“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
“I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I am a firm believer of following Music as a religion. For me it has always been something that transcends all kinds of man-made barriers: languages, religions and nations. That’s not all! Music inspires us when we are feeling mundane, overwhelms when we are feeling let down, lifts us up, fills us up with emotions like immense joy, or profound sorrow, anger at times while at others utmost peace. Music has been my one constant companion, my oldest friend. I hear music in 7, sometimes 8 different languages, in multiple genres. And yet, somehow, there have been times when I have felt as if something was missing. For the longest time I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Then one day… there it was… in the distance, blurry… obscured by my numerous insecurities. Dancing, was my answer! And I found her in the most unexpected place, at the most inconvenient time in my life.
I remember my first Bharatanatyam (a form of Indian classical dance) lessons as a toddler. I was only 3 and half years old when I was introduced to the tunes of pious Carnatic music (South Indian classical music) , and saw magic unfold in front of my eyes. The older girls and boys in my class, holding up difficult poses, moving their bodies in sync with the mystical ragas, telling stories in the song with their hands, eyes, feet. They were ethereal, otherworldly. I wanted, desperately to be like them, to dance like them. But alas, I lacked the conviction and the discipline to pursue it as a young child. I learnt only for 4 years but left. Yet I do remember the dusty old room attached to an old temple that was used as our studio, I remember my dance master and his bamboo stick, the rhythmic “dhit-dhit-tai” that he created with his wooden “thaalam” (a wooden board and stick that is used to create this rhythm) and even though I was constantly astounded by how much I could still remember of the many mudras (hand/finger gestures), poses and expressions I learnt so many years ago, I was so accustomed to doubting myself that I held myself back from pursuing it again.
It was in the beginning of this year that I read about a Hungarian Bharatnatyam dancer conducting dance lessons for beginners in Budapest. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. After going through an intense ritual of “Should I?.. Shouldn’t I?” for weeks, I approached her. When my lessons started, I found her to be one of the most compassionate, considerate and patient people I have ever met. Someone who is so humble, in spite of all the talent she possesses.
Dora Bittner started learning this art form 20 years ago. She learnt further dancing in Chennai (Madras) under an Indian teacher and she did her Arangettam (her dance debut) there in 2005. She moved back to Hungary and has been teaching this art form from her dance academy Kala Samarpana (Surrender to art). She is a member of the International Dance Council (in French Conseil International de la Danse or CID), which is a non-profit international non-governmental organisation based in Paris. It acts as an umbrella for all dance forms in the world. It also advises UNESCO, national and local governments, international organisations and institutions. World Dance Day or International Dance Day, an initiative by CID, is celebrated all over the world to honor all types dance art forms.
When Dora told me that her and her talented friends were putting up their own show for this special day in Budapest, I decided I would absolutely have to be a part of that. Even if it was in the capacity of a mere fly on the wall. She was gracious enough to offer me tickets to this event where they performed Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Flamenco and Argentine Tango. They created magic on that stage and I was honored to be a part of the audience. Following is a brief explanation of each dance form.
Bharatanatyam is one of the most beloved dance forms in India and it originates from Tamil Nadu. The roots of this dance form have been traced back to the 2nd century CE when it was first mentioned in the Sanskrit scripture Natya Shastra. The name “Bharata” is a mnemonic that uses “Bha” from “Bhava” or emotions, “ra” from “raga” or musical melody and “ta” from “tala” or rhythm. The term “Natyam” is Sanskrit for Dance. Together, Bharatanatyam means a dance form that harmonizes emotions, music and rhythm. And I think it fits the rhetoric.
Kuchipudi is a dance drama performance, which originates from the village Kuchipudi in Andhra Pradesh. The roots of this dance form are also traced back to the 2nd century CE. In ancient times, Kuchipudi was performed by a travelling dance troupe, containing mainly men. It was used for telling stories of Gods and Goddesses in temples and royal courts, with “Nritta” or rhythm, “Nritya” or expression and “Natyam” or play by a group of performers.
Flamenco originated in Andalusia, Southern Spain in the 18th century. It is a musical dance performance that uses cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dancing), palmas (hand clapping) and pitos (finger snapping) to tell heart wrenching stories of hardships suffered by the gypsies who migrated to Spain in that era. It is said that the audience of a Flamenco performance can sometimes feel the depth of emotions expressed during the act, and I completely agree.
Flamenco and Bharatanatyam Fusion
I must mention a special fusion performance in which Dora and her friend Csaba combined Bharatanatyam and Flamenco together to create a unique experience. It was pure alchemy. Watching them dance together like that, on Carnatic music, made me believe that anything can be achieved when two people truly know their craft. I had no idea that the footwork of Flamenco is so similar to that of Bharatanatyam. At one point of time they danced perfectly in sync with each other, circling each other, eyeing each other, as if to say, “Why does it feel that, even though we are different, we are the same?” and I was so moved that I had goose bumps.
Argentine Tango was born in the poor neighborhoods of Beuno Aires and Montevideo in Argentina and Uruguay, in the end of 19th century. It is a form of social dancing that expresses passion, sadness, heartbreak and nostalgia. The “Tango Embrace” is typical to this dance form, in which the leader (usually the milonguero – the male Tango dancer) holds the follower (usually the milonguera – the female Tango dancer) close to themselves, with their heads and chests touching, while keeping their lower bodies apart to “walk with the music”. It survived through a long history of religious, political and cultural turmoil, and was almost wiped out due to negligence during the numerous military coups in Argentina. It has now been declared as “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.
At the end of this celebration, I was speechless (And as my friends would know that rarely happens) and utterly enchanted by all the emotions that the dancers were able to conjure up with their performances. It was as if I was on a journey through all these countries and times, where and when these dances were born. I momentarily found myself among those who suffered to keep these art forms alive, with those who have been dancing for so many years, learning and teaching and improving the technique and the science of it all. It was one of the most exhilarating events I have ever had the honor of attending.
So, I bow my head to each and every performer and dancer who has learnt or is learning any dance art form anywhere in this world, no matter their age, gender, religion, nationality or sexuality. And I want to tell anyone who has quit dancing because it was too tough or who is struggling with beginner’s dilemma, like I did, that if you persevere you can achieve anything.
I saw dancers. Young and Old, European and Indian. Dancing their hearts out. Having the times of their lives. I truly believe now that dance can bring people together, just like Music.