Waiting amidst several dancers to step onto the stone platform under the quiet gaze of the Nandi bull, I watched a young couple complete their dance offering to Lord Siva at Tanjavur. The Bangalore based duet presented what I would call Dance Gymnastics. Leaping, twirling, swirling, deep plies and knee bends executed with breaking a sweat and with aplomb. The audience loved their presentation and the hapless classical dancer who followed them appeared lacklustre although her performance was quiet and dignified.
If you are a dance lover and type in ‘Bharatanatyam’ on You Tube, a plethora of links emerge like the proverbial Hanuman’s tail. Hundreds of thumbnail suggestions pop up. While there is a gamut from the banal to the brilliant, you will notice increasingly fit dancers attacking the stage with a frenzied energy. There is a new athleticism in classical dance fueled by the urban culture of the glam size zero Goddess, fashion catwalks, aerobics and power yoga workouts. Fat is out and generous Ajanta hips are unacceptable for today’s audience. Ask New York based contemporary dancer Preeti Vasudevan who is a fan of Gyrotonics, a fitness system that twists, crunches and squeezes your core muscles into superb shape
A few days ago a national weekly interviewed and photographed me for a special on Health and Wellbeing. The title suggests that ‘fitness‘ as a word has been replaced but not the urge of the woman to remain toned, sleek and sexy. I decided to allow the photographer to capture me at my most vulnerable – track pants, crumpled t shirt, sweaty face and ponytailed hair – working with my personal trainer Deepak and my yoga instructor Sri Nandakumar. An imperfect body placed alongside a performance photo of my latest solo production MA3KA will tell the entire story. As dancers we are all vulnerable, walking that knife edge between appearing like “Goddess Mamis” and real women. Training in classical dance alone does not prepare today’s performers for the vast stages and the expectations of the audience who think on their toes. Lyrics, silence, musicality have all succumbed to the relentless assault of rhythm. Dance is now an Olympic sport and dance marathons on TV are subtly influencing the way a ‘rasika’ watches a classical performance. Gyms have ‘Dancercise’, Bollywood workouts and Bhangra groove routines while ashrams have ‘Mystic Dancing’ as a way of unwinding the lazy urban body. Nutrition, fitness and diets for dancers are being carefully planned and followed. Like sports and celebrities, dancers will soon travel with their trainers, yoga instructors and nutritionists.
The old ways of imparting knowledge from guru to sishya are being ruthlessly dismantled and a new template for preparing the dancing body is emerging outside the classroom. After all, dancers are the ultimate athletes of body and spirit.