Natya - A Therapeutic Engagement

Having been deeply influenced through my involvement in Bharatanatyam for nearly two decades, the concept of “dance therapy” inclines me towards exploring how this concept extends to (or from) our classical art form. I’m sure all dancers would agree that the learning, practice and performance of dance is a wholesome experience of the physical and emotional self. We explore possibilities, try to push our physical limits and work on abhinaya that we find “challenging.” We also practise dance just because it makes us feel good.

In the Naatyashaasthra, the veda of dance, Bharatamuni has dedicated an entire chapter to ’emotions,’ describing the various kinds of emotional states, including those that are inherent or deep-rooted, temporary or passing, and the physical/physiological manifestations of various emotional states such as perspiration or change in tone of voice etc. Way back then, dance’s strong association with emotions has been acknowledged, explored and explained.

Decades ago, Shri Dandaayudhapani Pallai, in his composition Ulagam pugazhum nattya kalayei…, has described various effects the practise of Bharatanatyam has on our mind, body and life itself, over time.

In essence, dance integrates the body, mind and spirit, and this is where dance therapy finds its base. Life’s challenges and daily demands often make us scattered and disengaged. This makes it difficult for the mind and body to stay in tune with each other. Knowing the integrating power of dance, some pioneers, like Marian Chace from United States, ventured into channelising this quality of dance into a method for healing, and to help individuals experienece their body, mind and spirit in unity.

Years of study on dance therapy has broadened our understanding about the aspects of dance that help in the process of this integration (like coordination, balance, use of space, creativity to name a few). While these aspects are used directly for therapeutic and healing purposes in dance therapy, these aspects are, as we pointed out before, embedded in our classical and folk dances.

In this article, we will be briefly looking at how body-mind coordination, space, and emotions in dance, have an enhancing effect on self. Essentially, these are relevant across most or all forms of dance. However, I will be referring to Bharatanatyam for examples since that is the dance form I have been training in for most part of my life so far.

Consider this… Take the aramandi position (half sit with knees bent and facing sideways), stretch your right leg forward in naatu position (heel on the ground and toes lifted up), stretch your right arm parallel to your right foot while you stretch your left hand behind and upward, making a neat line with your hands, and look at your left hand while you tap your left foot. This takes about one second to execute. Or we can even slow it down to take 5 seconds. It all depends on how you coordinate your hands with your feet, both with your eyes and head, your right side of the body with your left, all of the above with your intent to execute it, eventually turning it into an interesting pattern of a dance step that makes you as well as the onlooker feel good. In essence, yatho hastha thatho drishti, yatho drishti, thatho manaha, yatho manaha thatho bhaava, yatho bhaava thatho rasaha….

This coordination, which involves bringing together the mind and the body to execute movements that require us to direct our attention completely to the current moment, is a powerful way to get in touch with ourselves. It makes both the body and the mind completely focus on each other and work in absolute sync to create the movement.. the dance.

Dance therapy often talks about “exploring the space.” By space we mean the space in which one is dancing. Moving through space and exploring, lower, middle and higher spaces around us, getting comfortable with moving in all the dimensions within the space we are working in makes the dancer “open up” and experience the “safety” and “freedom” within the space to express herself. Makes me wonder whether our Alaripus and Jathiswaras are all about exploring our space in all levels and directions, to strike a relationship with the space so we can dance away expressing ourselves fully as we continue to dance!

Emotions- a vital aspect of the mind and the body. While we may automatically assume that this body-mind connection with regard to emotion means that emotional states cause bodily changes (when you feel sad, your shoulders droop), it even works the other way. You may try this for yourself: for five minutes, slouch your shoulders, bow your head down, make a frown, breathe shallow, (and take any other body posture you can think of, that comes with feeling sad) and then, try to feel happy at the same time. I will be surprised if you succeed! This is just a quick example to demonstrate that the body and mind are more connected than we assume.

This deliberate invoking of emotions through body postures and movements, affects us in more ways than one. It helps us feel the emotion fully, which helps us identify the feelings we are comfortable with and perhaps sometimes, those we are not comfortable with. Hence, our attempts to “learn” those emotions/body language trains us to feel more and more comfortable with a range of emotions.

It also enables what is called “catharsis”. A way to relive an emotional experience and bring it out; in a sense, to “release” it.

Not to forget, it sure helps us get in the shoes of another. We impersonate as other characters when we dance. We play characters from mythology ranging from Rama or Seetha to Mahishasura or Poothana. We enact a range of personalities and emotional states in response to situations like misery, celebration, hatred, forgiveness, and more. Such an engagement can broaden our understanding of emotions and how they play for ourselves as well as for others.

As Bharata has pointed out in the Naatyashaastra, the various emotions that exist in real world are “impersonated” in the world of dance. Dancers feel and express those emotions in order to create a representation of the real world and share it with his or her viewers. Hence, there is a sense of detachment from, yet a deep involvement with the emotions. This is a very crucial point to understand even in the context of therapy; emoting through dance helps us understand them completely and at the same time be objective about them. This can be an effective exercise for the mind to help itself out of being stuck and entangled in its emotions and learn to witness it objectively.

Dance as a mirror to your personality- another very interesting quality of dance. Are we saying that dance actually reflects one’s personality? Yes! Meaning, a neat dancer reflects a neat person? No. It is not so much the technique, as much as the more subtle aspects in dance like boldness, speed, sharpness, and more. Taking from my personal experience- I have been told by my Guru time and again, to “throw” and not “hold back” when I’m dancing. It would be false to deny that “holding back” is definitely a part of my personality. Holding back here means some amount of timidity and in confidence. While I became aware of that, I also began working on giving that “throw” in my dance and I genuinely feel that it helps me feel more confident otherwise. It works vice versa too… becoming more confident in turn reflects on the dance. It is on the same lines that therapists work too. They identify areas that need change, and work with the dance and movement to overcome barriers in daily lives!

All of the above cover a very small part of how much dancers are actually under the therapeutic influence of dance. However, there is a catch to this. Do all dancers experience these effects spoken about above? No. Those dancers who are conscious and aware of every little move they make, and are fully present with all their mind in the intention to execute any movement or emotion, and are completely engaged with the dance itself, experience the influence of dance and this, precisely, helps unite the body, mind and spirit. So yes, all dancers do have the potential to experience it! All it takes is a willingness to pay full attention and an openness to accept the experience.

(I would like to acknowledge the valuable inputs of my dear friends Madhulika and Deepthi in writing this article.)


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