From New paths forged from old



First dance class

Two weeks rush by and it is time for my first dance class. I have planned the half-hour class together with my parents. My session will be for the last half hour of their normal Saturday session. I get dropped off at the Moray Place studio. It’s cold, and I’m in my usual dance dress. Made of cotton, my salwar kameez is comfortable but not warm. By now though my mother has knitted numerous woollen jerseys and cardigans for the family. So I am also wearing a cream Aran cardigan, made of wool from those sheep I saw (or so I surmise), but bought from Rob’s Wool Shop on George Street. I climb two sets of stairs and hear piano tinkling and a woman’s voice keeping time and shouting orders. It sounds nothing like my dance class where one heard the unique sound made with thattu khazhi while my teacher softly vocalised the dance sequence, musically. I don’t have a thattu khazhi but I will use my hands to clap the rhythmic sequence, like flamenco-style clapping, I think.

I knock shyly then repeat, more loudly each time, until someone hears and opens the door. Oh! Sooda, it’s you, beams Shona. There are twelve or so dancers in a very large room with a beautiful wooden floor. They are female, ranging from ages similar to mine to women probably in their twenties. The dancers are not dressed like me – their clothing fits their bodies tightly and looks immodest. I learn later these dance clothes comprise two main parts – a leotard worn over tights. Most of them are in black leotards and black tights. Others have coloured tights. As I walk across I feel how this floor is different to the floor of my dance class at home, which was made of a soil/cement mixture, polished and red in colour. It is very cold but the dancers are looking flushed. Shona invites me to sit while their dance sequence is completed. I choose a spot that I think will be a good place from which I can take class. The dance movements include a lot of touching, entwining of bodies and jumping and landing – some of them land light as a feather like the ballet dancers I’ve seen. They travel across space with their legs wide apart, arms floating as if trying to hold on to the air above their heads. I watch with awe and embarrassment, hoping that they will have a long kurta to cover their thighs when they learn my dance form. The basic Bharata Natyam stance requires knees bent and opened out so they form a diamond shape – the aramandi. This open look uncovered is unthinkable. Note to myself, if I am to take another class, I will request that they wear something that covers their lower limbs.

Time has come to teach. After what has felt to me like commotion, I ask the dancers to arrange themselves in a V formation facing me. They have been throwing their bodies in abandonment. What I’m about to teach couldn’t be more opposite. I explain that the basic steps are purely rhythm-bound and involve their lower limbs only while the upper body needs to be still, controlling breath. But before we start class proper, there are a set of mudras or gestures we have to perform. These serve to pay our respects to mother earth, symbolising a higher spirit, and to the teacher. This set of mudras is called namaskara. They are willing and even eager.  I will have to demonstrate, as they do not know any of the Bharata Natyam dance terms or any Indian words to describe what’s required.  My teacher will be bemused. Oh! If only he were here. I do the namaskara with them and imagine my teacher while I’m doing it, and paying my respects to him, asking him to bless me in my endeavours. It gives me momentary pleasure as I close my eyes and transport myself to stand before him. I feel stronger. I have half an hour in total, and half of this time has already been taken by learning the namaskara. In explaining the meaning of this action, its particular set of gestures, the aesthetics of the movement, timing and tempo, I have talked eagerly and easily about my dance.  I take them through the first two or three steps in the first group of steps. I have gone beyond my allotted time, no matter. For the first time since I came to this land, an hour has felt like few minutes! At the end of my first class I’m asked if I could ‘take class’ again. I go home elated and exhausted. I have no words for my parents but I am sure my smile says it all.

That day I learnt joy that comes from unexpected circumstances. I learnt how gurus exist everywhere and I have carried mine with me to this land.


Sudha Rao is currently finishing her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.