Negotiating Values

Of late, I have been thinking a lot about the implications of cultural values in the in the teaching/learning process. When I started my dance training in the US/Canada, the system under which I learned was more or less on the conservative side, I imagine it was [somewhat] modeled after the Guru-Shishya parampara system in India. The expected behaviors were made clear from the very beginning: how we addressed our teachers/Gurus, how we treated the physical dance space, our dress, attitudes, etc. The learning expanded beyond the classroom and permeated into our day-to-day lives. Even from a young age we had to learn to develop the necessary discipline to incorporate dance into our daily activities. Our teachers/Gurus had a much larger role in our lives than just learning movements in a classroom. When I began traveling to India, transitioning into that system was not that difficult since that grounding had been established from early on. Despite having been born and raised outside of India, I never questioned the system under which I learned, rather I rationalized it as part of the process of the classical arts and accepted it as the way, really the only way to imbibe the essence of the art form. I learned what I was taught and left it to my teachers to determine what I would learn and when. I completely surrendered to this system with full faith.

These days, as I teach my students, I find myself analyzing these rules and expectations further – do my students adhere to the same set of expectations that I did? No they don’t. But the times have changed drastically since I was a student, and these changes are not necessarily attributed to culture as much as they are the generation we are in. Can we expect students to blindly follow what we did? Rarely, if ever. But I do find myself questioning whether they are losing out on something by not adhering to the same set of rules that I did (by not enforcing particular behaviours (strict adherence and discipline, obeying the teacher, etc.). For us, the smallest of details, be it touching our teachers’ feet, sweeping the classroom before starting class, taking off our shoes and neatly lining them up against the wall, what we wore to programs, how we behaved with our peers and elders – were a part of that discipline of being a dancer. Yet many today would find this sort of thing suffocating, binding even. And by not expecting students to follow these behaviors, are we starting to see an erosion of a system in which the classical performing arts have been sustained? What are the cultural values indispensable to the learning process? What are the values that are most needed for them to fully imbibe the art? And is it possible that by not doing so, they may actually be better off? Would it enable them to mature into thoughtful and critically engaged dancers? Times are changing so much now, as are the values and social/cultural expectations – how will this be reflected in our art? These are critical questions to consider.

Bhubaneswar: April 4, 2017.

4 thoughts on “Negotiating Values

  1. Dearest SonaliDi, I tend to side with the more traditional aspect of things not just in dance, but with life in general. So with that said, in regard to what you wrote – “whether they are losing out on something by not adhering to the same set of rules that I did (by not enforcing particular behaviours (strict adherence and discipline, obeying the teacher, etc.)”…
    YES, I do sturdily believe that the dance and the nuances which make the dance what it is slowly erode when the tradition of certain rituals, like not touching the teachers feet for example, are not observed. Our traditional dances have their own unique quality – just as other cultural dances have theirs and per their tradition, observe their own rituals. Straying from these rituals does strip the dance of its exceptionality – perhaps we cannot put it into words, but it does translate to the dance and the performance itself. An adherence to the Guru-Shishya parampara system for example, is what makes our dance unique and diverse. It gives the dance the quality and the sense of true unworldliness – stripping our traditional dances of their rituals strip away its very basic nature.
    Over time, as we keep stripping away and stripping away, which is what tends to happen once the ball starts to roll in that direction, the dance is no longer what it was and takes on a whole different idea – and can no longer be called traditional Odissi or other such cultural dance.
    And as we start to move away from the respect of keeping to tradition which makes our dances what they are, it feeds into other aspects of learning – for example students tend to show up late to classes, not practice what they learned in prior classes so moving forward becomes an even slower process – and slowly, the teacher him or herself becomes more idle and accepts a certain mediocrity and this, over time, becomes the standard.
    I had always believed that when I would start to learn with a teacher, it would be an environment which followed the tradition of Guru-Shishya parampara. That only in this way do we learn the dance in its true form and become the best dancer we can be. And the teacher recognizes the responsibility to the dance and student when following the Guru-Shishya parampara system.
    And all would be beautiful and perfect, as it was meant to be!

    Thank you for sharing your blog with us.


    1. S – Thank you for thinking about this and for your heartfelt comment. And there is a lot of questioning around what you are discussing here. About whether we will lose those essential elements of the dance form by stripping away these layers in the learning process. For me personally, it is very difficult for me to separate the dance from the context and values in which I learned the art. However, that said, there are others who would disagree with me here and say that students are better off not learning in a hierarchical system. I think it is an issue of the changing values and how these are reflected in the dance form and further which values are needed to really imbibe the essence of the dance. And there are no easy answers here. These days students do not go to one particular Guru, it is not uncommon to find a single student switching teachers, or learning what they can in various workshops, irrespective of style. Teaching youngsters also – these days they are less likely to do something because they are told to do it, and as I said – I don’t know how much of if is really cultural vs generational. For me, I try to do what I can to bring the best out of my students (in the classroom) but then those peripheral details I had mentioned, the values that happen outside the classroom – those are a lot more difficult to manage. You want the students to be good dancers, but you also want them to be good human beings as well. There are no easy answers to this question! Thank you so much for engaging and for supporting!


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