Guide to Bharatanatyam
Step One: Tatta Adavu (Tapping)
Tapping is first. Tapping is always first, from the first infinity to the last. Tapping is the crux of dance and dance is the crux of life. Learn to tap, your guru says, and everything else will follow.
That’s why the first thing you learn in dance class is how to count under your breath. “One, two, three . . . beat . . . one, two, three . . .” You have to say it out loud. If you don’t, numbers don’t form fully and rhythm eludes you. Your hot breath mingles with sweat and stale deodorant. “One, two, three . . .” Soon, the numbers slip from your mouth easily and you know the count the way you know the words of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, although you haven’t yet learned how to read.
When your hand remembers the steps faster than you can, your guru pats your back for the first time. Although her figure has bloated with the years, she is a dancer herself. She pretends to wear her curves sensually and knows the value of this moment.
Tapping is the crux of dance and dance is the crux of life.
"Congratulations," she tells you. "You’re on your way."
But don’t forget to bend your knees. Make sure your hands are behind your waist and that your palms bend outwards.
Tapping matters. But not as much as you thought it did.
Step Two: Natta Adavu (Stretching)
Stretch. Stretch until your calves ache and quiver, until the balls of your feet feel melded to the rubbery floor. Deviations from focus will wobble you, ground you in the now, and you will lean as the earth leans.
By now, you are a dance veteran. At four, you joined the class with your horde of friends since birth, all smooth feet and curls. Indian parents have a need to push their children: karate for Karans and kathak for Kirans. But as feet grew blisters and hair grew frizzy, your friends started to vanish one by one. Now, it’s just you and five other girls in the dingy gym rented from the local basketball team for one hour every Wednesday night. Five other girls who don’t mind standing on their tippy toes until their nails crumble and peel. Who don’t mind tightening their buns until their heads ache and throb. Who, like you, know that this doesn’t matter. Because when you can tell stories with your eyes and hands, how could anything else matter?
Step Three: Visharu Adavu
This is the step where you begin to wish you really were a goddess and not just playing one, so you would have arms enough to accommodate the moves. It’s the hardest part, according to your guru. If you can do this, you can do anything. Balance your arms in the lotus position; they may burn and shiver, but that just means you’re doing it right. Slowly, you realize your hands are no longer part of you—they have a will of their own. After a while, they move to the beat before the instructions reach your brain. They remember the steps faster than you can. You’re impressed and slightly taken aback by this. For the first time, you don’t have to think to dance.
This is the step where you begin to wish you really were a goddess and not just playing one . . .
Today is the first day that your guru pats your back. “Good,” she says, and her smile is not forced. She is a dancer herself, so she knows the value of this moment. You wouldn’t be able to tell if she hadn’t told you, though. Her figure has bloated with the years, although she pretends to wear her curves sumptuously. Her eyes are still the eyes of a dancer, however; they are dark and expressive, like yours should be. Open wide for a smile. Lashes fluttering for femininity. Slanted cheekily for character.
After a year, you can wrap a sari like an expert and shame on you if you haven’t already mastered the art of kajal. Stories are important, your guru says. But you need to look the part as well. After all, Princess Sita would never have been seen with smeared lipstick.
Oh, and don’t forget to smile.
Step Four: Tattimetti Adavu (Balancing)
After the stretching comes the balance. You stand in the same position for so long that you begin to feel twinges in places you didn’t know twinges could happen. Your backside cramps every day, but your mother ices your spine and you harden your mind.
This is the year that your dance class moves out of the gym and into a small, red brick building all to itself, with an official sign and business cards to its name. Suddenly, your guru is more serious about everything. No stray smudges of mascara, no tiny tremors in positions. This is her business now and you are her client. You wonder what happened to the woman your mother used to invite over for tea.
You dance in a studio now. The walls are hospital white and the girls are just shadows on their surfaces. Mirrors are everywhere. There are two, three—too many to count; they must stretch into infinity. There’s a moment, in the middle of a twirl, when you can look at your reflection and lose it before it’s found. You dance against the light beating in those tiny cracks where one mirror ends and the other has not yet begun.
There’s a moment, in the middle of a twirl, when you can look at your reflection and lose it before it’s found.
