to fight my final battle, one of emotional and mental strength. I needed to remain calm and clear headed, even during difficult, stressful moments.
Despite my best efforts, I forget steps. I lose count of the beat. I know I am utterly and completely lost right in the middle of a dance. Yet, I keep going.
Why? Because dance has taught me to live in the moment: I dance first and think later.