Love Language of Dance
Comparative expressions of love in Bharatanatyam and Ballet
February is the month of the year where expression of love is at its peak. While the Valentine’s Day culture of gift-giving is popularised through this month, there are many different ways humans express our affection including but not limited to words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service and touch. One can find aspects of these love languages reflected in the performativity of Dance that visualises these methods of communication through movement. As universal it is to feel emotions of love, its reflection can be found in all forms of dance throughout the world.
In the popular classical form of Bharatanatyam from India, the hastas or hand gestures used to express love is the alapadma hasta. The metaphoric movement of love begins with the hasta mudra with five fingers touching each other kept close to the body of the dancer with eyes looking down, almost as if self-conscious of being vulnerable and shy, and blooms out to the alapadma hasta from the body,looking towards the subject that is being loved having expressed those inner feelings. Not only can it indicate vulnerability seen in the romantic-shringara rasa between the nayika and the lord, but the metaphor can be arbitrarily placed to other forms of love including compassionate-karuna rasa from the lord to his devotee or between parent and child or even towards animals. This movement is primarily used as a literal translation for the word love, to say to a person that “you love them” as a means of reassurance.
Touch as an aspect of love can also be seen in the usages of hastas. The visual icon of the kilaka-mudra where the little fingers are linked together represents the link of a relationship. It is quite interesting that there is a collective consciousness that the little finger is a representation of a kind, soft and loving imagery whereas the index finger is the assertive one that points to the other with notions of anger. This imagery translates into the hasta of kilaka that are used to show relationships of friends or lovers whereas the paasha hasta shows the same link of fingers but now using the index finger to show enmity.
Left kilaka hasta, right Paasha hasta
The touch of the little fingers in a link immediately reminds one of the ‘pinky promise’ as a little child. Contrastingly,the weight of promises as an adult in romantic-relationships seems to be more as the thumb covers the other three fingers to make the chatura hasta. Here both hands are kept touching together in chatura hasta to depict promise. This hasta is extensively used in shringara-javalis where there seems to be a need for making compromises in romantic relationships.
Source: from SDN https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMVLNmQO6bM
Unlike the Natyashastra that exists in Indian performing arts that provide definitive hastas, in Western Ballet, there is more interpretive dance. Music plays an important role in differentiation. Songs with lyrics used in Bharatanatyam give the possibility of a direct word-to-movement translation while the instrumental musicality primarily sets the mood or rasa of ballet. Movements from the glossary of aesthetically symmetric stances, leg and foot movements are weaved into story-telling. Take for example the fast paced footwork of the Bourrée which can sometimes give the illusion of flying representing the soft and dainty damsel or conversely evoke a sense of urgency which might indicate a completely different mood. Each of these techniques lends itself to different rasas and the differing combinations of choreography build the mood.
One can even say that the cultural backgrounds of these dance forms are reflected in the dance. Touch becomes a key aspect of love-exchange. From society that shys away from physical touch, the Indian metaphors of the bee that drink the nectar of the flower, the love-birds that form a heart shape replace the need for the physical touch between the lovers. The free-flowing yet immensely controlled acrobatics in the pas de deux ballet explores the depths of love through the contact of the bodies of the two lovers. The matched breathing and the symmetric bends danced in aesthetic rhythm mirroring the coordination in thoughts and actions required between two lovers; the trusted grip of the other in holding those movements in precise grace reflects the need for trust in the relationship.
This exercise of comparison between two different classical dance forms brings to light the limitlessness of expression. It is almost like two different worlds when one explores the techniques of communication used in these dance forms, similar to how we might have our own unique love languages. Dance as a medium gives space for conversation and a place of honest self-expression. Sometimes it can be difficult to find a safe and loving space in reality, but that’s when we can use the tool of expression we learn from dance and create a magical synergy between us and all that we love.
Shreyaa Suresh is a passionate dancer, theatre actor, and an aspiring academic, based in Chennai. A post graduate student in anthropology & sociology, she hopes to pursue a doctorate in performing arts and academic writing.