Sutra Foundation started its Dance Outreach program in 2013 with the intention of offering opportunities to children and teenagers (from age 6 to 15 years old) to benefit from a formal training in dance.
In 2014, Sutra Dance Outreach program had expanded to three areas outside of Klang Valley, where the youths are deemed to be living in environments which are saturated with commercialism and befuddling values.
The program’s major objective is to provide the best teaching methods and early exposure to the exciting and creative world of Indian dance. Through the program, we hope to develop a love for timeless traditional ideals and, eventually, the youth themselves, be the cultural bridges for the communities.
Simultaneously, Sutra is also keen to discover new dance talents outside city centres. Odissi, an exquisite classical dance from Eastern India which has been successfully transplanted in Malaysia, initially serves as the dance discipline chosen to kindle this physical and character transformation. Later, Bharatanatyam, the popular classical dance of South India, is added into the repertoire.
Over the years, Sutra has developed an efficient methodology of training the dancer and preparing the body through an eclectic, specially designed ‘physical conditioning’ which effectively inculcates the correct posture, anga-sudha (the perfection of form and lines) and expressivity.
Through this process, Sutra has produced some of the most compelling talents in Malaysian dance and is internationally known for its excellent standard of Odissi and Bharatanatyam.
To effect maximum reach to the community, these programs are presently conducted in temple premise (Shri Maha Mariamman Temple, Rawang) and primary school (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil, Kajang).
In this article we endeavour to share Sutra’s eclectic dance training to develop self commitment and discipline, fostering the sense of belonging and being involved in the community.
II. Why Ground Zero?
We refer to ground zero because the students do not have any experience in dance and therefore, we would have to start from the absolute beginning.
The Indian communities we are dealing with, being out of major town areas, are hardly exposed to good dance, except what they watch on TV or perhaps, the YouTube. Their points of reference where dance is concerned, are with Bollywood or popular dances, which are mainly about commercialized entertainment for the general public. Like junk-food, these are consumed and only partly digested with other indigestible elements that contribute little towards a youth’s emotional and spiritual growth.
Therefore the program attempts to develop not just physical strength but also character, from the exposure to culture.
The challenge is to empower the youths through a dance discipline that is attractive, challenging and able to kindle interest so that their creative potential can be brought to the fore. This pose a challenge when the dance discipline is not one with which they are familiar.
There is a need to simultaneously convince their parents of the positive outcome of sending their children for training.
The initial ‘glamour’ incentive is definitely present as Sutra (a well known dance company in Malaysia) is directly involved in teaching them.
Sutra senior dancers performed regularly at most of the temples in Kuala Lumpur and those outside the city. Generally, we have done much to introduce the Indian classical dances especially during the period of Navarathri. These events are usually attended by temple audience and from nearby community centres. Audience would unlikely be able to experience Odissi, unless they make a special trip to Kuala Lumpur.
Usually, this performance would be an eye opener for them and our first student intake exceeded expectation. Children of all sizes, with a wide range of aptitude for movement and ability to physically coordinate their body parts, and importantly, with hopeful dreams of what they could achieve, would have had their first class. We would take all of them in!
The first class was held once a week and divided into two groups of young children (6- 11 years, Group 1) and young teenagers (11 – 15 years, Group 2). It took about two months for the classes to settle down and find its own level. There was an expected natural attrition of more than 30% when those who found the class difficult, dropped out.
Less than a year after their first class, the Kuala Selangor dance students had their first performance during Navarathri (literally meaning “nine nights”, a traditional nine-day celebration observed twice in the Hindu calendar – the beginning of summer and marking the advent of winter – where dance and music performances are featured in temple precincts) at the Subramaniam Temple, Kuala Selangor – now a sprawling town about an hour drive from Kuala Lumpur with a substantial number of Indian families.
The following year (2014), the same format i.e. of first communicating with the parents, children and youths with a lecture and demonstration to familiarise them with Odissi, was undertaken at two Tamil schools: Kajang and Ladang Sg Choh Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Tamil).
As the previous year in Kuala Selangor, we had tremendous response with parents, children and young teenagers who eagerly attended the lecture demonstrations. However, unlike in Kuala Selangor where the whole company performed at the Subramaniam Temple, we only brought two strong Sutra dancers to perform at the primary schools of Kajang and Ladang Sg Choh.
We also presented a brief video clip showing Sutra’s performances alluding to what can be expected from the outreach program. The underlying message was: excellence could be achieved even by our own local dancers, if they were serious enough.
