Age is a state of mind

Too shy to dance? Pay a visit to this unique dance school, which encourages middle-aged women to re-energise their life in the best way possible, says Chandrika R Krishnan

Lakshmi Ravishankar, 57, danced for the first time after 41 long years. She could not do the ‘Moozhumandi’ (the full sitting posture); her animation though more than made up for this age-related inability. “I never thought I would ever get a chance to dance again,” she gushed, panting out the words in between her first dancing session at Athma Laya where she is learning anew under the tutelage of a much-younger Santhoshika. Still in her twenties, Santhoshika  has a penchant for wordplay and pipes up: “When your dreams translate into determination, nothing is difficult.”

Evidently, Athma Laya is not your run-of-the-mill dance school. With a rather apt tagline ‘inner harmony’, the dance school operates on a belief that there is no shelf life to dance and it is possible to re-ignite your passion, your age notwithstanding. The students of Athma Laya, true to Maya Angelou’s words, seem to be living their life not measured by the number of breaths one takes but by the moments that take one’s breath away. This rang especially true during their annual stage performance ‘Dance Hour Nite’ that was held recently. 

Mala Bharath, the founder of Athma Laya, quit her corporate career to set up her first branch in 1998. She was inspired to do something related to dance as it had given her a lot of happiness and capitalized on the latent desire in a lot of middle-aged women to energise their life. 

Age ain’t a number

Twenty years into the journey, they have 13 centres in Chennai and one in Hyderabad and have opened their second branch in Bangalore. Bharath believes that the 175 dancers at Athma Laya don’t just spout the quote, ‘age is just a number’ -- they actually believe in it. By organically removing the stigma of age, the dance school has managed to make a positive difference to many women and their families. Did Mala ever envisage this sort of growth?

“Not really,” she says. “Back then, Chennai was more conservative. But over the years, women are trying to wrest some space for themselves and families too have become supporting. The weekly dance hour is an undiluted ‘me time’ to women who have the passion, irrespective of their age or experience.”

Research has found that dancing improves strength and muscle function in older adults. It also increases their sense of balance and improves flexibility. Dancing can better cardiovascular health and take care of an individual’s overall emotional well-being. The shared joy and camaraderie ensures the release of the happy hormone dopamine and thus ward of depressive tendencies. 

The stories are many and each one of them fascinating in their own way. Take for instance Rajini Nair who is a little shy of 50. She has the unique distinction of having her peer in her octogenarian mother who is also an Athmalayan in Chennai while Rajini is a student in Bangalore. An avid marathoner, she finds the whole experience at Athma Laya a great confidence booster. Nair finds an ally in her 97-year-old father-in-law who encourages her to run, dance and do all that her heart desires.

Salini Saratchandra, 54, joined in 2014 and is a mother of three boys, their ages ranging between 19 and 31. “My sessions at Athma Laya make me feel physically and mentally good and I am enjoying the whole process immensely. My children share my pictures on their Instagram account and my would-be daughter-in-law was one among the very appreciative audience at a recent recital,” she says with a glint of achievement in her eyes.

Bharath feels enthused when she sees a whole lot of women bond beautifully to make this journey beautiful. “They are ageing gracefully doing what they love best.” Subhashini Komeshwawaran, 51, a mother of three daughters, joined Athma Laya in 2015 to beat the empty nest syndrome. “Four years hence, everything revolves around the class. Whenever I feel low, I play the song and dance.”

She among many others have found a way to beat the blues, learn or re-visit dance and bond over anklets. Bharath’s predominant aim is to see a lot of happy smiles from her students. 

Rekindling dreams after marriage

She feels that the journey itself has been an evolution. “We focus on not just the steps or the physical aspect of dance but also the emotional balance which is taken care of through expressions and focus on meditation for clarity of thought. For many, it is a sort of dream come true.

For most of these women, dancing was not an option in their younger days. Either they had to quit after reaching certain age or marriage put an end to their dreams. Some couldn’t because of limited resources.

Priya Raghavendra, a teacher in Bangalore centre reiterates, “The beauty of this concept is the fact that you can start small -- take baby steps if you please. There are no restrictions on when you can join; whenever you do, you will be assimilated into the group as the sessions follow a ‘song-based dance’. Every month, Mala sends a recording to all the teachers and we teach the same steps so that everyone is on the same page. At the end of the month, we send the video to the students so that they continue their practice sessions during the week.”

Carl Bard once said, “no one can go back and make a brand new start; anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.” And make your anklets sing, Athmalayans would add!

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