When it comes to explaining what dance is, several definitions are available. It refers to the movement
of the body, a form of expression. It is also a mode of social interaction. Dance can be defined in terms of technique, but also as ceremonial, competitive, combative and narrative. The definition of dance, like dancing itself, is not static. If one is to be inclusive in one’s approach to dance, then its definition has to be fluid. It must evolve along with its cultural, social and political surroundings. It must be open-ended in order to include new creations and evolutions.
There was probably only a very brief time when dance meant only certain and very specific things, probably when the idea of dance was only just being conceived. Indian classical dance has certainly had a strict code of what can be called dance and what lies outside the periphery of how we define dance.
Even in the ‘West’, before the modernist dance movements began, only ballet was considered to be dance. But new dance forms have been coming into being continually in India and the West.
When the Devadasis performed dance, the definition of dance was pretty expansive. It included body movement, expression, narratives, social interaction as well as ceremony. With the onset of Colonialism and western notions of femininity and sexuality, dance in India came to be redefined again. What the Devadasis and Indians had considered to be dance was now considered an overtly sexual activity, not fit to be given the status of being a dance form. A dance form that was a ceremonial expression of love was reduced to being defined as crude and erotic. As for the Indian, it became a cause for shame. In the West however, rebellion against a singular definition of dance had begun with Isadora Duncan’s resistance to classical ballet.
Post-colonial nationalism in India saw the Tanjore Quartet format find a stable and comfortable place in
India – a format that defined dance in terms of technique, very broadly similar to what Rudolph Laban
did with dance in the West. Dance in India also came to be defined more in terms of devotion and spirituality, rather than sensuality or “shringara”. In the western world, Martha Graham played a historic role in expanding the definition of dance by radically opposing the theory of movement on which
classical ballet rested. In the previous century, the definitions of what dance is have expanded considerably.
In India, Uday Shankar became world renowned as a pioneer in Indian modern dance, adapting western theatrical techniques to Indian classical dance, and utilising Indian folk and tribal dances. Folk traditions such as Chhau have now become reputed dance forms and combative martial arts like Kalaripayattu are used to create Indian movement vocabularies. Genres of Indian dance have developed that use western styles of contemporary dance, sometimes exclusively. And more and more genres have become recognised worldwide as respectable dance forms. These include African dances and dance forms from Latin America. All these genres define dance differently in terms of the body, movement and sentiment. A singular and exclusive definition of dance becomes very difficult then. While some dancers, students,
teachers, critics and spectators continue to search for a singular and exclusive definition of dance, it in turn continues to elude them.
Perhaps dance was never meant to have a single definition. How is one to singularly define something that is constantly growing and evolving? Maybe its beauty lies in the fact that its dynamism repels a static definition written in stone. Perhaps it redefines itself constantly in order to remain relevant and important. This requires it to have multiple, inclusive and fluid definitions. It is, after all, multiple and fluid definitions of dance that will allow for more and more dance to be created, accepted and appreciated in a world that is constantly renegotiating what we call ‘dance’.
Aranyani Bhargav, performer-teacher-researcher, will henceforth write this fortnightly column, Footloose. Feedback can be mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
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