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Odissi Teachers In The US Show Care For Students By Reframing It As A Stress Buster

"Dance is a therapy for mental and physical development. It’s a stress buster for teenagers and adults.”

“Dance is a therapy for mental and physical development. It’s a stress buster for teenagers and adults.”

“Dancing gives you nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive” – Merce Cunningham.

Ask any dancer and she will probably give a version of the above statement. Dance is life and Life is Dance.

With almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, every profession has adapted to some form of remote working. Dance teachers are no exception. Proponents of every dance form have adapted to online classes, via Zoom and other platforms. Similarly, the Odissi dance community in the U.S. has shifted, adapted and reimagined dance to keep the tradition alive. To highlight their challenges and coping strategies to continue teaching and learning the dance form, we spoke with leading dance teachers, students and parents across the country.

Origins of Odissi

Odissi is one of the eight classical dance forms of India. It originates from the state of Odisha, in eastern India, and is the oldest surviving dance form on the basis of archaeological evidence. The classic treatise of Indian dance, Natya Shastra, refers to it as Odra-Magadhi. First century BC architecture in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneshwar) testify to its antiquity. It’s soft, lyrical grace and enchanting dance style requires disciplined training and practice over years. Along with Odia language, Jagannath and distinctive temple architecture, Odissi is recognized as a distinctive marker of Odisha’s culture and heritage. It gives life to the sculptures carved on the stone walls of the temples of Odisha.

Odissi in North America

In North America, Odissi’s journey has coincided with the arrival of the Odias in the U.S. From the late 1970s and 1980s, few trained dancers joined their husbands and pursued teaching Odissi in different parts of the U.S. Over a period of time, what started as a personal hobby for some, became a profession, as they presented their dance in various formats that engaged and entertained audiences. From the early days of visiting people’s houses, and introducing them to the dance style to showing the value of disciplined training, teachers have come a long way.

We asked a few Odissi teachers for the inspiration behind their dance and teaching in the diaspora. Rohini Dandavate has been promoting Odissi for the last 35 years since she moved to the U.S. “I believe that teaching alleviates one’s own understanding of the art form and the culture it originates in,” she says.

Michigan-based Sushree Sangita Kar concurs. “To promote Odissi is mainly to keep up my own dance practice and to expose students here to our wonderful Odisha culture.”

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Niharika Mohanty, a second generation dancer and teacher based in the Bay Area looks at Odissi as her life’s mission, being blessed by the legendary Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Another Bay Area dancer, Gayatri Joshi has been teaching Odissi since 1998. She has been running her own school for the last 15 years and has trained thousands of students in the bay area.

Bidisha Mohanty of San Jose, California, takes great pride in being a teacher for the last 16 years. She says that the dance form “has definitely made me a more compassionate person.”

Dipti Mallik has been instrumental in bringing Odissi to local elementary and middle schools in the Bay Area. She was surprised that there was not much awareness of the dance among Indians, which motivated her to start her own school eight years ago.

Being a dancer/ teacher in the Diaspora

The observations made by Indian American teachers is evidence that Odissi has become a distinct Indian classical dance tradition in the diaspora among others such as Bharat Natyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, etc. Teaching Odissi has helped the teachers socially as well. Over the years, it has helped them make connections with the greater Indian community and the mainstream. They say that Odissi has contributed to building social capital.

“In and outside India, five decades of learning and presenting Odissi dance has helped me to develop cultural understanding and intercultural relationships and also given me an identity which I am very proud of,” says Dandavate.

Similarly, Kar credits Odissi for exposing her to “world dance” and creating “many collaborative events with international dancers” and “trying new choreographic moves.”

For Satpathy, who has a day job in the corporate world, dance creates a balance in her life. She says her day job is “not the best place to display emotions; dance offers a creative outlet for me that gives me joy and balance.”

Others echo similar sentiments. Every teacher agrees that monetary return is very little in this profession. However, living in a foreign culture, these dancers have built a sense of community, identity and have gained recognition as dedicated teachers of a spiritual dance tradition.

Besides being connected to the local community, each of them says that it also keeps

Them connected to their homeland; collaborate with the dancers, musicians and promote the Odissi tradition nationally and internationally. These dancers and their students often visit Odisha to perform at various dance festivals and collaborate with the artists there. They also host various artists from their homeland to perform at concerts here.

Impact of Odissi on Students

These teachers are playing a vital role in the lives of their students by giving them a sense of discipline and character-building along with lifelong skills. Dandavate says “Odissi helps students in understanding and appreciating a culture different from their own.”  For Mallik, “dance is a therapy for mental and physical development. It’s a stress booster for teenagers and adults.” For Kar’s students, “dancing offers them to discover and express who they are, through music and movement.”

Joshi, says Odissi teaches her students to have higher confidence, better memory, and better communication and has helped build lifelong friendships. N. Mohanty observes that Odissi helps each age group of students differently. “The youngest group of students are generally elated to have class because it is fun and they can meet with kids of their own ages. The adolescent/teen groups of students are eager to perfect their dance and be the best versions of themselves. Overall, all groups enjoy the social aspect of dance.”

