How the People of Classical Dance shaped me, fought with me and fixed Me.

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  • Kirti Daya

I started learning Kathak (a classical dance form of northern India) when I was five. My parents wanted my sister and I to be as fully immersed in the Indian culture as South African Indians possibly could be. Even now, I can still clearly hear my guru (teacher in Sanskrit) telling us to smile through the pain of strenuous dancing, reciting beats along with us and even the sound of her ghunghroos (bells tied around the ankle) as she walked around the dance studio watching us try stamp our feet along to the recital music. 

I was never allowed to quit dance class, as much as I pleaded with my parents during my childhood for a free Saturday morning, to spend at hockey practise, or with friends, or even just to sleep in. But my parents had a strict policy. Whatever they had signed me up for; I was unable to quit before the age of 14. And by then it was too late. Kathak had already found a permanent place in my life as well as heart.

Growing up fully dedicated to the art of Kathak taught me things that I can no longer unlearn. I wouldn’t trade the discipline, respect and acquired style that came with it, for the world. Even now, standing in contemporary or modern dance studios, it’s easy to spot those who have classical training. However, classical dance schools, including my one, seem to breed the attitude of body insecurities as well as self-doubt. From constantly hearing my teacher tell us all that we would look better in our performance outfits if we lost a bit of weight to seeing girls who were skinnier or fairer than I get the lead role (even though our skills and talent were objectively equal), some things as small as never having positive reinforcements in class itself or only hearing good things spoken of a select few; this all left a lingering feeling of not being good enough.

And that hasn’t changed.

However, a sort of sisterhood did form amongst friends. You see, we’d all quietly band together before class and get ready, we’d all leave class together feeling utterly defeated, we’d all stress before our dance exams but still help one another revise, and it was these moments that truly united a group of girls that didn’t feel like they were good enough. It was in these girls whom I confided my fears, and found it echoing. It was these girls whom I’d search for in class while our teacher was berating us, locking eyes and acknowledging the hurt of trying so hard yet still failing. It is in these girls whom, up to this day, I still have solid friendships with.

And so, as much as I knew that I’d never be the thinnest, or the fairest, or even the most talented on stage, I did know that I got to share it with some of the most special women I would ever meet and that, in some way, made it all okay. There are some days in which I feel like I’m the worst dancer in the world, I’m too dark, I’m too curvy, I’m too tall, but then I realise that’s not what matters. Skill, talent and perseverance to perform like my sisters are watching, is.