Indian classical dance, my specialist art form, almost always has a story. My choreography builds on rhythms and steps that have developed over hundreds of years, but if we have a story, it is fascinating, especially when a whole group is telling their story in dance.
When I started working with people with dementia at the Eric Liddell Community, I would always start by asking for a story. It could be as simple as how they made their way to the centre that day, or what they had eaten for their dinner. And from these short stories I would put together the dances.
Indian classical dance includes hand gestures, called mudras, and we stamp our feet to rhythms – a lot! These movements are part of the dance but for my older students it is also movement as therapy. It is amazing to see how suddenly, slowly, they come alive to the music and the new way of movement.
I didn’t come to Scotland to be a dancer; I came here from India about 30 years ago to do my Masters in landscape architecture. At that time no-one knew about this thing called classical Indian dance and I worked hard to perform my dances wherever I could, to build up interest and support.
In those early days, my dancers and I used a community yoga space before the morning classes started. We would see older folk there and I thought it would be amazing to work with them in dance. It was a new idea for classical Indian dance, traditionally it is not an activity for older people. Most dancers in India are expected to stop dancing, performing, at around 50 or earlier although it’s changing now, with a growing awareness of the links between health and movement.
I started doing free sessions with the older women and friendships grew alongside their enjoyment of the classes. But it taught me a hard lesson about this new direction for my art when one of my students passed away. It was a shock, and I realised that working with older people also needs you – as an artist – to be prepared. From one session to the next, older students may become sick or be physically no longer able to attend; yet even so I also saw very clearly how much my dancing was a wonderful outlet for fun and movement for older people.
Now – as an unexpected bonus of the pandemic – I am working online with a few groups of older Asian women and their carers. They are shy about their dancing, and it is mostly off screen, but we hope to be together in a studio soon for face-to-face sessions.
The intricate hand movements of Indian classical dance, and the footwork are easily adapted to therapeutic use. There is challenge to achieve the poses and to move the fingers just so, but if practised little and often it does help mobility.
I understand the benefits better than many because I stopped dancing for 18 months when I had eye surgery. When I started back, I had knee pains and stiffness and that’s when I truly understood how difficult leg lifts or sitting on the floor can be for some of my older students. Even so I also see that the more we practise, the more flexible we can become.
As my Guru Shri Jayan, and popular media, says: if you keep dancing, if you keep moving, you will feel stronger and happier. For older people I would love to see them practise regularly; not to make them dancers necessarily but for the physical and mental benefits.
My Gurus are and have been very very strict. I started dancing at the very young age of 3. During my teenage years in India, I would be dancing at 5am – 100 steps on the right and 300 steps on the left. To jump down, lift leg, jump down, lift leg, but now I thank him. I’m 60 this year and I can still dance.
I don’t want to be a Guru. I will be myself and not treat dances as strict discipline, although the form and geometry of the dance is very important. I have had great collaborations matching my Indian dance to Scottish, Celtic, and Irish music, as they share a rhythm and melody that is somehow familiar to me. Dance has taken me around the world and my company Dance Ihayami has been part of many national and international collaborations, festivals and melas in Scotland and abroad. I am telling my story with dance, but I am also so happy that the dance form I love has kept telling the stories of so many others as well.