Cross-training gets its due in dance

Aswati Anand (left) in a still from belly dance production, The RaS Project, presented by Nrityakosh in April 2017.

They sit in their aramandis and also do a plié. They take their chakkars and also practice the pirouette. They sweat it out on the tharangam and also work on their arches and pointes. They strive for the perfect tribhangi and also the maya and figure of 8.

They keep their thillanas or thumris close to their heart while travelling from one end of the city to another, opening their minds and bodies to oriental dance, jazz, ballet or contemporary movement.

Dancers of today aren’t shying away from training in multiple forms, be it dance, fitness or martial arts. And it is more than just interest that drives them — cross-training, they say, makes them more ‘body aware’.

Keerthi Kumar, dancer, teacher and Head of Projects with Natya and STEM Dance Kampni, has been training in Kathak for around 14 years now. But he started his dance journey with Bharatanatyam as a five-year-old.

“I came to Natya to learn Kathak just out of curiosity, I wanted to try out another form. But my horizons were widened and I was also exposed to the Indian contemporary vocabulary here.”

While Kathak is his main style, he continues to practice Bharatanatyam and train in Indian contemporary dance as well as in martial art forms like Kalaripayattu, Thang-ta and Chau. 
“It’s not like you’re learning different forms. One form always supports the other. Your body awareness from a particular form adds to your senses when you start learning another.”

After four years of training in belly dancing, Aswati Anand joined contemporary dance classes to understand her body better and improve her alignments. “Contemporary develops your organic movement language. It is fun, it does not have a rigid sense of aesthetics and is largely about engagement with space and flow. But belly dancing is largely my focus,” says the therapeutic movement facilitator and senior student at Nrityakosh Dance Company.

Every dance form uses only a specific set of muscles and joints depending on its vocabulary. But consistent and long hours of practice can put immense strain on the body, leading to wear and tear and injuries, which sometimes can end careers. ‘Bharatanatyam dancers have bad knees’, it is said — and that’s a fact. It becomes necessary then for regular practitioners to take up activities that will strengthen their weaker or unused set of muscles and move their oft-used joints in a way that can counter long-term harm.

Cross-training, whether in a dance form, martial arts or fitness regimens like pilates, yoga, swimming, cycling, running or weight training can help build strength and stamina, improve balance and flexibility, refine body alignment and reduce injury. It not only helps boost overall health but also enhances a dancer’s technique.

It took almost a year for Priyanka Paul to notice a difference in her dance. After 14 years of learning Kathak, she took up jazz, ballet and contemporary, first as part of a diploma course in Kolkata and then at The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet in Bengaluru.  “The first six months were gruelling. I was like ‘What am I doing? What is happening?’ I was not able to do much because despite all my training in Kathak, a certain set of muscles had not worked before. So it took six months just to develop my muscles,” she says.

Many practitioners focus so much on preserving the dance form that they overlook the primary instrument essential to it: the body. A majority of dance schools continue to teach without the necessary precautions of safe dancing, which include warm-up, stretching, mobilising and cool down. While cross-training among athletes is fairly well-researched, it is only in the last decade or so that the concept has gained awareness and acceptance among dancers.

Unlike traditional gurus who immersed themselves in the practice and propagation of a single form, dance teachers today are willing to see the benefits that training in other complementary forms can add to the repertoire of their students.

“In classical training, most times they don’t teach enough about body awareness. My teacher offers such kind of training as she is trained in multiple forms herself. If every teacher does that, then a dance student doesn’t have to go elsewhere,” Aswati says.

But with increased exposure and access, there is also a need to understand where to draw the line. Some may train in far too many forms or in those that don’t add to their core vocabulary or dabble in two styles simultaneously resulting in a mish-mash.

“It takes years of practice to be able to do justice to one form. And the time you invest in it is also when you gain awareness of how not to mix up two forms. Your Kathak shouldn’t begin to look like Bharatanatyam the moment you start learning both. That comes with a lot of training and understanding of the art form itself,” says Keerthi.

Priyanka says the forms she took up did influence each other, “but it was Kathak that benefited more.” “For instance, the posture you begin with in Kathak and in ballet are the same. But learning how to stand in ballet with my spine erect taught me how to ‘stand’ for the first time in front of an audience for Kathak,” she says.

Aswati believes that approach to cross-training depends on the dancer, no matter what form. “Cross-training will interfere with learners who have trained in classical forms from a very young age and find it difficult to move out of that zone. But those are individual challenges and it’s on the dancer to combat it and retrain herself,” she says.

To her, it’s all about finding her personal movement language.

“My love for belly dancing and contemporary keeps changing depending on what my body wants... My goal is not mastery. Sometimes when people take up multiple forms, it’s to see if they enjoy it,” she adds.

For Priyanka, on the other hand, cross-training is a means to an end. “If I want to be a professional dancer, I have to be a master in one form. So you need to know what your goal is,” she says.

Ultimately, Keerthi feels, it’s in the body where all of the dancer’s knowledge exists. “The moment you start creating your own pieces, these forms invariably inform and influence you. So then it’s not just about body awareness and fitness, it goes beyond all that, in terms of choreography, understanding the piece and approaching the concept,” Keerthi says.

(The author is a dancer and a journalist)

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