Bharatanatyam is one of the most ancient dance styles in India, originating over 2000 years ago. The discipline, structure and rigor sets this form of art apart from others, and it takes years of training to acquire performance-level mastery, much like it would take a principal ballerina.
The training includes adavus (steps), jathis (dance sequences), mudras (stylized hand gestures) and abhinaya (facial expressions).
Other than being an art form marked by beauty and finesse in its delivery, Bharatanatyam training makes for a vigorous workout of the mind, body and soul. The dance works to tone arms, legs and core muscles, as well as to strengthen facial muscles. The steps and eye movements improve concentration and coordination skills. Bharatanatyam helps in the awareness of the body in relation to rhythmic movement.
While it may take years to master the dance style at the performance-level, that doesn’t mean that you cannot learn a few steps for a satisfying workout. In the above video, four exercises have been put together to target mainly the cardiovascular endurance, hamstrings, quadriceps and extra ocular muscles. Despite my 17 years of training, I still had sore muscles after it!
Since Bharatanatyam is a classical dance, it is important to respect the tradition. While performing these exercises, it is recommended to tie long hair back, be barefooted and wear comfortable, yet conservative clothing. A tunic and leggings often work. Tying a dupatta or scarf around the waist is beneficial in keeping the torso erect.
Thatta Adavu or Stamping Step (1:38)
Any proper workout starts with a warm-up, and Bharatanatyam is no different. The first step a dancer learns is known as the Thatta Adavu (stamping step) and is treated as a warm-up.
Thatta adavu involves the basic aramandi position, similar to a first position demi-plie. The step involves rhythmic stamps ranging from one stamp on each foot to six stamps with three speed levels for each pattern set. A simplified version going only up to three stamps is demonstrated above. Thatta adavu is a wonderful cardio-intensive step that also warms up leg muscles and prevents muscle pulls.
Kudittu Mettu Adavu or Toe-Hopping step (3:30)
Ever wondered how to get those perfect dancer calves or slim those stubborn inner thighs? Kudittu Mettu is the answer. This toe-hopping step is done in the aramandi position and involves hopping on the toes and releasing the heels with a slight hop as well. There are three speed levels and eight hops done in each speed. The arm movements in the video would also work to tone arm muscles.
Mandi Adavu or Knee step (4:52)
No, not like Mandy Moore, mandi means knees. This step is done in poorthi-mandali, which is similar to a first position grande-plie. In other words, get low and bend the knees fully. Mandi adavu involves hopping in this position and then lunging out. This step is repeated twice on each side, and therefore, there are four lunges done in each speed. The arms are again demonstrated in the video. Those with knee problems should take precautions when performing this step. Other than toning quadriceps and hamstrings, this step helps develop strong core muscles, which aid in balance.
Eye and Neck Movements (5:45)
Bharatanatyam is probably known most for its characteristic eye and neck movements. Eye movements help strengthen the external muscles which support eyes. It is unofficially optometrist-approved, as my own optometrist comments on it every time she flashes the light into my eyes and makes me look different directions. Neck movements can help ease tense upper back muscles. These can be difficult, but fun to try out at the same time.
So with a few simple exercises, anyone can increase physical and mental wellness through Bharatanatyam. Whether the goal is to lose a few pounds or improve coordination, anyone can now achieve fitness success.
A study conducted by the University of Kolkata showed significantly lower numbers in absolute body fat, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and body weight, among people that practiced Bharatanatyam in comparison to those that did not. NPR recently reported on a girl diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and how Bharatanatyam helped improve her muscular strength and fine motor skills.
Karishma B. Desai freelances for the award-winning IndyWeek, is starting as an overseas contributor to the Bangalore Mirror and was a former intern for UNC-TV (North Carolina’s PBS Affiliate). When she’s not writing articles at Starbucks, you can find her videotaping a new adventure for YouTube or interviewing inspirational people for a documentary. She is a city girl who is working towards her dreams of becoming a TV health/science reporter.