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Classical moves

It's ancient, it's basic and it still works. Take up Indian classical dance to gain fitness and strength that will last a lifetime

travel Updated: May 08, 2010 12:26 IST

Admit it. All it takes is 10 long,
boring minutes on the treadmill
to make you swear off
workouts forever. If the gym
doesn't work for you, and
you're not built for high-octane aerobic
workouts, try your hand at classical
dance. It may not sound like exercise,
but it offers all the benefits of a
yoga workout, while also being fun.


Bollywood dance has been an old favourite for those who want to have a good time as they workout. But its jhatkas aren't for everyone. The controlled yet fluid movements of Indian classical dance, be it Kathak, Bharatanatyam or Odissi, will help you build agility, strength and balance, even as the complete concentration it demands helps calm your mind.

Endurance and control
So how does classical dance help you stay fit?

"Dance is much more than a weight loss routine," says Isha Sharvani, who gained fame with her role in the movie Kisna, earning much acclaim for her dance performances in it.

The 25-year-old has been dancing since she was seven, learning Kathak, Chhau and Kalaripayattu from her mother, Kathak dancer Daksha Sheth, who runs her own academy in Thiruvananthapuram. She says, "Thin doesn't mean fit and you should never exercise to become thin. I meet so many girls who're thin, but their bodies have no strength."

For Sharvani, the aim of any form of exercise, especially dance, is to become fit and gain flexibility, agility and body control. "You have to figure out what you want. Dance teaches how to use your body as a tool, giving you more command over it. Your body and mind learn to work in sync," she adds. You gain endurance, from the many hours of practice, aerobic health and a lot of stamina.

"Along the way you also lose weight, since you're working hard and sweating so much, and your body begins to tone up. But that is never the main goal," she adds. It's easy to see the truth in what she says. Sharvani is lithe and strong, and you can see the control she exercises over her body in even the simplest movements. She exudes confidence and poise.

In the beginning
Believe it or not, you can start learning classical dance at any age. Odissi dancer Protima Bedi, who went on to become a great exponent of the form, started taking lessons only when she was 26. Just don't expect results overnight; the form works its magic slowly, making you physically and mentally healthier.

"Holding a pose can be very strenuous at first," says Pallavi Raisurana, 38, who teaches Kathak at her Malabar Hill residence. Though you may not feel it happen, like with any other workout, dance will put a strain on your body and you will begin to feel muscles you didn't know you had. The trick, Raisurana says, is in controlling your breath. "A dancer learns to control her breath, like you would in yoga, because that is what brings balance and poise to the pose."

Every movement a dancer makes must come from the core of the body. "The limbs are just extensions or manifestations of the movement, the real work has to be done by your centre," Raisurana says.

According to Sharvani, new dancers always find it difficult to control their body. "But your body starts responding eventually. When you keep practising and repeating a movement, your muscles start remembering what to do," she says.

To make her core stronger, Sharvani spends an hour every morning doing yoga or working with weights to build strength. "Dance trains your body to take load without getting injured; it makes you stronger and gives you strong abdominal and back muscles," she says.

In addition, the complex footwork of classical Indian dances and the precise relationship of the movements with the rhythm, contributes to make the dancer more agile and quick on her feet.

Surprise Benefits
Besides making you fitter, dance also improves your mental wellbeing. "Those who take to dance when they are troubled about something, find that it slowly starts working changes on them mentally as well. They begin to calm down and see things more clearly," Raisurana says.

Besides making you a more positive person, dance also improves your posture and sense of confidence. Raisurana says, "You can always tell a dancer simply from the way she stands or moves."

But a word of caution. Anchal Gupta, whose dance studio Arts in Motion offers training in Kathak besides other forms, says, "You should only get into classical dance forms if you have the dedication to learn the technique over the years. It is not a quick fix, it's for a lifetime.

Isha says
Figure out what you want
You need to decide what is more important for you -- losing weight or getting fit. Thin is not fit. I can't say this enough. Even thin people have to work hard to make their bodies strong.

Avoid excess
Doing any one thing in excess never works out well in the end. So don't just keep doing weights in the gym, and don't just rely on dance to get you fit. The ideal routine would have you spending two days a week in the gym, building more strength in your body, and three days dancing, where you learn agility, balance and control.

Get mind and body in sync
Certain movements will seem hard at first. Don't get disheartened. Keep repeating them. Eventually, your muscles will start remembering what to do and you'll just get it. Your mind and body will be in sync and you'll be able to control your movements better.

Set your own pace
Work at a pace you're comfortable with and can maintain. The goal should not be to lose weight now. The goal should be to reach the place where you can be fit and agile even at 55 and enjoy your life.

Strengthen your core
Remember, the goal is not gym strength but core strength. Even when you're working out in the gym, you're not just pumping iron. You're giving your muscles the strength to allow you to hold a pose as long as you want.