From the first Kuala Selangor experience we learnt that it was good to make the entrance to the class competitive and from the beginning itself to screen students for efficient result, so as not to waste time. It was imperative that we inculcate the positive attitude of valuing the opportunity that was given to them. We also learnt that nothing should be given absolutely free. Free ‘gifts’ would inevitably be taken for granted.
Uniforms, fees and costumes should not be given but ‘earned’ through proven hard work and dedication.
As much as the project involved the community, we also would like to reach, discover and develop the best talents of the community. The discovery and the grooming of dance talents was a prime concern, as the best result would make good investment besides promoting PR for the future. Producing good dancers, therefore, would be an indicator of the success of the Outreach Program.
We found that it was necessary to screen away those who are temperamentally, physically and musically unsuitable to the demanding rigour of the dance discipline. We had experienced how those who had poor musical sense or who lacked coordination struggled in class.
They would need a different and slower creative movement lessons and were completely at lost in the more ‘driven’ Odissi class promoted in the program. Though we believe in the therapeutic effect of a dance class, these children would be better off exploring a different avenue of creativity found in their own chosen media, more suitable to their temperament and aptitude.
As a result, an audition was set up to instill a constructive competitiveness among the parents and youths with the idea that those who get into the class are ‘special’. This promoted the desired value to the program.
It is important to note that were very few male children who enrolled in this program.
This was not a strict dance audition. As mentioned, most of the students had not been exposed to any form of dance discipline.
Very few had modicum of exposure to bharatanatyam but most had no previous dance training.
The audition therefore aimed to identify those who are clearly not suitable for dance – from either total lack of musical sense or having serious problems with coordination.
Students are requested to perform rudiment of movement exercises such as walking, bending (demi and full plié) and coordinating simple hand gestures.
They are divided into two groups according to ages.
Group A – above 6 to 11 years (not below 6 years)
Group B – above 11 to 15 years (special cases of 16 years)
IV. First Class
We emphasise, in the mutual terms of understanding between students, parents and teaching staff to adhere to the following simple tenets:
- Consistent attendance
- Neat dressing
- Parental cooperation
V. The Training Process
We begin with an introduction to the bhumi pranam, the salutation to Mother Earth and consecration of the space, emphasizing the need to focus all attention to the class.
The class starts with mirror exercises from top to lower limbs. Teaching is done with the dance teacher demonstrating facing the students in mirror reflection manner. The challenge is to go through as many exercises as possible, correctly with emphasis on good postures.
Initially, students partake in simple isolation exercises of joints from head, neck, shoulders, rib cage and spine right down to the ankles. The importance of the spine as the axis mundi of the body cannot be over emphasized and thus the stretching and elongating the vertebrae is primal.
Later incorporation of the more difficult plies / tendue / ronde jambe /battements and even the concept of contraction, are eventually introduced.
We also include specific hatha yoga exercises (surya namaskara (salutation to the sun) / forward & back bending, spinal twists, inverted asanas to limber the body).
Walking (normal & stylized) with long steps across the room.
Spotting in pirouettes (bhramaris) is also introduced.
(We are not able to try out too many jumps due to hard/cement floors)
The students are taught to discriminate long (preferred) and short (not preferred) lines. The idea is to have less talk and more exercises, efficient corrections and judicious repetition, intelligent use of space, coordination, inculcating flexibility and strength of limbs.
The above are undertaken very rigorously before the actual stepping exercises.
(It is imperative to include in our advice the discerning knowledge of food types and discrimination of good diet from junk food and the discouragement of over consumption of refined carbohydrates. The above serious body conditioning investment is vital to re-sculpturing the body, the improvement of which can be discerned and felt by the novice dancers in just a few months (with only once a week dance class).
VI. Training of the Odissi dance technique- Nritta aspect
Simple correct stamping technique in slow, medium and fast speed (trikala) is introduced.
Subsequently, other ‘nritta’ (pure dance) aspects of the Odissi such as the chauka (square, symmetrical position, a deep plié in the second ballet feet position) and the tribhanga (asymmetrical three bends of the head, torso and hip), the two major motifs of Odissi, are taught systematically. Students are made to understand the correct way to negotiate the movement of the rib cage with a change of body weight, (a recurring feature of Odissi) as the key to open many doors of Odissi movement.
As most of the exercises are usually done in a bent leg (plié/araimundi in bharatanatyam) positions, we are careful for students not to exert themselves in these positions for overly long duration. These exercises are preferably repeated at a later stage in short bursts rather than spending too long a time perfecting just any one exercise.
As the school or temple halls are big, dancers do many exercises making full use of the open space rather than doing them on spot. In the future, this gives them a stronger command of space.
