They say dance can heal. They say it can lead you on a path to enlightenment. They also say that dance comes naturally to every human being. Many people have many differing opinions about dance — but that dance is therapeutic is something that few can deny. The practice might have entered India as a discipline in 1990; its relevance has however come to the fore thanks to the recent lockdowns and periods of isolation, courtesy the global COVID-19 pandemic. We speak with dance therapy experts and dancers from various diverse styles from across the country to find out how true this idea holds in practice. Dance or movement in particular, can have many positive effects on the body, and dance/movement therapy (DMT) or dance movement psychotherapy is a psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions of the body. As a modality of the creative arts therapies, DMT looks at the correlation between movement and emotion. But does this therapeutic effect work on everyone? Can a new learner reap the positive benefits of DMT? Does one need to practice a proper established form of dance or does any kind of movement work? These and many other questions are answered in these conversations Indulge had with dancers, dance teachers and dance therapy practitioners to find out more…
Body and soul
“Dance and movement act as natural antidepressants. A daily dose of dance puts us in a positive state of being. There is a scientific reason for this — dancing releases endorphins that promote satisfaction and euphoric feelings. In a corporate programme I recently organised, Jaiveer (name changed) a participant, shared that dance therapy brought back his thirst to live in the real world. Others too shared that ‘while dancing and verbally reflecting on their experiences with each other’ they felt relieved to have escaped from the digital trap of mobiles and laptops. This became a powerful experience for many of us undergoing therapeutic dance as a ‘digital detox’ — which we all sorely need to carry on with our meaningful lives,” explains Tripura Kashyap, co-founder, Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (Delhi & Bengaluru), the pioneers of dance therapy in the country (beginning the movement way back in 1990).
“Dance can be so many things to so many people, but what it essentially does is keep your mind and body fit. When we are children our bodies needn’t be moulded into proper posture, our bodies know what to do quite naturally. But as we grow up, society and culture forces us to lose our freedom of movement. Dance helps you find that liberation again. I organise an online workshop called Dance With Me for beginners and I am constantly shocked by how liberating just the idea of free movement can be to an individual. Dance and movement in general help you reconnect with your body and that is the beginning of a whole journey of self discovery,” elaborates danseuse Rukmini Vijayakumar, contemporary and bharatanatyam dancer and artistic director of Raadha Kalpa Dance Company, Bengaluru.
One of India’s most popular shufflers, full-time mom and Instagram celebrity, Gurugram-based Akanksha Singh agrees with Rukmini. “I can’t talk about all dances but shuffling relieves stress and sends endorphins to your brain. It improves mental focus and concentration. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment after you learn new moves or master the old. It boosts your confidence and self-esteem. It distracts you from the stress of everyday life and it gives you the courage to get out of your comfort zone,” she explains.
Madhu Nataraj, founder, STEM Dance Kampni and director, Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, Bengaluru also agrees with Akanksha. “I believe deeply that movement arts have the potency to transform, fortify and heal. Nothing puts one in the present moment like an immersive somatic practice does. During this global contagion, composite forms like dance have offered respite, reflection and release for millions of people. Last year, I took to facilitating sessions online for friends in small groups and restarted these sessions last month as the onslaught of the second wave devastated so many. Bringing together my three decade long engagement with dance, yoga and healing practices, I birthed a new series called Moving in the Moment.”
But not everybody feels that dance is directly therapeutic. Hyderabad-based danseuse Sandhya Raju, kuchipudi performer and artistic director, Nishrinkala Dance Academy says, “Dance in itself keeps the body and mind occupied at all times. It builds a sort of discipline. That discipline can go a long way in ensuring your mental health and physical health stay put, even during the hardest of times. I personally don’t know if dance is therapeutic, but what I can say is that it keeps you in your best of health — mind, body and soul.”
A different plane
Some dancers also opine that dance has a therapeutic value because it has the ability to remove you from the normal day to day world around you, as Mumbai-based Latin and ballroom dancer, Bollywood choreographer, actor and radio jockey Sandip Soparrkar explains, “Dance is healing. It is therapeutic but that’s largely because it removes you to a different plane. I believe that the journey with dance is in five E’s — Entertain, Educate, Evoke, Evolve and Enlighten. You might begin your journey with dance simply as a form of entertainment, but then it begins to educate you, it evokes fiery passions within you, it helps you evolve as a person and eventually leads you to enlightenment. It allows you to live on a different plane, removed from daily stressors and problems. I remember how dance helped me cope with my grandfather’s death and my divorce, and I was able to return to my normal life, beyond the grief, in no time.”
