Dancing to a new rhythm

How I re-learnt Bharatanatyam, and how my dance school has re-learnt to teach - online!

My Third Act with Bharatanatyam

I am a Bharatanatyam dancer. It's one of the first identity markers I took on.

Bharatanatyam is a classical dance that originated in Southern India in the 2nd century CE. The art form has traditionally narrated stories and themes from ancient Hindu texts. Over the years, it has grown into distinct schools. To be a good Bharatanatyam dancer in any style takes years of training in traditional grammars of rhythm, posture, movement, and expression.

Watch a Bharatanatyam performance in the Kalakshetra style here: Rithika performs a Charukesi Varnam.

From the age of four, on mosts evening from 4 PM to 6 PM, I would change into my loose cotton dance pyjamas, tie a long dupatta around my waist, and forget the rest of the world as I joined my Bharatanatyam teacher and classmates for practice. Some days the goal was to get the meticulous foot movements in time with the beat of the thattapaladai. On others, it was to refine our expressions as warrior queens battling our desires for love and conquest.

In Grade 2, when we were asked to write an essay titled "My Ambition", I said that I wanted to be a dance teacher, of course. Gayathri Ma'am with her loving smiles, and then Venugopal Sir with his razor-sharp instructions, guided me for 10 years as I trained for my Arangetram - the equivalent of graduating in the Bharatanatyam world. An Arangetram is typically a 3-hour long stage performance of many dance pieces: a statement that you have learnt the foundations. I thought that this meant I had "made it", but on the morning of my performance, Gayathri Ma'am said something I will never forget. "The Arangetram is a comma, darling, not a full-stop."

And so, I kept seeking. At the age of 15, I met my third dance teacher, Karuna Akka. Akka is the Tamil word for older sister. While it is a colloquial term to informally address almost any woman older than you, Karuna Akka has been an elder sister and so much more than just a teacher to me. (Happy Teachers’ Day, Akka!)

I came to her dance school, Bhakti Natya Niketan (BNN), as a lost teenager, new to the city of Coimbatore and woefully inept in Tamil, the lingua franca at BNN. Witnessing kids just half my age practice and own each movement, I realized that what I had learnt so far was just excellent imitation.

To be a student of BNN was to learn to speak the tongue of Bharatanatyam and make it my own.

Over three years, I slowly found my words. Broken Tamil gave way to funny encounters as I taught some weekly classes to our youngest and most mischievous students. I learnt how my breath and body moved to channel a character, and not just create shapes from the outside. Over the endless evenings spent with Akka, we put some of BNN's philosophy into words, took on small social impact projects, and had wonderful summer camps and annual performances. This was just my individual journey within the school, and each of my peers had their own transformational paths. In this way, the school absolutely lives up to its inspiration, the peepul tree: though they may come from the same root, each leaf dances to its own rhythm in the wind.

BNN made me a better dancer, a better learner, and a better human being. Shouldn't this be a goal of any educational experience? My love letter to BNN and to Akkacould go on, but I'll pause here. Learn more about on the school's website and check out our 111 story series on Instagram.

The grammar of a dance school

This post is about Karuna Akka’s pursuit of excellence in Bharatanatyam through online education. Before we jump into the online design, let me start by describing the "offline" design.

BNN makes intensive and holistic Bharatanatyam education accessible to anyone who is committed to the process. Around 80 students regularly attend classes in the city of Coimbatore, India. Most learners are between the ages of seven and eighteen and so, this is an intensive "extra-curricular", after-school activity for them. However, there are many working parents and professionals who take classes at BNN as well. Everyone, regardless of their level, dances for 6-8 hours every week. Such rigour and commitment is uncommon outside of full-time, diploma-granting dance schools, and when Akka started BNN at the age of 19, many said this was a naive approach. "People want something easier", they said.  She chose to stay the course and stick to her vision. The past 11 years and ~300 students of the school, spread across many cohorts, are a testament to her faith.

See these highlights of the Mallika cohort's convocation. Would you believe they are just 12 years old?

You know from my story that learning Bharatanatyam at BNN is about anything but imitation: it is about learning every piece of the grammar and using it to speak your own language. This organic learning pedagogy has helped frame a set of learning "levels" for Bharatanatyam, from beginner to advanced stages of practising classical pieces and creating one's own sequences. New cohorts are inducted every year, and most students stay on in their batch for 4-6 years. In addition to learning dance, students study talam (rhythm), Carnatic music, mythology, temple architecture and design. Summer camps, annual day performances, temple visits, guest lectures and social impact projects are a beloved part of BNN’s annual calendar. Many students perform with Akka all across India , complete their Arangetrams, and train to teach Bharatanatyam. Beyond learning art just for art's sake, the school empowers students to pursue rewarding careers as dancers too.

