Natya- More than the sum of it's parts!
-Smt. Gayatri Subramanian
In photo: Gayatri teacher with her Gurus Shri. G.V Ramani and Smt. Ranganayaki Ramani
Natyam is a sadhana that can take you to the ultimate state of bliss. The journey that one traverses to attain this bliss is precious. The beginning of natyam for most of us has been when we were taken by our parent to the class. The objective usually was to keep us engaged, or encourage a hobby, or to help us be more graceful. This is then followed by numerous years of practice—of adavus, technique, and style.
The few who pursue natyam—not just a hobby—know that it demands a certain level of strength, of the body and the mind. Hence the incorporation of yoga, core strengthening, and conditioning exercises is not only ideal but also essential for a holistic experience.
This month we touch upon this crucial topic as we hear from someone who is a path-breaker in this area.
Physical Conditioning for Dancers
- Smt. Bijayini Satpathy
“What you practice is what you can do. There is no one all-round exercise that prepares you for everything else…” — wrote Irene Dowd in Taking Root to Fly — a compilation of her articles on Functional Anatomy.
The two sentences above clarify that the dancing body needs appropriate and multi-disciplinary methods of preparation in order to be optimally responsive to the demands of a dance form. The vocabulary of a dance form is as much about external shapes, as internal and anatomical mechanism. Therefore, by simply learning a dance form, one naturally develops a certain level of endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance.
This happens in a healthy way if the learner is young and physical growth takes place along with learning of a dance form. It is a reverse process and the development is one dimensional, specific to the kinesthetic mechanics of the particular dance form if the dancer starts at an adult age.
But mostly,the learning is forced on a body that has built many habits, some of which may be generally unhealthy or specifically limiting to the demands of the form. Without an appropriate strategy to undo these learnt habits and reflexes, and develop healthy and efficient ones, the dancer tends to perform ineffectively and develops pain and injuries — both situational and chronic.
Demands of the Classical Dances - Form:
To a viewer, our classical dances are amazingly beautiful and exquisitely aesthetic. And then there is the element of Rasa — emotional and sensual experience of the inner core or the soul, for both the performer and the audience. For such an experience to be evoked, the body needs fluidity and ease to move with complete freedom. Our dance movements flow from one aesthetic shape to another with a sense of effortlessness, while also being precise, complex, unique, and extraordinary in inner mechanics.
I am fascinated by trees and their shapes and form. They constantly remind me of our bodies — rooted deep in the earth with a steady trunk and elaborate designs in the extensions of branches. Without providing the tree its daily sustenance and nutrients, trimming the branches into beautiful shapes is a pointless exercise.
Therefore, in a profession or hobby as dance, where the body is the primary instrument, it is important to address what is the wholesome health of the body which is ready for high performance skills, and what is the level of efficiency in the core kinesthetics of a specific form. Simultaneous work on these, as one learns and practices the vocabulary of a dance style, results in healthy form in body and mind.
A healthy body breathes freely and openly. Without an awareness and the practice of breath, complex physical contortions can cause the breath to be caught, stuck, unnatural, and unhealthy. It is important that dancers be aware of their breathing — the pattern, limitations and challenges — and learn to overcome these, so that it flows naturally.
Heightened awareness of breath in relation to movements and muscular function can even be an enhancing factor for the quality of the movement, both in narrative and non-narrative dancing.
Alignment and Equilibrium:
As we grow, we all develop a varied sense and understanding of erectness or straightness of our body. The body is resilient, and compensates and negotiates impacts and limitations in its own way, to provide the best functional form or posture. Compensatory actions and postures can develop into permanent misalignment and even damage. An aligned body is a body in equilibrium, with a certain readiness that is governed by our will.
I often ask my students, “Do you want to move your body or let your body determine your movement?” The latter can be an interesting improvisational exercise in a creative phase. But the precision of form that is demanded of our classical dances has to be executed with will, confidence, and ownership.
A lot goes wrong in the body with simple lack of alignment. Hypo(under) and hyper(over) conditions in strength and flexibility in muscles develop as the body negotiates the mis-alignments and insidiously unhealthy habits gain permanence in the body.
A neutral/centered position is a position of equilibrium. It is the most efficient and potent position, ready to initiate any simple or complex movement requiring no extra or unnecessary muscular or skeletal effort. Therefore, it is important to experience this state of equilibrium which is an intelligent, healthy, and economic anatomical and kinesthetic mechanism of the body.
Imbalance and Balance:
Are we balanced between right and left? Most of the time, we favour one side to the other. Do we have balanced proportions of strength and flexibility? Are our joints and supporting muscle functions in balance with each other?
