Every child can dance

 Getting girls from economically-backward classes into classrooms may still be a mighty challenge. But getting them to join a free dance class after school is a breeze, writes Jisha Krishnan.

Nobody wants to become an engineer or a doctor. The girls have more ambitious plans. Huddled together on a happy Saturday afternoon after school, the adolescents are trying hard to perfect the aramandi (half-sitting position). Many lose balance in a couple of taiya taiyis, others are slouching, but the attempts continue in earnest.  

“Your posture must be like that of a kalasa,” says Padmaja Suresh, in Kannada, to the 50-odd girls at BBMP Girls High School at Srirampuram, Bangalore. The ‘vase posture’ is not that easy to achieve; it takes patience and practice. And there’s no short supply of either here.

Latashri, a ninth standard student, confesses that she has had “a crush on Bharatnatyam” ever since she watched a performance on television. So, when she heard of the Bharatnatyam class starting in school last month, there was no way she was going to miss the opportunity. The fact that the classes were free of cost meant that her parents wouldn’t object. The aspiring dancer has attended four classes till date, and she loves every bit of it.

Padmaja, a renowned Bharatnatyam dancer and teacher, started ‘Kalachaitanya’ about a decade ago in six government schools in Bangalore. “We shifted from the government schools to our dance school for specialised training by 2009. One of our students, Vidya Vaishnavi’s arangetram - who is now a teacher - marked the end of the first phase, and this August 15 we began with the next phase in seven government schools,” explains Padmaja.

This time, the project is blessed with a grant from the Ministry of Culture. More than the money - about three lakh rupees per annum – it’s the recognition, says the artist, which matters. “All children are equal and each child is unique. Art gives one the opportunity to express this uniqueness,” she says.

A platform for such expressions is rare, especially for girls from economically-backward homes. The norm is to marry them off at an early age, or enroll them in some embroidery class (it can help contribute  to the family purse soon), or then, get them on some menial job close to home. A dance class doesn’t really figure in the scheme of things.

Sushma, an eighth standard student, never even dreamt of stepping into a dance class. And here she is, trying to get the anjali mudra right. She practises at home too, as her mother and elder sister watch proudly. Occasionally, her father, an auto driver, also applauds, says the teenager.

Bhavani, Sushma’s classmate, says she has decided to become a dancer. Her dad, who works in a medical factory, doesn’t know of her plans yet. But her homemaker mom is in the know. “I want to perform on stage,” she says, smiling. 

The opportunity is likely to knock on her doors soon, if she makes it to the dance group that’ll perform at this year’s annual day function at school. A couple of years ago, 25 of Padmaja’s students had performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, in Delhi. “I was determined to prove to my detractors and reluctant sponsors that even ‘such’ children can do justice to the specialised art form,” she says.

For someone who has taught dance to the orphaned children in Leh and tribal kids in Raipur, with the same zeal as she tutors chauffer-driven students and autistic dance enthusiasts in the city, Padmaja believes that dance is a great equaliser. In her PhD thesis and book, she explores the two-faceted reality of dance – tantra, the science and natya, the art. 

“Irrespective of where you come from, dance makes you forget your body and come out of your inhibitions. It’s a gateway to go within. More than an adrenaline rush, it’s purification from within, what some refer to as chakra healing...Sure, Bharatnatyam is regimented, army-like training, where focus is imperative. But the beauty is that it’s intense, yet light at the same time. When you dance, you are really in another world. It can heal us all,” she maintains.

Dr Aarti Jagannathan, a mental health professional and one of the dance teachers with Kalachaitanya, couldn’t agree more. Dance helps her maintain her sanity, it’s her meditation, she says. Sharing her knowledge with these little girls is a great way not only to keep the dance alive, but also to  spread the joy.

Inundated as we are with Bollywood dance classes promising everything from instant weight-loss to a chance to win reality shows on TV, the classical dances no longer top the popularity charts in Indian households. Or so we think. Ask girls like Latashri, Sushma and Bhavani, who can’t thank their stars enough for this God-sent opportunity. They aren’t lured by glamour, but grace. 

If one dance exponent – along with the able support of seven teachers – can offer this ray of hope to over 500 less-fortunate girls (also a few boys, who have opted for the classes at some schools), imagine what can be achieved if more enthusiastic supporters join in?

Exponents of Kathak and Mohiniattam have already joined the project. And if everything goes as per plan, soon martial arts and yoga experts will also be onboard. The idea is to offer these children a chance to live life, beyong the daily realities of drunkard dads, miniscule meals and cash-crunched childhood.

If a project like this can be successful in a handful of schools in Bangalore, it can, perhaps, also be replicated in other schools across the country. What’ll it achieve? Nothing fancy, maybe. Just a reason for many more children to go to school, to smile, to dare to dream…

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