Priya completed her Arangetram at BNN and now supports her family as a dance teacher in Coimbatore.

When Covid-19 made in-person classes impossible, Karuna Akka knew that it was time to unveil BNN's distance learning model. The task was to scale it up for ten cohorts of students at different levels, quickly and with limited resources.

The transition from offline to online

This interview with Karuna Akka dives deep into why BNN chose a blended learning model, how she overcame fears of teaching online, and the future of dance education.

Aditi: So, Karuna Akka. Let’s unpack the magic! How did BNN transition to online teaching?

Karuna: A lot of dance schools thought that the lockdowns would pass and that we would come back to in-person classes soon. So, they treated the first few weeks like a longer summer vacation. At BNN, we knew that in-person classes were still a while away and quickly decided to transition online to maintain continuity. Knowing each of our students and their batches really well was a huge advantage – we weren't starting from scratch. The question was: How can we create a personalized learning path for each student while retaining the rigour of our regular classes? We decided to go ahead with a blend of live Zoom classes, and a comprehensive set of self-paced video lessons for each student to learn and practice from.

Why blended learning? It made sense, at least theoretically. We wanted to retain the teacher’s role as well as the high expectations we have for self-directed practice among BNN students. You have to practice your adavu movements 100 times AND you need your teachers' and peers' feedback on it. This blended model had worked quite well in the past. While in Germany for my Masters in South Asian Studies, I conducted one-on-one teaching on Skype for the advanced students. The students also took regular group classes with the teachers back home and put in their own hours of practice. These multiple modes of learning added further depth to their craft. So, we decided that this was the model we were going to build upon.

The first few weeks after the country went into lockdown, Sandhya (my colleague at BNN) and I worked 14-16 hours a day to shoot, document, and edit around 80 videos of specific movements that students from different levels needed to learn and practice. We planned the live classes for each group of 12-14 students, and trained teachers to effectively deliver the lessons online. Within just one week, we were ready to go online, and students continued dancing like this had been going on forever! After all the hard work, that was very gratifying to see.

Aditi: When you were thinking through the blended learning model, what aspects of the in-person experience did you want to retain? How has that worked so far?

Karuna: My priority was to maintain the rigour of our classes. I learnt a lot about this from my studies in Germany. For every class I attended there, I had to do something in preparation. Reading a paper, coming up with an analysis, trying out a translation – there was always some pre-work. It was the opposite of what we do in Indian schools: come to class like a blank sheet of paper and then say, "Fill me in, teacher." This ethic of pre-work truly gave you an insight into what you were learning and primed us to grow through interaction with our peers.

So, we now ask our students to come having thoroughly practised at least one lesson from the library of videos. This is good because repetition and practice in dance help you develop muscle memory. This expectation of regular practice also means that it is useless to binge-watch recorded classes or dance videos!

Another aspect we wanted to retain, while it may seem minor, was practising talam. Talam is the rhythmic beat to maintain musical time and a Bharatanatyam dancer absolutely needs to understand timing. In class, we would all practice reciting and clapping to the beats together, but it was difficult to do this online because of the lag in video calls. (When more than one person speaks, Zoom sort of raises the volume of one person's voice and cuts out the others.) To work around this, we introduced a digital metronome with set beats of four, based on which students practice talam. So, I teach them what it looks like with my metronome and they practice using theirs. In this setup, I am no longer the reference point. The metronome is our common reference point and it makes for more effective practice than sitting in a circle and trying to keep up with the teacher. No one's claps or beats gets lost in the group's voice, and you clearly know whether you've understood it, and how others are doing it.

I really miss our noisy classroom though... You know, the little ones running around the corridors, telling jokes in mudras (hand gestures), coming up with all sorts of interpretations of why Lord Krishna stole butter as a child. Yet, students have managed to be mischievous even online. There's one student who kind of teleports – one minute she is dancing between two coconut trees, another moment she is in her storeroom in front of vats of food. She surprises us constantly and I never know what she is up to next! And because we really make them work hard each class, you see the joy at the end on everyone's face of "Yay! We got the nattadavu right even in the third speed!"

Aditi: This transition must have been challenging for you and the other teachers at BNN too. What were some fears you had to overcome, or learning you had to do as an educator?

Karuna: This may sound silly because I am a dancer who is so used to performing on stage, but I was terrified to look at the camera and record the videos for our library! It just didn't feel authentic! You know me: I respond to the person in front of me, their smile, their body language, the look of surprise or confusion on their faces. These are all cues for how I teach. When I had to create these videos, I was able to grow out of that discomfort when I realized that I need not be speaking to an actual person. It can be the idea of a student, a blend of all those I have met and talked to in the past. Holding that in my mind allows me to "converse" with them, in some sense.

