It was one of those evenings, dark already, unpredictable weather, cold and chilly one day, hot, humid and sweaty the next. It was the latter that evening. I was in my dance class, dancing and sweating in equal measures in my long flowy white dress, the beautiful Anarkali, tied across with a sunshine yellow dupatta. We weren’t that many that day, less crowded than usual, about 12 or so of us. We were done with almost 35 minutes of our class, which usually runs for an hour but on lucky days a little longer and on luckier days a whole lot longer. We had just finished a piece – a beautiful one, attributed to the Muslim rulers of the Mughal era, one that was as lyrical and elegant as strictly ruled by rhythm.
In one section, about three fourths of the way in, it has nothing but footwork, with minimal movements of the hands, head and eyes. I was struggling with it, we were all struggling with it. We were not going to do anything more today, no more of the intricate or flamboyant moves, no moving our hands, heads, necks, our teacher declared. “Nothing but your feet”.
You see, in Kathak, it is crucial that we get the footwork right..if you don’t get this right, nothing else matters. In Kathak, as in tap dancing, it all starts with your feet. Meanders through the rest of your body, toe to head, to your innards, your emotions, those emotions reflected through your whole being and then finally ends at your feet again, surrendering to the beats of the Tabla. The beats, repeated 4 times, went:
Dhigh Dhigh Dhigh Dhigh, Tha
Dhigh Dhigh Dhigh ||
Tha, Dhigh Dhigh
Tha, Dhigh Dhigh ||
There is no live Tabla in class, we dance to the sound of my teacher’s voice. This set of beats is recited lyrically by our dear teacher, Shweta. It sounds musical, yet mathematically rhythmic – 4 times 4 or 8 times 2, a total of 16 beats or Theen Taal, repeated continuously. All turning into one long heady, mesmerizing intonation.
There’s more, this is just the first pattern, there are 4 more after this and then a whole other set with varying speeds. For each beat, you strike the ground with your feet, taking turns, one foot at a time. The part of the foot used to strike the ground is different each time, each produces a different sound, a different look and a different feel in your body. Sometimes it is the heel, lifted and dropped to the ground to make a thud. At other times, the heel does a kicking motion, with strength enough to produce a sound. Yet another time, the whole foot is lifted and struck against the ground, producing a loud clapping noise. And so on.
It all comes together beautifully – the sum is much greater than the parts. If you do it well that is. As with most beautiful things crafted in life, it does not come easy. Don’t be fooled when you see a good classical dancer on stage, they make it look magical precisely because they have sweated for years on end to make it appear so.
We were nowhere near magical, it sounded disruptive, out of rhythm, a cacophony of noises, amplified by the Ghungroos – the dancing bells tied around our ankles. Then I heard my teacher’s voice loud and clear, over the sound of my own Ghungroos and others :
“Grab the earth with your feet.”
“Grab the earth with your feet”. The analytical part of my brain went – grip the ground, not grab the earth, but then just like that I was smitten by that sentence. It lingered around through the rest of the class and it made home in my mind somewhere – an amorphous and transient thought. It slowly morphed into a definitive shape and announced it’s presence at the most unexpected moments. It has taken more than a few days for it to sink in. In my dance, my body and my feet. It is a process and I’m still working on it.
This technique was and is an epiphany to me. Counter intuitively or logically (or perhaps illogically) thinking, I was under the impression, all these years when I practiced footwork, that when I went lighter with my feet and my body, it would be easier to lift, maneuver and strike at speed. Here I was, hearing the exact opposite. “Hold on to the earth, to the ground, with that one foot while the other is doing it’s thing”. The grounding to the earth and the strength that comes from it lets you move with ease, with balance and precision. You are no longer unsteady. You got this. You can even bring magic to your feet, some day.
As I’ve been mulling over this, I realized how metaphorically beautiful it is – When life knocks you off your feet, when you are unsteady, you don’t have to keel over, you just have to grab the earth, with all your strength. How, you ask ? First find your earth…that person or place or a thought or a thing or a memory or a hope in your life that steadies you, that nurtures you and that which gives you reason to keep standing, in spite of the curve balls. And then grab that earth. It will keep you from falling over, keep you steady, keep you dancing.