Step Five: Teermanam Adavu (Ending)
Your guru’s hair is newly cut and highlighted with streaks of light brown, so she has to blow it heavily out of her eyes when she criticizes you now. Illogically, this softens the blow of the insult. “Big smiles,” she reminds you. “This is the happy ending.”
The endings are always happy.
As you pose for the ending, arms raised high in the air, you feel the weight of an invisible book in your hands. If you were to open it, it would shine in the dim light of the stage. It’s hard to read the words inside, but easy to imagine them.
You presume you came from somewhere, but this is all you can remember: the noise of lethargic applause, the dim light, and the watching eyes.
Your mother couldn’t come to watch this show; she is the on-call nurse at the hospital, and your father is away on business in Singapore. Before she dropped you off, she kissed your cheek and told you that you looked like a princess in your costume. You disagree—in a too-big sari that’s tapered in all the wrong places, you look like an upside-down ice cream cone—but you smiled back at her anyway. Now you wait in the parking lot, watching as proud parents hug accomplished daughters and drive off into the hazy afternoon sun.
Molting gray pigeons perch on the sidewalk beside your battered flip flops. Their claws scratch words you can’t understand into the dirt. Together, you wait for a new day.
Step Six: Sarikal Adavu (Sliding)
It doesn’t seem logical that you learn to slide after you learn to finish. Your guru tells you that this is because there is a grace to the slide that can only come from experience.
This is a lie, you learn quickly. The slide isn’t an art; it’s a calculation. It translates movements into variables, renders your actions generic to the contours of any form. Your body is linear, the y-axis of a Cartesian plane, and the three points of your head, chest and torso are distributed evenly and vertically. Symmetry matters. Poetry doesn’t.
Your dance is boiled down into degrees of measured space.
Before, school was a temporary station in between dance classes. But the quiet boy two rows down from you in your biology class has changed that. He is like no one you’ve ever seen before, with steely eyes and a face of planes and angles. You admire him the way women admire men who know they are to be admired.
“Everything is dying!” your teacher proclaims excitedly, jolting you out of your daydreams as she tries in vain to hammer the concept of entropy into the brains of summer-ready students.
She’s misunderstood the concept. You know this because you’ve read ahead in the textbook. Everything isn’t dying, it’s simply changing. One state to another. Ice melts, then boils. It is far better to be many things than it is to be one.
Step Seven: Kudittametta Adavu (Jumping)
The final step is the jump. This is a dancer’s pride and joy; this is the step that differentiates mediocre from good, good from excellent. The day you master the jump, your head spins in giddiness. This is it. You are a dancer. It’s done. You know you’ve nailed it because, after a performance, a bird-like woman with bright lip gloss hands you a business card. “Dance is an art,” she tells you. “We need young dancers like you.”
Your guru offers you a tight-lipped smile. “Congratulations,” she says, and for the first time you can remember, her eyes are empty.
After the woman walks away, you pointedly throw the card in the trash, making sure that your guru can see. She pretends that she can’t.
The boy’s name is Alex, and he likes football. You realize the minute he asks you out that it’s a mistake, but you say yes anyway. Sweaty palms. Nervous giggles. You kiss like a rooster; you lost your feathers in the fight. Your eyes must be muted when you paint yourself with papier-mâché.
You kiss like a rooster; you lost your feathers in the fight.
After you end things with him, you quit dance. Your guru’s eyes betray no emotion, but you can see glimpses of who you used to be reflected in their hollow spaces. Memorize your script and recite it.
On your way out, the darkness of the studio lights up with a blue and red pulse. A heartbeat thuds in the background, but it is not your own. You forget that you must tap to it. Out of the corner of your eye, you think you see the shadow of a woman, a dancer, silhouetted against the wall. Light hits it, and she dissipates. She becomes floating particles in the air. Dust you swallow when you’re struggling to breathe. The room is a riddle; its vacant space is organized into a question. Our answer has already been found and forgotten.
One, two, three . . . beat . . . one, two, three . . .
Namrata Verghese is an undergraduate third-year and Robert W. Woodruff Scholar at Emory University, pursuing a double major in English/Creative Writing and Psychology/Linguistics. Her work has appeared in storySouth, Litro Magazine, NY Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first collection of short stories, tentatively entitled Hyphenated, is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger Books.
Illustrated by Carson McNamara.