Dance medicine and Bharata Natyam
There are certain deficiencies in the ways we teach and practise Bharata Natyam, which we need to address. A highly relevant one is how we follow – or rather ignore – anatomic and kinetic principles.
Often, solutions to problems which consequentially arise would be very simple and easy to implement into our current way of dancing. All the more I’m surprised how much I still have to emphasize this importance when talking to other dancers of our field. It’s important to the future of this art form that we are serious about our responsibility in handling bodies and it should be a natural demand of all of us, that we always strive to improve our respective methods. By blogging about dance medicine, I want to specifically reach other Bharata Natyam dancers and teachers and give them a thought-provoking impulse.
My today’s blog will be an introduction to this subject and I will explain why this matter is so important to me. In my case, my interest in dance medicine and my conviction about its usefulness to Bharata Natyam dancers is deep-rooted in my career as dancer.
I started my career as a kind of child-talent. I did my stage debut at an early age, I gave radio and newspaper interviews, I taught dance to other kids in workshops and I did lots of solo performances. With my mothers dance troupe and as her stage partner I travelled through all of Europe. Our feedback as mother-daughter-duo was great. Before having an inner artistic maturity, I already received awards from people who hardly knew who I was or what my abilities were. Only praises reached me, criticism, which was there for sure, seldom did. These experiences made me believe that my quality as a dancer could be measured by the amount of response I got. Hence I was good. I lived a pretty much easy-going and satisfying life as a young dancer.
I had my first knee issues few years before I turned 18. Physiotherapists told me to strengthen my leg muscles in order to stabilise my kneecap, but that didn’t help. I paused with my dance training for almost a year, partly out of frustration, partly because I was overburdened and didn’t know what to do. When I was 19 years old we went on a big dance tour. Meanwhile I wasn’t a child talent anymore, but my appearance was pretty, so that was my new asset. One of our performances was witnessed my Prof. C. V. Chandrashekar, a renowned Bharata Natyam artist and Guru. For the first time, I was confronted with a competent outsider’s criticism, or rather with reluctant praise. I seriously questioned my abilities. In the meantime my knee problems didn’t really improve. My first appointment with Dr. Christian Larsen at the Bethanien clinic in Zurich was on the 31st of August 2000. He immediately found the reason for my pain and suggested therapy. Everything he said sounded very reasonable. But somehow I managed to dance and Dr. Larsen’s wise words were easily ignored.* Quite exactly a year later a physiotherapist in Mumbai predicted that my professional dance career will end within few years because of my health issues. This is the kind of forecast that makes any aspiring 20-year-old dancer collapse in total despair.
What followed were years of searching. Searching for cure on one hand, searching for real and sincere appreciation on the other. Slowly I realised that all these past years I was measuring my talent in dance within the wrong parameters. I steadily developed a healthy and goal-oriented ambition. But my endeavours were interrupted again and again by my physical limitations. It took me another six years, a completely useless arthroscopy without any results and lots of appointments with random sport medicine specialists until I found my way back to Dr. Larsen and his wise words. I started off with physiotherapies, first for my feet, then for my hip and afterwards for my neck. It has been almost ten years since then and I’ve been completely free of pain ever since. And I haven’t terminated my career at all. On the contrary, through hard work and my steady ambition I have reached exactly the quality as a dancer, which I have always strived for.
Looking back I have to admit that I was lucky things didn’t turn out worse. There was a moment, when my despair couldn’t drag me any deeper, that I settled all my bad feelings, which I had towards my knee. I wanted my knee to have a life without pain. As a service in return I asked my knee to help me achieve my goals as a dancer. When you start dancing as a child you often don’t realise (or maybe too late), which impact it has to be aware of your body. Usually the young body is flexible, it does all the movements that we demand and as long as everything works, the body is nothing more than a means to an end. And that’s the danger. With the right prevention at the right age there can be healthy dancing without pain, even on an advanced level.
I often ask myself how many dancers are out there, having experienced similar things as I did. I saw so many young women, who have been dancing in pain and mistreating their body. In the end they had to quit, leave their passion for dance and all the endured pain was for nothing. How much lost potential, how many unused possibilities! Does it have to be like this?
Now, that I have been learning about dance medicine for several years and practicing the same, I see all the holes in our dance system. How many children are being trained in Ardha-Mandali (a kind of plié as in ballet) without considering the rotation angle of their hip joints? How many hollow backs are being ignored because we don’t give enough attention to the position of the pelvis and the lumbosacral passage? How much are the joints being overstrained at the beginning because we leave it solely to the dance steps to do all the leg-muscle building instead of implementing additional appropriate exercises? I’d be unable to teach any student with a quiet conscience hadn’t I meanwhile acquired the relevant knowledge. If there are Indian dance teachers who are planning to follow my example – Bravo! For all the others, read my blog and build an awareness of how you treat bodies in dance.
*One more reason, why I didn’t follow Dr. Larsen’s therapy-proposals back in 2000, was the poor reimbursement of Spiraldynamik®-physiotherapy at the health insurance. To this day I pay significantly more as a patient going to a Spiraldynamik®-therapy instead of a “normal” therapy. My yearlong Odyssey to dozens of doctors was in the end more expensive for the Swiss health care system than if I would have been given the opportunity to getting a Spiraldynamik®-therapy in the first place. If you read this and happen to be in charge of any of the Swiss health insurance companies, please do me favour and have a look at this matter.