Why I Prefer to Dance Like a Man

As a kid, I used to hate having to play male parts in skits or dances. I grew up with Disney princesses and wanting to be one myself, so donning a white wig to play Albert Einstein in the third grade or a brown jumpsuit to play the big bad wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge for French class weren’t my favorite roles.

But a lot has changed over the last 20 years, and now, I have the most fun playing male parts in dances because I have a chance to get into character.

One of the things I love about performing is that it allows you to be someone else for a little while, to play a role that you normally wouldn’t. Additionally, it’s your chance to exhibit your skill as a versatile dancer. After all, there’s no point in acting in a role that you already hold in your day-to-day life — there wouldn’t be much to “act.” Finally, playing the different gods lends itself to internalizing their attributes and depicting them accurately, which requires a level of devotion and connection to the divine.

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1) Playing a different role is just plain fun.

I’ve always felt the Bharatanatyam style is such that even when portraying kings, male attendants or even some of the princes and gods like Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna, the movements and expressions still look graceful and elegant, so there still isn’t too much of a difference unless you are interacting directly with the female roles.

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However, that’s not the case when portraying Shiva, the embodiment of virility, which makes dancing like Shiva the most challenging and most fun to depict.

The poses, the stance, the gait, the fiery eyes and wild hair all radiate a powerful ruggedness. Unlike the other male roles, Shiva exudes raw manliness that is apparent even without a female counterpart by his side, though the presence of one certainly doesn’t hurt to accentuate his brawniness. And since I don’t get to walk around like this in my normal life, I enjoy being able to do this at least through dance. After all, we all have both of these energies within us.  In fact, dance teacher and choreographer Malathi Iyengar sees dance as a symbol of integration: “Every human being has tandava and lasya in her or him. At various times, depending on what is needed, the masculine or feminine comes out—in the dance forms and in life.”

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2) It demonstrates your skill as a dancer

A few years ago, my sister, inspired by an Ardhaneeshwara performance we saw a long time ago, wanted to choreograph a dance that would bring the male and female forms together. She, my mom and I put together a dance to “Shambo Shiva Shambo,” starting with a prayer. My sister played Parvati, and I played Shiva, and as much as I know the costumes contributed a lot to how the piece was received, I must say that when we performed this piece again recently at the Gainesville Devi Temple fundraiser, it was the stark contrast in the male and female movements that really made the dance stand out– so much so that we were asked to come perform it again a few weeks later for Gainesville’s 2015 India Fest.

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I enjoyed executing the bolder, stern gazes, the brisker movements, the heavier and wider steps, which I had to consciously execute. I didn’t have to smile, for once, which was refreshing, because I was Shiva “in the zone,” but it was also something I had to be mindful of since I’ve been wired to smile in most dances when playing Krishna, Rama, etc. This, along with the music and costume combined, kindled in me a real connection to the cosmic dance god himself.

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3) It’s an opportunity to connect with the divine

Depicting a god or goddess in a dance isn’t just an aspect of Bharatantyam, it’s a privilege to do so. Just as movie actors and actresses have to research a role and do it justice, especially when they play real people in movies based on true events, I (and likely most other Bharatanatyam dancers) take the portrayal of the divine as an honor.

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For me, it’s as if deity is giving me a chance to play him, and if I give the role the respect and dedication it deserves, I will reap from it something much more powerful than just applause at the end of a performance; It’s an opportunity to truly connect with the divine, and based on each dancer’s perception, interpretation and illustration, that connection will be different and personal. Like so many other pursuits, you only get from it as long you give.

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I feel this way with any of the deities I portray, but for some reason, I feel it strongest when I play the male roles, particularly Lord Shiva. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I’ve been learning dance for so long that I have always felt a deeper connection to the Lord of Dance for all that He has given me through the years. I am more inspired and driven to play Shiva, and it’s as if there an expectation to fulfill when portraying the Lord of Dance.

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If there’s any dance to execute with complete perfection and devotion, it’s a Shiva dance, and somehow, I feel He doesn’t let me down either.

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