Chennai-based expressive arts therapist and board certified psychodramatist Magdalene Jeyarathnam further explains Sandip’s stand, “While any form of art has a healing component, expressive arts therapies is about adding another layer of a trained and qualified therapist to an existing healing mode of art.”
Brinda Jacob-Janvrin, founder and managing trustee of the Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies Trust, Bengaluru, furthers what Magdalene says, “The body holds incredible wisdom and like the psyche, is always moving towards healing and balance. It is here we store repressed emotion and memory and other aspects of the unconscious. When we consciously move our body we are moving layers of suppressed memory and releasing unexpressed emotion and energy. When practised in a safe and compassionate space, with an experienced therapist, body-based therapy has the potential to go deeper than what we understand/know of cognitively.”
Kolkata-based danseuse Tanusree Shankar, founder, Tanusree Shankar Dance Academy adds, “Dance is definitely a healer and allows you to remove yourself from the world around you. More often than not, dancers are able to cope with stressful situations better as they have a tool, as evocative and expressive as dance, in their hands. It allows you to look at life from a larger lens; the bigger picture comes into focus, quite easily.”
Dance, the healer
But is the role of dance merely therapeutic only during a crisis? Could it be a part of our daily life otherwise? “Dance has been my meditation and therapy. I remember I was in a very bad space with my mental health a few years ago. But it was my dance practice and an upcoming performance that kept me going and it became an outlet for everything that I was feeling,” answers independent multi-disciplinary dancer and artiste, Masoom Parmar, based in Bengaluru.
Queer activist and multimedia artiste Shilok Mukkati, also based in Bengaluru, chimes in, “Growing up as a queer person, I always sought a language that I could speak to myself in. There was self-isolation for not understanding myself and social isolation where others failed to understand who I am. In between this journey, I wanted to speak, but I was silenced. I began writing, few lines of poetry. I needed more, a language to express what words cannot describe. I started moving my body, the body that was numbed by scars. It didn’t matter what music I was able to hear; I just wanted to move. Sometimes even to the sound of silence. At this period, many misunderstood the language of dance, merely an expression of my femininity. They were wrong as always. My amplifying femininity chose dance as its language to speak stridently. I channelised my hidden pain, stuffed my aggression and my untold stories into my dance. I used to dance with fear, but now I dance fearlessly — this is the language of my soul.”
Delhi-based Prateek Sachdeva who performs in drag as Betta Naan Stop agrees, “As queer kids we are prone to hide our feelings and words and this often moulds the individual into an introvert, low in confidence and/or eventually causing enough mental stress to affect our daily lives. I didn’t even realise all these things about me till I started dancing after my graduation. Dance taught me to express my words and feelings through moves and encouraged me to use that in my daily life to communicate and express myself even better.”
Dance, the equaliser
Dance can however, be so much more. As it heals and strengthens and also builds stronger people out of most practitioners — it can also be used as a tool of social justice and more as Chennai-based danseuse Nrithya Pillai, director, Rajarathnalaya Arts Foundation, explains, “While I do believe in the therapeutic effects of art; the accessibility of many kinds of art, especially those with the ‘CLASSical’ tag to mostly privileged castes and classes is very clear to anyone who watches the scene closely. I am from the marginalised hereditary caste from where bharatanatyam has been and continues to be appropriated; I am also an intersectional feminist and a progressive modern woman. It has been very difficult for me to dance during the pandemic, teaching has not happened enough and I have been short of money throughout the last year. The sorrow and the grief all around us hasn’t given me a feeling of wanting to dance either. But is my life devoid of dance? I wouldn’t say so. Dance, in some ways, has been the one permanent aspect of my life. I am constantly thinking of some musical aspect or something to do with a dance composition in my head. I also think art is very personal and the personal is political — I have continued to make political art through the pandemic.”
A different kind of equalising happens in the case of the dance teacher and the dance student, as Shruti Gopal, danseuse with Bengaluru-based Punyah Dance Company; and an artistic director with Upadhye School of Dance explains. “Dance is equalising in many ways. It heals the practitioner — the teacher, and the student. During this last lockdown, I was able to introspect about my art in so many ways and also refresh my understanding about how important this art form was to me, for me to function normally. After I recovered from COVID-19, I couldn’t wait to sweat out a session of unbridled dancing and the moment I did that, my world became normal again. Dance is therapeutic indeed, but it also heals — the mind, soul and the body,” she concludes.