I can’t dance to save my life! It’s sad but true. Dance, after all, is the most basic forms of communication and expression and to not be able to dance is a form of illiteracy. And yet dance and human life cannot be separated. Just turn on the music and without realising we want to stand up and move. To sway, to throw our hands up in the air and at the end of it, to feel elated and filled with a deep happiness. Usually, when one thinks of dance the mind goes to trained dance forms that are perfected over the years be it classical or contemporary forms. We think of articulate hand gestures or mind bending body contortions. Dance at its very core though can be basic or complicated in form and structure appeals to dancer and viewer alike only when it evokes feelings, emotions and thoughts. In this sense, dance becomes a powerful way to empower children to express their thoughts and feelings, engage with their inner lives and be their free and flamboyant with the outer.
There was this little girl I studied with (with little me) and while she joked and laughed with all of us, but come every inter-school dance competition we knew who would win the solo. This cheeky girl would transform and regale our principal, our teachers and the rest of us from all sorts of backgrounds. We may not have understood the mudras or the finer aspects of her dance but her expressions were impeccable. So here we saw Shiva furious, eyes ablaze and then softening when he saw his consort Parvati. The rhythmic beat of her feet on the red-oxidised auditorium pedestal, dressed in silken finery, flowers in hair; it seemed like the goddess had decided to grace our humble missionary school that morning.
The little girl has grown and now spreads the word about not just dance, but Creative Movement through schools across India. She is Preeti Sunderajan, CEO of GAIT, which offers creative movement programmes for children from nursery to grade 5.
She is an accomplished dancer, choreographer, and teacher whose performing career spans over 30 years. She has behind her over 500 shows across India, USA, UK and Australia. In addition to being a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Preeti is trained in Yoga, Contemporary dance, Chau, Folk Theatre and Kalaripayattu.Her love for children and the arts encouraged her to start her own organisation called – SHIRI which was instrumental in developing a first of its kind dance in education module- Body Talk.
Creative movement Preeti believes helps build a child’s self-esteem by exploring new territory, in this case, body and its interplay with space. It also provides a framework for children to communicate and express their emotions. Creative movement is conducted in groups. This then becomes the training ground for collaboration, listening and ideating together. It encourages children to think of multiple solutions and forms of expression to a question. This is then repeated seamlessly by the children in all aspects of their life, including academics because it then becomes a way of thinking for them.
Perhaps the most important takeaway according to Preeti is that children learn to see from different perspectives. This helps children develop empathy and understanding.
LK: Thank you, Preeti, for speaking with Little Kulture. You are an accomplished classical dancer. You have always loved dance. How did dance impact you as a child?
I started learning dance when I was 5 years old and gave my first maiden performance at the age of 7, and Ms Vijayanthimala Bali was the chief guest. Since then I have been actively performing at several festivals and worked along with my teacher. Dancing came very naturally to me. During my growing up years, all I remember of my evenings are in dance class. I was doing it all the time and had no real agenda in mind. At that point, Padmini Ravi was one of the foremost teachers and we were called for shows in Doordarshan, in most Kanada and Culture events and would travel around quite a bit as well.
Dance came very naturally to me. Dance has impacted me in 3 ways – The physical aspect of it has made me so flexible and has kept me fit. I am really grateful because even if I feel unfit now it is very easy for me to get back into shape. Mentally – It has kept me strong because it is extremely challenging and helps develop a strong will. Physiologically I am very aware of my body and I am able to understand what my body needs.
Artistic sensibility – I look at things differently, I understand in many different ways. I can connect to people empathise easily. I am able to appreciate aesthetics.
LK: What drove you to learn dance forms other than Bharatnatyam?
I love dancing and don’t look at form especially classical as sacrosanct. I feel forms of dance is what the dancer will use to convey her thoughts, ideas and emotions. Which one is immaterial. Plus, it is important to have a strong grounding in one but equally important is to challenge your body with other forms to bring better agility, lightness and grace into your movements.
LK: What were your learnings from them?
Kalari is my hard core fitness mantra. It gives me great core strength and I feel like a warrior princess when I do it! Contemporary dance makes my body move in ways that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. This is important for my body to feel and know so that it throws itself into different situations easily. Contemporary dance has helped me accept lying on the floor, touching people while dancing and makes me feel light and free. Odissi, Kuchipudi and Kathak – have given me a brief understanding of the different forms and inform sometimes my dance vocabulary. Chau – has given me the understanding of fluidity and strength
LK: You were involved in dance education through Body Talk and now GAIT. What have been three key learnings from your experience?
