When you ask dancers why they dance, they give several reasons. Some say that it’s because they are happiest when they are dancing, others say that it provides them with physical and emotional ‘release’ – an outlet for creative self expression. Still others say that it enables them to say things that words cannot express. Many also say that the mental and physical space in which one dances is a safe space – an expressive and free space. Free in the sense that it is free of ego, free of judgment and of the fear of vulnerability – essentially, a space that leaves pride and prejudice behind.
At a recent ‘Reading Group’ meeting, where a bunch of us gather to discuss issues related to art and education, the discussion led me to think about the issue of pride and prejudice in Indian (and in some instances, global) dance.
Pride is defined as a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit or superiority, whether in the mind or as displayed in bearing or conduct. Undoubtedly, many observers of dance, dance scholars and critics do believe that at least some dancers are afflicted by this particular deadly sin. While a certain pride in your own work is a virtue, when this pride results in arrogance, dismissal of critique, and celebration of mediocrity – as it often does – then it certainly does become putrid.
Prejudice, although craftily disguised or carefully hidden, exists in the subliminal spaces of dance. Prejudice is defined as an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason. In India, and in many parts of the world, prejudice against dance and dancers of a certain kind certainly do exist.
A societal prejudice like race (or more particularly, skin colour) infiltrated into the world of dance as well. While in India, there has not been as open a prejudice against darker skin as in the west (the slave trade and subsequent racism against “blacks”); dark skinned dancers have subliminally been victims of prejudice in India as well. How many famous dancers of the previous generation do we know in India who are not ‘fair’ skinned? How come the dusky dancers didn’t quite make it as big as our fair leading ladies in dance?
Another prejudice would be sexuality. Dance is, as I’ve mentioned before, historically been misappropriated as a female form (see my Footloose article, ‘The Suppressed Male‘, Oct. 18, 2012). Male dancers face subtle and sometimes open prejudice, especially with regard to their sexual preferences. On the flipside, female dancers, because their chosen profession involves a display of their bodies, also become the subject of prejudice of another kind. Many conservative families still consider a dancing daughter or daughter-in-law to be morally dubious.
Further, young and slim dancers are favoured, whilst older and plumper dancers face prejudice. A slightly rotund dancer will have always been told by someone or another to lose weight, regardless of how well he or she manages his or her weight while dancing. And of course, youth has been a global obsession for quite some time now. One of the members of our reading group made a brutal but likely accurate statement that in many instances, “older dancers are tolerated because they are pitied”.
Many other instances of prejudice can be found within the mindsets of people who view dancers and dance in India, and the world. Prejudices do enter the outspokenly declared ‘free’ spaces of dance. Whilst these prejudices are allowed to fester in the world of dance, a false sense of pride (at not being eligible for any of the above mentioned prejudices) feeds off these prejudices as well. It is only when pride and prejudice are truly left outside of this space, can dance really be the space that the soul seeks. A space full of creation, expression, creative vulnerability, invention and experimentation – an inclusive space, that allows all people – pale skinned and people of all beautiful shades of brown; male and female and in between; fat, thin, big, small, robust, and petite; young, middle aged and old – to flourish.