How do we negotiate challenging postures? A healthy practice of dance exists only when one works with the awareness of the balance within the body.
This awareness allows for an acceptance of our limitations, and helps to release our frustrations, and the resulting lack of confidence. Being aware puts us in a position of acknowledgement, from where an effort towards repair can begin. We may not become equally strong or flexible on both sides of the body, but we can certainly develop better balance between sides. A little time to become aware of the inner mechanics of positioning and alignment of our muscles and joints can provide us with significant direction, that can guide us into finding improved balance of all kinds.
A runner is strong, as is a fisherman or a wrestler. What is the kind of strength a classical Indian dancer requires to be efficient, fluid, and consistent in the refined technique of performance? This strength, if identified, understood, and developed proportionately in relation to specific muscles and joints, can be very helpful. Focusing on developing such strength in appropriate measure can allow the mind to focus on and hone dance nuances that make dancing the “beyond body” experience to which we aspire.
Many Indian dancers lack the awareness of core strength, and the awareness of the centre in the pelvis, from where all movements emerge and develop in varied directions.
Lack of strength in the core group of muscles makes the joints equally unstable. The body compensates for such weakness and instability with an over-adaptation of certain muscles in order to achieve the demands of particular forms and shapes
We tend to think of flexibility as a virtue. While some amount of flexibility is needed for dance, hyper-extension (over-flexibility) in certain joints and an over-stretch of muscles can be harmful for most people, and especially for dancers. One example is the over-use of the lower back, often seen in dancers. A flexible lumbar region can facilitate a lot of postural demands of a dance form, but is unhealthy and can cause chronic pain and injury.
Over-stretched muscles can be thought of as an elastic band; when overstretched repeatedly, it loses its efficiency and use. Therefore, it is extremely important to develop flexibility in a strong and balanced measure.
Dancers bodies are required to endure for longer periods, as with marathon runners. However, unlike marathon runners, a dancer’s demands of the body is not the repetition of a simple motion, but a constant shift between complex postures, not in short spurts, but for longer durations.
Injury, Fatigue and Pain
Adrenaline frees usual physical limitations caused by atrophy, nutrition deficiency, injury, and inadequate training and preparation. Most of the time, physical therapists are at a loss of an understanding of a dancer’s body, in order to determine the cause of a condition, because no rules of limitation per condition apply in a performance situation. Mental will and a state of high powered motivation makes a performer unaware of the physical limitations and ignore and forget the pain. As a result, what it does to the injured part, is further damage.
Our lifestyle is not what a dancer’s daily life activities used to be in olden days, which facilitated a certain level of toning of the muscles and movement of the joints. The demands of the dance have also become increasingly high on the body. Therefore, all of the above prompt for conscious and serious attention on the preparation and conditioning of the body appropriately enough before training in a certain skill of a particular dance form. To master a simple movement and make it fluid we practice it all our lives, for several hours, days, and months. It is equally important to build a consistent routine into our practice schedule with focus on the inner mechanics to sort out limitations and to build healthy and strong habits.
A healthy conditioning programme must include everyday preparation:- warm-up, pre-performance preparation, and a post-performance warmdown routine. This is as much the responsibility of the teacher as the student and performer.
I believe in, and have created, a comprehensive routine of conditioning, based on various techniques that prepare the body best; suited for all Indian classical forms that are foot heavy and use a turned out squatting position of the hip. This programme draws from the anatomical intelligence of Natyashastra movement pedagogy, Yoga, Kalaripayattu martial art, traditional exercises used in Orissa Akhada or gyms used for Gotipua dancers, western techniques like ballet basics, contemporary exercises and Pilates, understanding of anatomy, physical therapy exercises and use of exercise equipment, and post-performance warmdown stretching techniques. Each day of the week is a different routine which prepares the body in a wholesome all-round manner.
Dancers are the hardest and most unforgiving critics of themselves. Knowing one’s own body generally and vis-a-vis one’s dance form develops a much needed quality of forgiveness and compassion towards ourselves. Instead of getting exhausted, frustrated, and being in constant pain, we can make efficient economic use of our time, and make our practice healthy. Time is of the utmost essence after all, so we can reach a place where all the awareness and work can be left behind in the classroom, and we can arrive on stage with ethereal qualities, and not the mundane mechanics of the body. A lot of ability is in the mind and not in the body. An able mind is a result of an aware body with little but consistent and intelligent preparation. We can transform conservative ideas, myths and taboos around the body and its conditioning into what will serve us to be better dancers and performers.