- Movement, expression and development can be interlinked
- Performing arts can also have a strong pedagogical relevance in the education format
- A creative product also needs operational excellence
LK: How does movement enhance learning?
In a very basic way, we all know movement and learning are interlinked. If a child has a speech delay you will focus on fine motor activities and some gross motor. We also know enhanced movements activities directly impact the growth of the brain. In fact, there is a whole theory that creeping and crawling movements help in restructuring the brain.
I have taken this a step forward to stimulate creative thinking using the body as a medium of expression. This way the child is moving and expressing. This helps develop cognition and meta cognition
LK: The GAIT programme speaks of the mind-body balance. Could you explain this?
In GAIT we are not teaching a child how to dance. So we are not really focused on the form, structure and perfection of movement. What we are interested in is how a child can ideate using their body. For example, a dance class will tell a child to keep a stretched arm in a certain way. In GAIT we will tell the child to take their hand from one point to another but show me 10 ways of doing it. So now the child is thinking about the movement. So be it with rhythm, I ask the child to give me 5 patterns they can hear/ see in a kitchen and then put movement to it the way they want.
So, the child is constantly thinking about what they create
LK: It also speaks of the creative-analytical harmony. What is it? How does the programme enable this?
In each class, there is an Innovate section of the lesson. In this part, children are made into teams and given a task ( depending on the objective of the lesson) to create in groups and present. For example, if they are learning Qualities of movement they will be given a haiku poem per group and asked to use different qualities of movement and present in front of their friends. During creation, children have to discuss, make decisions, find different ways of doing it and work on a presentation. This involves critical thinking skills. During presentation also audience have to give critical feedback to peers
LK: When do we start feeling discomfort and dissatisfaction with our bodies? Why do we feel this way?
When we are mentally uncomfortable it immediately shows on our body. The way we sit, stand and move, people will read our body language. So our Body and mind are connected and when you are uncomfortable with our bodies we could be uncomfortable with either our mind or who we are.
In this case working with our body in different ways will help free our minds
LK: Why do we shame children who move a lot? “Don’t fidget. Stand still”, was a constant refrain I heard at school.
Any movement should either have a purpose or a motive. When children get restless in their minds they get restless with their body. Hence a child who is unable to control his/ her actions could be unable to pay attention for whatever reason – either the child is very bright and is bored, the environment is just not stimulating enough or he has an attention issue. If this is recurring then activities need to be made shorter with adequate breaks and balance movements help bring back focus
LK: How can rhythm be enabled at home for instance?
Most things around us have rhythm. It is important for a child to have rhythmic comprehension so that he/ she can stay with the pace of the surroundings.
LK: What forms of dance and drama are taught at GAIT as part of the creative movement programme? Why were these techniques chosen?
GAIT uses framework of dance and theatre to stimulate innovative thinking not necessarily to teach the form
LK: Dance and movement transcend gender. Still, could you share with us how GAIT’s early childhood movement programme specifically benefits girls and boys?
When one creates with their bodies without the agenda of form then there is no need for talent. Hence, both girls and boys love GAIT.
LK: Where is the GAIT operational now?
Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Mumbai, Goa, Chennai, Coimbatore, Bangalore, Hyderabad
LK: What are your challenges while getting schools to enrol in the GAIT programme?
Since this is a very new concept principals do not realise that GAIT is necessary. So we need to start with selling the “ need”
LK: What are the future plans for GAIT? (plans to cover more cities)
To of course be in more schools. The larger plan is to start a structured program for children with learning difficulties
LK: Could you recommend 5 books on dance and movement for children and adults?
How smart is your baby – Glen Doman
What to do with your brain injured child – Glen Doman
Bridging Learning – Mandia Mentis
There are a lot of books like 101 movement games with children which can be used to do at home
LK: If you could share one message with the children of the world, what would it be?
Be aware of your body – how you move, what you eat and how you feel. Be inquisitive and ask questions even if they are silly. Do not use the first idea that comes to your mind
Thank you so much, Preeti for talking with us.
You can visit GAIT at http://www.gaitonline.co.in/
If you like this interview and are considering dance for a child do watch this video where Sir.Ken Robinson talks about how dance is important as maths.