canned heat in my heels
A hush descends as the lights dim, and the dancers arrive on the polished floor, graceful couples in colourful garb. A dashing Richard Gere leads a beaming Lisa Ann Walters onto the floor, and the audience on and off-screen watch spellbound, as over the next few minutes, they witness a series of complicated pirouettes, leaps and intricate footwork, melding together to form the various ballroom dance routines.
How many of us has watched movies like Shall We Dance, Centre Stage, Step Up, or Dance with Me, to name a few, and wished we were on the floor, lithe and sure-footed, as we glide through a delicate dance routine?
When all's said and done, when we're talking about the benefits of dancing, one cannot ignore our own local dances. Bengal has a rich tradition of dance, whether we're talking about modern, classical or folk dances.
Classical Dance in the South-Asian context refers to Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Odissi and Manipuri dances. We caught up with Sharmila Bandapaddhaya of Nritya Nandan, the Manipuri dance school, to ask her about the benefits of learning classical dances here.
When we asked the students of modern (Western) dancing why they chose this form over the local genres, the first thing they mentioned was that they were deterred by the fact that classical dancers need to start very early. Bandapaddhaya admitted that it was an advantage to start early. "Usually, children start at the age of 4 years, when they are developing a sense of rhythm. Their bodies are more flexible, and thus they can pick up the steps and mudras easily. However, age is not really that big a factor. You will notice that all the renowned classical dancers came into the spotlight at an advanced age. Consider Debi Basu, the Odissi dancer, who learned her art at age 40. This is when a person gains that maturity of expression. What really matters is a person's dedication to the art, the amount of time and practice one puts into the dance."
With an increased appreciation for the performing arts as extra-curricular activities, there are also improved career opportunities for anyone seriously considering pursuing that line. More schools are looking for dance instructors, and the drama departments in universities are always in need of choreographers. "Our local dancers are now qualified to perform at an international level; a little more media patronage would definitely give us the boost we deserve," Bandopaddhaya adds.
Finally, as with any form of physical activity, dance is a great form of exercise. "Dance is now considered a form of therapy in the West," Bandhopaddhaya tells us. "It not only improves muscle tone and blood circulation, it sharpens focus and helps concentration. I once taught a young boy in his twenties, who was having trouble focusing on his studies, and within a few months there was a marked improvement in his academic performance. It is great stress relief."
Subehee Ahmed, who had seven years of coaching in Kathak, Bharat Natyam and folk dances since age 3, adds to this by saying "It's a great confidence boost, and it helped me overcome my stage fright.”
Living in a culture rich with its own tradition of music and the performing arts, Western Dance would have remained just another interesting foreign concept. Indeed, for Kamrul Islam Nadim, who learnt Western dancing at school in New Delhi, Dhaka, when he came here in the late 80's, certainly presented bleak prospects to anyone interested in performing arts beyond the local offerings. With lower emphasis on extra-curricular activities in schools at that time, he felt that he was taking a huge gamble when he started his Euro-Asia [BD] School of Western Contemporary Dance in 1990, not expecting much response. However, all that was about to change.
Globalisation, cable television and diplomatic events (like embassy parties and the odd performance by travelling groups) familiarised the local audience with these dance traditions. Furthermore, the recent rise in deshi fusion music videos, as well as stage performances at beauty pageants and award shows have created a niche for western dances, particularly amongst the young.
Ardina, a student at Alliance Francaise, had been interested in Modern Dances, and after hearing a few reviews from friends, a poster for dance classes at the Alliance Française caught her eye. "I've been learning Latin Ballroom Dancing: Tango, Salsa (Cuba and Los Angeles), Jive, and Waltz, for three months now." When asked what she likes about her classes, she replies "It's a form of workout, it's great for the mind and you meet a lot of interesting people."
And indeed, the opportunities for social interactions, and plain, good old fun, are ample at the Alliance Française, with their Dance Nights, which feature special performances by instructor Majid Shekhaliev and his students, showcasing everything they learn throughout their courses.
The social aspect is a strong incentive for many people, as Arman (not his real name), a student from Portland, puts it. "I started learning the Lindy Hop and then Swing a while back, and then started going to dance events where I picked up bits of other forms like Tango and the Blues. I love it because it helps me stay active, has boosted my self esteem a boat-load, makes social interaction easier, and is a really fun thing to do on a date."
Nadim, who is currently conducting classes at the Russian Cultural Centre, explains why this is so. "Modern dance has a discipline. It's not just about learning the moves; there is a strict emphasis on good posture, deportment, eye contact, chemistry, and confidence, all of which go a long way in re-shaping someone's personality and self-esteem. Since the ballroom dances are also heavily presentation-based, a lot of importance is given to attire, and minute details like colour co-ordination, neatness, and style, so the overall look of a person undergoes a transformation."
Aside from that, the physical benefits of dancing cannot be denied either. Not only is dancing an exceptional way to let loose and have fun, but it also provides some terrific benefits for your health. According to Mayo Clinic researchers, social dancing helps reduce stress, increase energy, improve strength, and increase muscle tone and co-ordination. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), agrees, and adds to this by saying that dancing can lower your risk of coronary heart disease, decrease blood pressure, help you manage your weight, and strengthen the bones of your legs and hips.
Finally, it's a great pick-me-up. The discipline and grammar of the dance can sharpen your focus and take your mind off your problems, while the exercise gives your body a good workout, releasing endorphins, and generally uplifting your mood. Add music to the recipe and you have a formula for feeling good. As Rafa, a student at Alliance Francaise puts it, “After each class, I feel physically exhausted, but mentally quite refreshed. It's something like a workout, but in a far more graceful way! And also, I know I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself if I'm on a dance floor, and everyone around me is waltzing! And after a whole week of work/studies, these classes really take a lot of load off one's mind, and one can simply enjoy him/herself!”
So whether you want to try something new, add a new extra-curricular activity to your resume, stay fit, or just have fun, modern dance classes could be the answer you're looking for.
The Alliance Francaise de Dacca located at 26, Mirpur Road offers 3-month courses in Salsa, Tango, Rhumba, Mamba, Cha-cha, Waltz and more. The fees are Tk 4000 for singles, Tk 6000 for couples. For more details, contact the centre at: 8611557
The Russian Cultural Centre at House 510, Road 7, Dhanmondi, offers classes in Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep, Salsa, Cha-cha, Tango, Meringue and more. For more details, contact the centre at 9116314
By Sabrina F Ahmad
Photo: Tanvir Ahmed
Special thanks to Nritya Nandan & Nadim’s Ballroom & Latin Dance School