Grace, poise and perseverance: Indian classical dancers share their unique experiences

October 14, 2019 — by Kaasha Minocha and Shama Gupta

 Senior Siyona Suresh expresses how learning Indian Classical Dance has positively affected her.

 In a performance last year called Nartana Mallika, senior Siyona Suresh, who was wearing a rich purple and orange skirt style dress embroidered with a beautiful silk gold border, tapped her feet on the wooden floor while her bells jingled. She concentrated on keeping her upper torso fixed and legs bent out. The pleats of her dress opened out beautifully like a fan while she performed various movements.

To the casual observer, the dance looked effortless.  It wasn’t. It was the result of nine years of studying and intensive work learning Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam, two traditional Indian classical dance forms, from her dance guru, Bindu Pratap. Dance, Suresh says, has helped her stay physically fit and happy and has taught her discipline and perseverance. 

One of the things that makes Suresh enjoy dance so much is her relationship with her teachers, called gurus, who do everything in their power to help their students reach their goals. “My guru is extremely driven and a perfectionist,” Suresh said. “She has hundreds of students but is still able to treat every one of her students like they are her own children. I greatly admire that about her.”

She goes to Nritanjali Dance Academy in Fremont for lessons.

In addition to lessons from her guru, Suresh also attends workshops put on by other gurus from India, including the respected Madurai R. Muralidharan and Dr. Neena Prasad, who come to teach some of the best students in her dance school. In their classes, they teach dance as well as share stories and lessons from their own lives. 

 Suresh also furthered her certification in dance by taking a test with a university in India that is affiliated with the Silicon Andhra University in the U.S. The university flew out proctors that tested Suresh on theory and also had her complete a practical exam. Suresh passed both, which gave her a junior degree in dance. 

Without dance, Suresh said she would not be the same person. She plans to continue to dance through college because  it’s such a big part of her identity. 

Dance has helped Suresh mentally as well. She always finds herself in a much better mood after dance class and dancing helps her relieve stress. 

Her dance career also includes experiences that have taught her perseverance and discipline. For example, for multiple performances, in order to rehearse, Suresh had to wake up at 5 a.m. Another experience that built her endurance and stamina was a production she did last year. 

 Her dance school, did a show called Nartana Mallika, that raised funds for the flooding in Kerala, India. She performed seven different dances for the production, and the week before the production was extremely busy with rehearsals. 

“We had rehearsal one weekday night at the studio that had started at around 5 p.m., and we danced until about 1 a.m.,” Suresh said. “I had tests the next day to study for and homework to do, but at that moment, I forgot about all of it, and it was amazing that even though we were all very tired from dancing for hours, we were all present in the moment doing something we loved together.”

After years of learning these skills, Suresh plans to do her arangetram, a debut on-stage performance, with guidance from her guru. Many Indian classical dance forms perform an arangetram once the time has come for a student following years of training. Typically, the duration of an arangetram is two and a half to three hours. To perform for such a stretch with few breaks, dancers must have extremely good stamina, concentration and focus.

In the U.S., the cost to plan and organize an arangetram can range from $20, 000 to $40,000. It is usually all paid for by the student or the student’s family. This includes the flight tickets for the musicians, the cost of renting an auditorium, traditional costumes, jewelry, gifts, flying in guests, props and invitation cards. 

The cost can vary depending depend on whether dinner is included after the performance as well as flying an orchestra from India versus using a local orchestra.

Suresh plans to do hers in late May at Woodside High School, and her parents will be flying in an orchestra from India consisting of four members as live musicians. The cost of hers will be roughly $30,000. 

Though the process has just started, she can already tell it will be one of the most difficult tasks she has had to take on. Classes will be three times a week, and every move will need to be done to perfection. 

“The experience of planning an arangetram has been very new and at some points stressful,” Suresh said. “Additionally, finding time to be able to practice and gain stamina during this stressful first semester with college applications has been a challenge as well.”

Though this task might be extremely difficult, she knows that dance has shaped her into a much more confident and graceful person. In fact, when Suresh was little, she actually never wanted to join dance and objected to her mom’s constant urges to start classes. But, on Christmas, when she got a letter from “Santa,” it told her the typical sayings such as to do her homework and to be a good girl, but also that “Santa” would love it if she took up dancing as well. 

That’s what convinced her. Suresh went on to ask her mom if she could try out dance. When she went to her first class, she fell in love with the art immediately and ever since then, dance has grown into being one of the biggest parts of her life.