Impact of the Pandemic on teaching and learning Odissi

The pandemic has affected the dancers in multiple ways. Khushi Jain was looking forward to her Ranga Puja after seven years of learning Odissi. “I had to cancel my Ranga Puja last summer before starting college,” she recalls. “I was so disheartened.”

Ranga Puja marks the culmination of years of training when a young dancer completes her debut solo performance in dance. This year all of Ranga Pujas got cancelled.

Bay Area-based Shreyaa Karan takes her Ranga Puja cancelation in  a positive stride. “This pandemic has given me hope knowing that I will be able to become a better dancer and an even better person, and that I’ll be able to give everyone a wonderful performance come the time of my Ranga Puja.”

Several miss the interaction of having an in-person class.

Anushka Mohanty, an eighth grader, has been learning Odissi for the past six years in the Chicago area. “Before Covid, I looked forward to going to dance class every Sunday to learn and practice with my friends,” she says. “But ever since the lockdown, we haven’t been able to go in person.”

For many others, although the classes were remote, it provided social and cultural enrichment. They felt a little less isolated. For Shreyaa Karan, “Odissi during a pandemic is something different, something new, something none of us have ever experienced. With many virtual programs, this pandemic has taught me to cherish Odissi dance.”

Cindy Gaitan of San Jose, praises her teacher B. Mohanty for her Zoom classes. “Even on Zoom the learning experience is as if we were all together in a class,” she says. For Sanvi Dhala of Naperville, Illinois, dancing has been a lifesaver during the pandemic. “Dancing always puts me in a happier mood,” she says. “During the pandemic it has been a lifesaver for me because all of my classes were shut down.”

Divya and Sreya Ramachandran from the Chicago area credit their guru Satpathy for her innovative and creative ways of teaching during the pandemic and organizing live performances in the park. “It kept our spirits up and gave us a sense of normalcy,” they say.

Challenges and Struggles

“In the U.S. my challenge is in presenting the material in a manner which attracts and sustains the interest of students in learning,” Dandavate says. Kar echoes her sentiment. “Since I am fortunate not to depend on it as an income I am enjoying the process more,” she says. N. Mohanty emphasizes the depth and discipline of the dance. She says the biggest challenge is “most students and often parents are eager to see the students on stage.”

For Mallik, “the main challenge is time and commitments on the part of parents and children,” while for Satpathy the challenge is other distractions and lack of knowledge. “Bollywood and popular culture with louder, faster music, grander sets and flashy costumes have taken over the audience’s imagination and the students and parents may not connect with the themes of traditional story-telling, so we need to present compelling content that they can relate to.”

Are the artists valued in the capitalist modern world?

Joshi says “the day we pay our artists; the things will change. Right now, artists are paying to participate. Lot of fundraisers are completely based on participant’s sponsorship more than the audience”.

Mallik talks about the difference between teaching and performing here and in India. “There is a lot of respect as a dance teacher and performer in India,” she says, and adds, “it is totally different here. When I came here, I was surprised to see all organizations asking for money to perform.”

Teachers have been teaching Odissi online but they are facing new challenges along with new opportunities. “The pandemic has opened many more opportunities in both teaching and learning since virtual outreach is worldwide,” Dandavate says. “The lockdown has made it possible for me to share, learn and connect with students, scholars and audiences in different parts of the world.”

Virtual teaching – the new Normal

“While online training is never ideal, we shifted very quickly to it so that the training could continue,” says N. Mohanty. “Bringing in renowned teachers to teach the students has been made possible through zoom.”

Noting that virtual classes have become “the new normal,” Satpathy observes that a “guru’s nuanced feedback is replaced by video feedback and self-direction. It has made students more self-aware and in control of their learning.”

Some teachers like Kar, Joshi and B. Mohanty held virtual performances throughout last year. Joshi proudly says that “we did 90-minute dance drama on women’s empowerment during the pandemic last year”. B. Mohanty has collaborated with other institutions to promote intercultural dialogue and showcase Odissi along with other classical dances. She helped organize the Odissi International Dance Festival which went virtual this year.

Teachers acknowledge that it is challenging to correct postures online and hard to teach rhythms online due to time lag. All the teachers emphasize that the teaching time has quadrupled and takes its toll on them. Younger kids have difficulties focusing on the nuances of movement and with all day online sessions, they are starting to show stress and discontinue classes.

Even though teachers and students have adapted to Zoom teaching and learning, with theaters and studios closed, the lack of in person classes and performances in front of live audiences result in a loss of personal connection and the rasa experience. At the end of the pandemic, all institutions have plans to include a hybrid model of online and in-person learning. Amid all of this uncertainty, is there a silver lining? Satpathy says “We let our students know we are here for them and that we will get back to normalcy at some point.” Until then, they’re gonna Zoom!

First published here, written with Ipsita Satpathy. 

Image Source: Bidisha Mohanty

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About the Author

Annapurna Pandey

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...

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