This is one of the most difficult aspects to inculcate in a dancer and comes naturally with the enjoyment of the dance and shedding of ‘shyness’ and inhibition. We have to wait longer for a dancer to be confident enough to express her emotions with gestures and through facial expressions.
Admittedly, the area of ‘abhinaya’ in Indian dance, to some extent, is culturally specific and therefore requires time and patience to master. However,‘rasa’ or heightened emotional state, is universally felt and therefore good abhinaya can be encouraged, cultivated and mastered by a sensitive dancer.
The Odissi style taught is that of the late Guru Debaprasad Parampara.
Sutra has its own Odissi music, which was specially commissioned and recorded in Odisha.
Dancers are slowly taught Sutra’s repertoire starting with the simpler to the more challenging works with this recorded music.
One third portion of the portion of the class (about 20 to 30 minutes) is devoted to developing the expertise in mastering the repertoire.
IX. Uniform, Costume& Make-up
Wearing the right attire while dancing is important. The younger children wear ‘kurta-pyjama’ uniform and the older students are encouraged to wear ‘half’ dance saris. These dance saris are specially woven in Odisha for Sutra.
Tying of the ‘half’ dance sari for class and also the full sari for performance and applying special make-up for Odissi performance, are the special skills that we teach our students – the essential know how of being dancers.
Sutra encourages all dancers to be independent no matter how young – to put make-up and be able to tie, not only the uniform dance saris but also the specially tied sari for performance. Parents are not encouraged to help. Instead, senior students help the juniors to master these aspects of grooming in special classes before the novices’ debut performances.
Mastering these skills are great ways to inculcate a sense of independence, personal grooming and pride of oneself whilst at the same time develop responsible sense of duty in the senior dancers who supervise the younger ones.
X. Performance – Navarathri
(Performances during Navarathri are used as a testing ground for “end of year” showcase by the respective Outreach Dance classes)
The informal atmosphere of Navarathri offers a wonderful platform for the young dancers to get use to the idea of performing. During these performances mistakes are still forgivable. Simultaneously, the relaxed atmosphere enable the dancers, parents and friends to enjoy the performances without too much demand from a critical public. Teachers are also able to assess the development of a dancer and her future potential.
The activities of Navarathri embrace many aspects of community participation whereby the individual are informally inducted into the tradition. The involvement of the performing arts, especially music and dance constitutes a major feature of Navarathri.
Temples and sabha halls are infused with highly cultural programs where songs and dances are celebrated with pomp and joy. Families show off their artistic side taking pride and giving moral support to members of the families who are performing.
On the last day of Navarathri, i.e. a special night called Vijayadasami, teachers or gurus who represent repositories of knowledge, are given a formal respect. Ankle bells and jewelries, books and musical instruments and other revered heirlooms, are brought out to be blessed and adored.
Members of the community including dancers participate their role in the larger picture of Life’s tapestry. The myth of origin and knowledge are paid homage to and there is a pervasive sense of joy in the community. Navarathri is celebrated by traditional Indian communities, all over the world.
For dancers of Sutra and also for the students of the Dance Outreach program, the message of dance as means of empowerment manifests in its full pageantry and celebration during Navarathri, culminating in the Vijayadasami.
Students would have had many performances, many opportunities to express themselves and to interact with friends, negotiating and participating in their roles as members of the community. This fosters positive values of giving and taking, among friends and elders, family and community and joyous and loving atmosphere.
Sustainability of Dance Outreach Program
- Long-lasting projects with long-term sponsorship with private sectors.
Eg: as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility
2. To start charge the classes with a partly fees especially those places with a middle range income family community.
Once, during the myth of creation, the gods and demons conspired to churn the Milky Ocean for the Elixir of Immortality (Amrita) to rejuvenate their depleting strength. This churning was the creative act of distilling from the Ocean of Existence, its most precious essence. From the churning emerged both treasures and poisonous by-products until eventually the gift of amrita came forth as the perfect distillate.
The outreach program also represents this metaphoric ‘churning’ of the dancers, catalytic in bringing out their inherent potentials and undiscovered talents. Not only potentials and talents come to the fore but qualities of devotion, humility and sacrifice (seva) emerge as they ‘sweat’ it out in training and performances, interacting with their colleagues and community.
The dancers find themselves shedding off entropied muscles and being distilled physically, emotionally and psychically, emerging with fresher visage of themselves. During these interactive encounters the students discover new meanings in their engagement with traditional cultures and come to realise the joy of this gift.
The positive qualities they have now imbued subsequently become part of their growth as individuals who realise and enjoy a valued role that they can play in their own community.
SUTRA DANCE OUTREACH PROGRAM
Co-Sponsored by Yayasan Raja Muda Selangor (2019/2020)