Children’s Dance Education and Bharata Natyam
– or –
The dangerous game with fire
The way in which Bharata Natyam is taught in dance schools is sometimes a mystery to me. With the pretext of remaining faithful to the tradition, teachers follow a completely outdated dance pedagogy, which is quite deficient in some areas. The methods of teaching dance to children are also part of it. The deficiency is explained very easily: there are no methods. I am not talking about how to make the classes more playful, to shorten the duration of the lessons, not to overstrain them, or to explain the technical aspects of dance more visibly. I speak of real pedagogical and didactic foundations, of well-thought-out methods and techniques, with which the joy of dance, the health of the child’s body and a solid basis for an academic dance can be built up. This situation is so serious because it deals with the foundation of our artistic activity, namely our future dancers.
Over the last 18 years I’ve taught dozens of children. Most began at an age between 6 to 8 years. Until the age of six a child isn’t able to take up a dance training session, I was told. In addition, the body is still growing and a dance training would be unhealthy for younger children. Some children were more talented than others, but either way certain difficulties still arose. Some children were often not able to maintain the basic position, sometimes they couldn’t improve it for many years. After a while, some children lost the pleasure in dancing, because the repetitive training of the basic steps was monotonous. And the basic steps were so repetitiously trained, because the posture and muscles should be strengthened. Only after years I realized that this kind of teaching is anything but useful. In fact, there is no method of teaching children in Bharata Natyam. In the end the children learn the same in the same order as adults.
I began to study dance pedagogy in general and children’s dance education in particular, and realized that there are well-developed guidelines for dance educators in ballet. But in Bharata Natyam no one seems to mind, although our dance schools are mainly visited by young people. Especially the books of Gisela Peters-Rohse and Judith Frege captivated me. These two dance educators have devoted their entire artistic life to this matter. They answered all my questions. Finally, I have been able to add effective knowledge to my intuitive opinion that our way of teaching children is deficient. I would like to share my findings here with you:
Children have a natural and innate joy to move to music and rhythm. Long before a child is mentally and physically ready to learn an academic dance like Bharata Natyam, there’s a simple need to try different movements with the body. One can easily observe this with very small children, who start moving around when listening to music, and later on, they make small fantasy dances through the living room. These were usually the mothers who stood with their three-year-olds in our dance school and said that their child had a special talent. This is not necessarily the case, but these mothers had intuitively the right intention, namely, that this joy of movement should be encouraged. Instead they were asked to come back in three years.
Mrs. Peters-Rohse makes a very good and plausible example in a documentary (highly recommended!). At school, children learn the meaning of letters and are carefully introduced to numbers. They slowly gain confidence in dealing with these new tools and hence become self-confident in writing, reading and arithmetic. In dance it is no different. Before teaching children a specific kind of dance, one must give them a sense of how to use the body as an instrument. The child’s imagination is almost limitless and open to a wide range of so-called body-vocabulary, which should not be limited to a restrictive dance form right away. On the contrary, this imagination should be encouraged and stimulated at the very outset.
A very important point in children’s dance education is the correct handling of their flexible bodies. Children under 8 years are tender and soft. They must be strengthened in a manner appropriate to their age. Only after such a preparation they can hold a position and maintain it, only such a training make’s it harmless to strain their joints for dance movements. This strengthening cannot be achieved by the dance itself. I would even go so far as to say that it’s negligent to send a child into dance training without appropriate muscle-building and strength-enhancing measures. Speaking so, you shouldn’t imagine a fitness program for kids. One can use skilful exercises and imaginative improvisations, which focus on a definite function in the body, which tone the muscles and improve body perception.
In quiet moments, I imagine what kind of dancers these children will be, who go through such a preparation before they learn Bharata Natyam. I imagine how easy it will be for them to take an Ardha Mandali and be able to hold it because they have been prepared for it in a healthy and attentive way. I imagine the bright faces when these children look forward to their classes, because their bodies are strong enough to move quickly in the learning process. And I imagine the wonderful body expression these children have, because they have gained self-confidence through a focused preparation, because they have learned to use their body in a conscious way.
It doesn’t matter if we see ourselves primarily as stage artists or dance educators. Children are the future of our art. We should abandon our false pride and acknowledge what other great dance forms have achieved in certain areas and take them as a model. We can only uphold the claim to be respected as a classical dance art if we are also ready to accept and correct the deficits in our system. As far as I’m concerned, I will never again teach Bharata Natyam to any child who hasn’t received a preparatory body training. And I wish for the future that other Bharata Natyam teachers also realize that we are playing here completely unnecessarily with fire.
Frege, Judith (2013): Kreativer Kindertanz. Grundlagen, Methodik, Ziele. Mit Beispiel einer Unterrichtsstunde. Leipzig: Henschel Verlag.
Peters-Rohse, Gisela (2012): Das Kind und sein Tanz. Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel Verlag.
Watch the film on Gisela Peters-Rohse here: https://vimeo.com/86074737