In this blog, Nikita discusses what she has experienced as three main stages of becoming a well-rounded dancer;
- Style and
- Expression. Here she shares an insightful perception of all 3 based on her own dancing.
When I was first introduced to technique in my teenage years it was my escapism; away from exams, pressure and puberty. It was my disconnection from the world. Then as I gradually started getting serious into it, it became more about correcting my lines/angles. I was no longer able to dance without me or my teacher correcting my technique. I enjoyed that, because I knew it looked better when I did it "right" and it felt better. I hated feeling floppy when I danced. It frustrated me that we were not allowed mirrors in my class, as all of my teachers have always believed that they themselves should be a student's mirror. Never the less I encourage my students to use it today as a valuable tool, and I often say that a mirror is your 'best friend' in dance. Because it will tell you exactly what you are doing wrong, if you know what to observe.
I used to come home and spend hours in front of the mirror; correcting my postures and watching myself mime words to see how my facial expressions looked. I would record myself dancing and then watch it back. I would ask people to watch me and then get their honest opinions and constructive criticism on how I should improve. I'd then make notes and take that on board and ensure that I implemented it. I kept a diary/journal of my progress and constantly updated it with both positives as well as negatives.
If a movement was not accurately broken down in class when it was taught to me, I would go home and break it down myself. I would then piece it together and show my teacher the following week. I enjoyed exploring movement. I found it meditative, even as a youngster. I lost myself in the process of moving my hand from one place to the next and feeling my body's reaction to it. It is one thing understanding that the hand should go from here to there, but for me what was important was the process in between. The journey of how the hand got there.
My fellow students in my class felt like I was showing off, when the following week I would go and stand at the front and demonstrate what I had worked on to my teacher. She would be pleased with my effort, but they would make sly comments and give me funny looks. They thought I was trying to be better then them, but it was only because I was a serious student. I felt that this was more then just a pass-time. I didn't know it was eventually going to be my career but I knew I got the most pleasure out of it, more so than any other hobby or activity.
Nowadays students have so much more access to learning. For example, I use and encourage my students to use youtube.com. Whereas I used to have to buy DVD's and then play them on my TV when nobody else was around, but now I can sit in my bedroom on my laptop and pass a whole afternoon or evening watching Kathak videos and making notes on what I enjoy watching. I also encourage my students to be curious and we jokingly say we are 'thieves of knowledge'. We take from wherever we can. This goes against the traditional method of strictly learning from one Guru, but even my teacher agrees as long as that's not the sole method of learning, YouTube can and should be used as a great resource for developing and improving a dancers' technique.
I only developed my own style many years into dancing. Initially I replicated every movement in the exact way it was taught to me. I was very sincere in ensuring that I did justice to my teacher's style by keeping it in line with the way she interprets dance. It was only when I started practicing professionally, I spent more time alone observing myself and realising that if I do things differently they look better. For example, due to my height, I can afford to bend a lot or go lower to the ground and because I have long arms, I can extend them more than perhaps she does. So I was not changing choreography, I was just adapting the style of the movement to suit my body and what I felt within. I would make sure I always showed her and got her approval though. That's why I often say that she is my mentor as well as teacher. A teacher teaches, but a mentor observes, analyses and gives feedback. With my students, I try to do both. I frequently assess their progress and let them know how they are doing.
The drawback in UK is, that students attend classes a lot less frequently than in India for example. 2-4 days per week is the norm there whereas here they struggle with even once a week. Then to make time for practice in between is a challenge. As we know without practice no skill or hobby can be developed. Especially not a refined art form such as Kathak.
So what I notice is that I teach the movements, students pick up very well but then not much work is done at home on it. Majority of them come back the following week having remembered what I taught the previous week, but dance is not an exercise for the brain, its muscle memory.
I genuinely believe that expression is more natural in some than in others. I was fortunate to have always been an expressive person. As a child, and even a baby I would be making different types of faces, emoting various expressions, which would make adults laugh. This was useful for Kathak and Bollywood when it came to miming words of songs. What I did struggle with was the language, but for that I asked my parents to translate the song lyrics for me so I could memorise them. Again nowadays with easy access to technology, students can use the Internet to print off song lyrics. I observed dancers like Madhuri Dixit and Sri Devi, to watch how they used their faces, particularly their eyes.
When all three stages merge together, it creates magic on stage. When a dancer is fully in tune with themselves, connecting their body, to their mind, to their spirit... When the artist's technique is complimented by their own explored style, enhanced by expression it is a beautiful state to be a part of for a spectator. That's what I try to aspire to as a performer and encourage my students to do. To create magic, not just in that moment on stage but throughout the build up. The entire process of dance is a rewarding journey of self discovery.