The meaning, modalities and methods of dance practice have over the years begged for some spotlight, even as the wash of performance aspects in practice often dominates. The first of the series on sustenance as a dancer started from the concept of technologies of dominance and technologies of the self and how they control or empower a dancer, leading to what mindful practice constitutes.
In this second and final part of the series, the discussion will be centred around ‘revisiting habituality’ and ‘self-regulation’ in practice.
Revisiting habituality extends to movement, choreography, teaching and thinking in dance. The rationale for such revisiting with intent comes from the fact that dancers typically rely on what feels right, which is often imposed or at the least influenced by what is accepted and appreciated in the fraternity. It is, however, important to remember that “feeling is not always reliable; what we are accustomed to feels right.”
Classical Indian dance, in particular, attaches way more value to a tangible ‘doing’, concerned with the body, often in the pretext that much of the thinking has been done by legends and luminaries in dance
Body and mind split
Conceptual understanding, creative imagination and theoretical knowledge does not translate tangibly, and so they are considered skills that are good to have but not mandatory for a dancer, compared to performance aspects such as symmetry, stamina and presentation. The problem also lies in that much of what is classified and taught to build theoretical knowledge is history and evolution of the artform, and not frameworks or philosophies that deepen movement perspective. The learning and teaching, therefore, has narrowed down to simply learning and building repertoires, where the memory as much as the mind is engaged in learning. This leads to a split between the body and mind, and their honing as two separate entities, with an ill-proportionate priority on the body. Such an approach leads to a situation suggested by Eric Bredo, where practice becomes athoeritical and theory becomes impractical, impoverishing both.
On the other hand, the very familiar sloka, ‘Yato Hastas, Tato Drishti’, taught early in dance learning, establishes that conceptual understanding is shaped by bodily experience, which in turn proposes the mind and the body to be one single entity. Such a process, of ‘thinking in activity’, not only steers away from a misplaced purpose of practice, but also promotes higher order skills in the dance studio. Practice could then shift its focus on what goes on inside the body, rather than solely focus on what the body looks like or how it ‘should’ behave, as suggested by dance educator and scholar Jill Green in her research.
Investing time and thought
Revisiting habituality in teaching perspective in dance is of most importance, since it directly influences the practice and thinking of the student/dancer. The assumption of the teacher as the one source of all knowledge often leads to over-dependence on the teacher, as a substitute for reflection and investment from the student. In a simple movement, for example, a disrupted understanding occurs when the student tries to directly copy the physical aspects of a teacher’s movement, which integrates concept and action. This leads to a difference between what the student is doing and what they think they are doing. This split between ‘subjective reality’ and ‘objective reality’ occurs when the student does not invest time and thought in understanding the movement but wants to progress anyway.
Teaching online only magnifies these concerns, which may sometimes go unnoticed in a physical class. The content, process, pedagogy and most importantly, a realistic outcome, are aspects that are crucial in delivering a class online. E.F.Schumacher, in his book Small is Beautiful, discusses the possibility of ‘technology with a human face’. While it has become necessary to adapt to technology in our everyday dance world, it might be good to remind ourselves that technology develops by its own principle, which is different from the unfettered human nature of natural growth and cessation of growth. An extension of the discussion on teaching online also leads to the criticality of developing self-regulation in dancers. A clear understanding of what self-regulation entails and what it does not, definitely is a big step closer to achieving it. Self-regulation is not forcing oneself into hours of practice, trying to imitate or reproduce pre-choreographed content. It leads to the body being managed and subdued. It is also why looking at another dancer’s practice or video and trying to imitate it without understanding the purpose will not help. Self-regulation is the skill of using a teacher’s guidance or any clear reference to develop purposeful practice by accessing unique, personal sensory data. This leads to the development of proprioceptive awareness, which allows the understanding and owning of a complex movement or even a basic stance such as a Natyaramba, which is individual to every person.
Find the inner idea
A two-way practice of ‘building and breaking habits’, came up in a conversation with Odissi exponent Bijayini Satpathy, whose regular posts on practice on social media, particularly over the last few months, have been motivating dancers. She elaborates that the process of breaking down traditional choreographies and understanding recurring and rare features; revisiting outer shapes to find the inner idea of spatial intent, time uniqueness, etc., becomes a practice one builds, that guides dancers to find an outcome. She simultaneously highlights the need to retain clarity in the creation and honouring of technical precision, as well as in allowing the flow to happen, in terms of how it takes shape in a certain body.
“To be comfortable with being surprised with the outcomes is where practice comes in. As you build a word, what forms/happens with the next new alphabet is something that is meant to be unearthed, which is guided by practice. That is where breaking a habit comes – the wonder. The choices are political – I was a quiet rebel,” she says.
Though she initially thought there was no need to choreograph new work, with the abundance of master works, she acknowledges that within the broad and core understanding of what Odissi is to her, attributes such as interpretation and perception are coloured by our own, just like the river in different parts changes in depth, colour and its banks. “Dancers get comfortable with a formula, for example, knowing that a certain smile works. Something tickling curiosity, or something that throws me off that helps me be present in every moment, allows me to break habit,” she says.
Slow down and learn
As far as teaching methodology is concerned, Satpathy believes in retaining and reinventing. While key cues of a movement are important to be highlighted, she recollects that traditional learning methodology is built on the capacity to grasp, both the visceral and beyond. For her online students, she sends videos with specific instructions, but encourages them to work on it without a deadline, till they are happy.
“This time is also about slowing down and learning. Blended learning brings in self-regulation and the joy of discovery, which is special. That becomes their blueprint to learn, which may be applied to any other learning,” she says. Interested in her practice evolving into whatever it becomes over time, she adds that in this present situation, without judging anyone else, she does not intend to perform till circumstances get better.
The creator of the illustrations for this article, Veena Basavarajaiah, says, “For me the word ‘practice’ is not limited to honing performance skills but extends to writing, research, critique. And the cartoons that I draw are also part of my artistic practice. During the pandemic, I took this as an opportunity to explore how boredom, lethargy and being quarantined could influence movement. My practice of critique and reflection informs my work and the artistic choices I make.”
With the thoughts and conversations in this series on sustenance through practice, two central purposes of practice stand highlighted: a process of ‘becoming’ through the ecology of the self and an enhancement of the product through the enrichment of the process.