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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Takadimi takajono tum tum tum
Independent Bharatanatyam Dancer Sarra Whicheloe considers issues of quality in delivering South Asian dance
The joy of teaching dance, for me, is in observing what the participants take away with them after the workshop. I have heard primary school children chanting takadimi takajono, which are Indian drum syllables, as they walk back to their classroom after a workshop. I have seen teenagers practicing the dance routine from the workshop, in the playground. These immediate responses give me an indication of the quality of my teaching and whether the participants value it.

Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form that originates in southern India. Hand gestures and facial expressions are an integral part of the expressive aspect of the dance. These are juxtaposed against a wide array of jumps, kicks, turns, floor work and dynamic footwork. The theatrical and musical aspects of Bharatanatyam, as well as its classical structuring of movement make it very versatile. One is able to work creatively beyond the cultural and traditional confines of the dance form, whilst maintaining its quality. The dance leader works with the principle of the dance form to make it accessible and relevant to the participants.

Working in the community has been a great source of my creative development. This creativity has arisen from the question of how to connect with the audience, or user group through Bharatanatyam. The key is to explore the principles of the dance form. For me it is the dance leader's ability to work with the principles of the dance form and to meet the needs of different contexts that is a mark of quality. Teaching practice for South Asian Dance is now far beyond a cultural presentation, with the copying of shapes and imitation of Indian iconography. An Indian Dance leader is no longer a cultural ambassador but an exponent of a classical dance theatre style. It is this focus on the art form and adapting it as a physical language for a diverse range of people, that brings the quality experience.

Beeja dance company has offered Bharatanatyam workshops in Britain for the last twelve years. Directed by Anusha Subramanyam, Beeja is a company with an ethos for excellence and the emphasis is to bring a professional level of dance teaching and performance practice to the community. The challenges have been to maintain a high standard within environments that are not dance specific. It is crucial to enthuse people with a vision for quality and to inform them how to be involved in making the event a success.

For a school residency by Beeja, a team of dancers, musicians, composers and a designer, embarked on a dance theatre performance based on animal stories. This performance was based on the Panchatantra, the Indian equivalent to Aesop's Fables. With support from the Haringey Children's Fund we created a performance with 100 children from South Haringey Primary schools in 2003. The vision was to maximise the potential of the participants, the artists involved and the wider community. A large percentage of children came from fragmented homes, dislocated backgrounds and spoke English as a second language. The value of the project was in the positive influence it had on the behaviour of the children and their capacity to learn.

Part of the success of this project was the extent to which the school community at large got involved: class teachers helped the children to create poetry on animals, the family learning group created the costumes, and the PE teacher rehearsed the dance routines. The project created a sense of belonging and identity within the school, as a community. Encouraging parents to participate in their children's learning and developing the children's confidence, was an essential aspect of the project. People were brought together towards a common goal, through the arts.

West Green Community Chest and The Milly Apthorpe Trust have supported Beeja for numerous performance projects in Barnet and Haringey. These performances ranged from schools, to homes for the elderly and day care centres. Wonders in Numbers was a performance that toured Primary Schools in Haringey, aiming to excite children through their involvement with numbers in dance. The musician provided vocal rhythms, and the children shouted out numbers, which were reflected in the dancers movements. To ensure a professional standard of performance it is important to have respect for the audience and to have a clear understanding of what aspects of the dance style are appropriate to the particular audience. At Beeja, we continue to explore ways of interacting with the audience so that they become part of the performance.

Colour Contacts was a site specific performance as part of the Museum of London's London Voices exhibition in 2003, and Beeja created a performance based on the museum's oral history archive. Recordings of people's experience of living in London were the textual basis for the dance piece. Real recordings were incorporated into the sound track used for the performance. Colour Contacts was performed in Brent Cross Shopping Centre and Southwark underground station, both at the heart of the community. This overcame barriers to participation in a professional level of dance. Taking dance out of the confines of the proscenium stage, it was essential to maintain the quality of performance so by having some live musical accompaniment the performance had a spontaneous and interactive element.

 Quality and excellence, for me, has been about developing my creativity and innovation in Bharatanatyam, inspired by the needs and responses of the participants who I work with, and learn from. The excitement and interest in Bharatanatyam by primary school children, GCSE dance students, and groups of disabled people, is very encouraging. Audiences and pupils continue to be fascinated and to enjoy rhythm, music, dance and theatre, in the versatile dance form, Bharatanatyam.

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Animated: Spring 2008