With this library of videos as building blocks for holistic dance education, I realized that I can and that I should teach at a good level of difficulty: neither dumbing it down nor assuming that they already knew something. Students could go back to these videos to listen, practice and absorb what was packed into the videos, and they did! Our digital platform showed us exactly how much time they spent there, and the learning showed when they came to class. We can see that they've absorbed these things much more deeply.

Aditi: That’s amazing! I remember feeling like I was constantly trying to catch up in class because there was so much good teaching, and I would have loved the opportunity to absorb it all at my own pace. What are some other pleasant surprises from teaching dance online?

Karuna: Quite a few, Aditi, and I keep discovering more. In our regular class, you know how you all stand in a V-shape and I can see you all, but you only see each other's backs? The Gallery View in Zoom allows you to see each other, and even if the video quality is so-so, you all get an opportunity to learn from each other's movements.

Another advantage of the recorded classes and homework is that we are building a home for the fleeting insights and learning curves that take place in a regular Wednesday class. It's going to be possible to go back and see how Aditi improved her adavu movements from Week 1 to Week 5. Imagine how useful that is for pedagogy, research, preserving the little moments of delight...

With the talam practice, for example, you saw how individual learning within an online group setting builds a kind of self-sufficiency. You can't get lost (or hide!) in the crowd. At the same time, you are not distracted by someone standing one foot away from you in class. Students know whether they get it or not. This immediate, ongoing feedback is really good for performance. No delusions!

In the same vein of individualized attention, we use the "Hide non-video participants" feature to sort of spotlight one or two students at a time, and that lets us give razor-sharp, focused feedback to students.

Aditi: Sounds like you are making the most of the tech out there! But if you could have one tech feature that would make classes much better, what would that be?

Karuna: The ability to control the music that students play on their phone during class! In a group class, we don't stream the music from our end because of the audio lag. We keep everyone on mute and ask them to play an audio file on their phones. I'd like to be able to play or pause everyone’s music at once. Something like Netflix Party for music, that works alongside our video call, until video and audio lags disappear.

Aditi: I can see how what you’ve described so far works well for teaching and practice of everything that’s on the syllabus, so to speak. How are you designing for students’ creativity in this blended learning model?

Karuna: I'm still exploring how we can make more room for individual creativity. As an experiment, we started one mini-module on breath and abhinaya (expressions). It addresses what your breath can say about how you are emoting. We use observations from life as prompts, for example, “How would you feel if your friend knowingly broke your favourite cup?". This is a better prompt to express anger versus giving clinical instructions like "Open your eyes, hold your breath, flare your nostrils". So, I teach them the core concept of roudra or anger (one of the nine emotions or moods in classical dance) through a recorded video, they practise their own expressions in a live class other teachers, and then there's some development based on each teacher's input to that practice. I was curious to know what students finally took away from the core lesson. So, I simultaneously sent the same lesson to every group, some of which have 8-year-olds, and some of which have 30-year-olds and asked them to upload videos of their anger expressions to the platform. We get to see incredible creativity from the same simple exercise across groups! Next, we plan to cross-pollinate it across groups so that students can internalize that there are infinite ways to express anger. This will help us build a library of creativity where everyone is practising dance as a language, not as imitation.

Aditi: I can’t wait to see that. Let’s talk a little more macro: the pandemic has caused a lot of financial uncertainty among educational institutions across the board. What trends are you seeing in dropouts and new enrolments?

I thought we would lose about 50% of our students in terms of the fee collected. However, since the lockdowns commenced, we have had a 95% retention rate: just four dropouts out of 80 active students, and that too only because they were entering the 12th grade (Indian students have to take high-stakes board exams at the end of 12th grade, and it is common to put all extra-curricular activities on hold to focus on exam prep). We've also started offering one-on-one and group classes to in a distance learning mode – so far, we have students from seven Indian states and five different countries.

Watch this adorable video of Anvita, a student from the US, practising talam.

Aditi: Is it a possibility, then, that an online student is going to be able to train enough to perform their Arangetram in the next few years?

Karuna: It’s entirely possible to reach that level of competence online! We have one student from Switzerland who has completed two years with us online and will be ready in two to three years, regardless of whether she can travel to Coimbatore or not. As geography disappears, we are going to see a renaissance in the accessibility of dance education and I am very excited to see what the future holds.

Aditi: Thanks so much, Akka, for taking the time to talk to about your experiments with . Good luck to you and to BNN as you grow from strength to strength!

And thank you, friends of Animo, if you’ve made it this far. If you missed my last post, check out ZoomInstruct.com, the free online course I launched with Todd Jick of Columbia Business School. Also, check out this interview about online education with Live Mint here (thanks Omkar)!