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Divine Language of Dance

Shreya Narayanan is a 17-year-old Hillsborough High School senior who wants to go to NYU next year to study Broadcasting. But recently at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, she was the incarnation of Shiva – the Lord Nataraja, the Hindu God of Dance. From the moment she walks on stage, she commands our attention.

She wears a traditional Indian embroidered overskirt and pants. While her back is ramrod straight, her arms and legs extend in arcs, touching the invisible circle of the cosmos. Each movement of the fingers, palms, wrists, arms, legs, feet, neck and eyes is stylized. She looks directly at her audience during the entire dance. Her smile dazzles. These poses look oddly familiar. We’ve seen them before, on Hindu temple carvings. Shreya is using a very old language of dance to tell us a story about Krishna this afternoon.

The star dancer in “Dances of India,” Shreya is the daughter of Indian classical dance teacher Sheila Narayanan. Sheila’s dance studio, which is named Shreyas, performed a series of classical Indian dances at the Center
on November 2. The 14 dancers who performed ranged in age from 6 to 17. Sheila says that the similarity in names between her daughter and her dance studio reflects their connection. Shreya means auspicious, prosperous. Shreyas is the Sanskrit word for excellence. Sheila started her dance troupe when Shreya was 10, and her daughter has turned out to be one of her most gifted pupils.

Roots in religion

“Indian dance is more than 4,000 years old,” says Sheila. “Dance is the Fifth Veda, which advocates dance performance as a way to make religious teachings more understandable to the average person.” Like religious paintings in Medieval Europe, dance in India served an important function in religious education. Dances were originally performed only in temples. The movements form a highly structured language of gestures, resembling sign language in that both a gesture and its associated movement convey meaning.

The stories come from ancient and modern sources: the Puranas, the Bible, songs, myths and popular culture. The dance is the means by which stories are told. While the audience may not know the meaning of every gesture, skilled dancers can convey the events and emotional essence of any story. “Dancers are actors,” says Sheila. “Everything contributes — the costumes, colors, rhythms, music and makeup. The whole idea is to tell a story.”

The dancer is the dance Performed solo on a bare stage, each classical Indian dance is unique to a dancer. No two dancers will “tell” a story the same way, just as no two writers will write a story the same way. Sheila choreographs the dances for her students. “I start with the music, which may be contemporary or traditional,” says Sheila. “Each dance is different. It depends on the teacher and student. Every dance is choreographed for an individual student. I may know that one student can perform many more poses and make transitions more gracefully — I can incorporate that into the dance.”

In addition, the teacher must challenge the student’s abilities. “When I was 7, my mother asked me to dance a story of a woman with a baby,” Shreya remembers. “It was hard for me because I couldn’t relate to the mother’s feelings; I was too young to understand why you should be upset.” She now loves this dance, which was included in her November performance.

Dance styles vary in different areas of India, and this can also be a challenge. Dancers must learn the variations and then switch styles quickly. As an example, Shreya taps her bare foot on the floor. “Most dances slap the feet on the floor to make a rhythmic sound,” she says. “But some dances require you to dance silently. It can be hard to go from one to the other.”

Dance as meditation

The poses in Indian dance are similar to yoga. As part of its religious function, classical dance was itself considered to be meditation. Dancers must focus completely on gestures and movement; at the same time, they must channel the energy of the story outward to their audience.

“When you finish a dance, you feel fantastic,” says Sheila. “There is an aura around you.” She notes that Indian dance is increasingly being recognized as a healing technique. “After a performance, you feel phenomenal. It is an indescribable warmth.”

Teachers for life

Learning Indian dance takes a lifetime. Indian dancers typically stay with the same teacher for their entire lives. Sheila’s teacher was Padmini, a legendary Indian actress and dancer who opened a studio in New Jersey. Sheila started dancing with her at age 5. By age 13, she was teaching other students. Shreya has continued this tradition. She has been dancing under her mother’s tutelage since age 5. To prepare for teaching, at age 12 Shreya
undertook an arduous dance performance called the Arangetram. The dancer must practice for three hours a day for one year, then perform a three-hour solo program with a live orchestra in front of an audience of
peers. While it was a challenge, Shreya notes that it was all part of her development as a dancer. “No matter what else I do, dance will always be part of my life.” Shreya now also choreographs.

Most of Sheila’s other students have been with her for years. “In some cases, I’ve had these students from before they were born,” laughs Sheila. “Some mothers have one child in the class and when they’re pregnant, they tell me they’ll bring in the new baby too.” Sheila currently has about 50 students, aged 5 to 40. Shreyas — an Expression of Dance hopes to perform a full-scale dance production at the Carrollwood Cultural Center early next year.

Author: Evelyn Bless
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