The Survival Debate Eclipsed

A young dancer recently interviewed by this correspondent admitted that she preferred performing to teaching, though she enjoyed both. That she taught because she wanted to dance remained unsaid, perhaps because it seemed so obvious.
Performing and teaching are seen so contiguously that we never question why things are the way they are in the first place. Simpler answers may lie in the fact that performance opportunities are scarce; paid performances even more so. By teaching dance, you continue to engage with it, finding ways to sustain yourself through it. Dancers can’t go hungry because they want to be on stage, can they?
Hunger makes for a compelling argument; other questions pale into insignificance before it, as politics taught us ages ago. The ways in which dancers are conditioned to think, act and function are easily obscured by the sustenance logic.
How many dancers does it take to fix a light-bulb? Just one — and the dancer could do it in his/her sleep. Indian dancers are trained to be all-pervading and omniscient. Most dancers have only known this way, from designing the invites to orchestrating light design, they do everything themselves. For if there’s no food on the table, a set designer is an uncalled for luxury.
Not that they’re superhuman. Often, as dancer-educator Sanjukta Wagh points out, performance management lies in the hands of an invisible group of students, who are rarely acknowledged, let alone paid for it. Perhaps this is a manifestation of olden-day forms of training — the guru-shishya parampara, where learning lies in living, not just practice. But it also spurs the thought that dancers are so conditioned to functioning as one-person units that they have never reinforced the need for support systems and demanded them as a right.
It might be contentious to say that teaching dance as a career option emerges from this conditioning, but that might not be entirely untrue. Teaching dance is seen as a natural step forward from learning — helping a dancer understand the dance form better and discover its nuances.
It is widely accepted that all dancers don’t teach for the love of it.
“There are very few natural teachers. Teaching is an inborn aptitude. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you like to teach it and can teach it. From my experience of working in schools, I’ve realised that bad teachers are everywhere. One needs to note that brainwashing is part and parcel of dance training. We are brainwashed into believing that we are the upholders of the great Indian tradition, hence the responsibility of cultural preservation and propagation rests on our shoulders,” says Delhi-based dancer Navtej Johar.
He adds, “Most teachers fall into this holier-than-thou trap of feeling superior and exerting moral authority, which is detrimental to any open-minded transmission and reception.”
Johar goes on to describe the various kinds of performers and teachers one may come across.
“Some artistes love to perform. Balasaraswati was one such person. There are others who love performing, but teach because they have to sustain themselves. And there is a huge contingent of such people, who teach because they have to, but hate it. There are some who love to teach, while being fantastic performers. And then there are those who teach because they feel it is their moral responsibility. For me, teaching is actually a fantastic learning experience. I absolutely love teaching, though I find it very exhausting. In one way, teaching dance is very personal,” he explains.
What Johar terms teaching out of moral responsibility — the “noble” quality of teaching — is worth studying, given that dance education is now emerging in different contexts and catering to varied needs.
Dance education encompasses degrees in dance and “trifling” school workshops, regardless of their varying seriousness of purpose. While these contexts seem polarised, at the other end lies a field of “fulltime” dancers.
With due respect to those who enjoy pedagogical quests, is it farcical to question why dancers must engage in a gamut of dance-related work to continue as performing artistes? Somewhere, deep-down, lurks the need to converse with government policies and ideas of tradition and investigate why multitasking is seen and even accepted as inevitable.
Preethi Athreya, a Chennai-based contemporary dancer, asserts that any successful teaching practice effects in some degree a genuine mutual need that is beyond survival.
“Not every performer makes a good teacher and not every exceptional teacher makes an exceptional performer. This is not to say that the two are unconnected. Whether you teach or perform, there is a process by which information turns to knowledge. For many dancers, the penny drops when they try to articulate what they know in their own bodies to other people who are trying to acquire the same skills. The process clarifies and reinforces what has been assimilated unconsciously over time,” Athreya says.

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