Education in spiritual values through Bharatanatyam: Part VII
Art of teaching: Some methods and approaches
- Chandra Anand

April 6, 2015

Dance is an art wherein through ‘language of gestures’ it communicates the thought processes and emotional bearings of the ‘spirit.’ Dance is the medium of spiritual expression, to communicate the joys and sorrows of life, where the instrument is the human body and mind. The teacher trains the student and helps the student to integrate body and mind through cadences of body movements set to rhythm and express ideas, emotions or emotional experiences of the inner self.

A teacher trains the students in an art form by giving instructions on the practical aspects of the art i.e., performance of the art, duly supported by theoretical knowledge of the subject matter. Various means and measures are devised to provide the technology of the art which can be called the methods of teaching.  These methods vary from teacher to teacher.

Teaching of foreign language and language of gestures
The researcher is trying to access the methods and approaches of teaching a foreign language for teaching gesture language of dance since both are skills of communicating acquired through study, practice and habit formation.

The essentials for a method of teaching of a language, according to W.F. Mackey is, “A method determines ‘what and how’ much is taught, the ‘order’ in which it is taught, ‘how the meaning and form’ are conveyed, and what is done to make the ‘use of the language unconscious.’ Thus a method deals with four things: viz. selection, gradation, presentation and repetition.” [1] The lessons are selected to suit the level of education of the learner; it is graded according to the maxims of teaching and with the understanding of the psychological makeup of the student. It is presented in a manner so that the concepts and techniques are conveyed with sensitivity and are made habituated through repeated practice or repetition and drill.

Language of gestures                                                                                                               
Dance teaching consists of demonstrating the use of gestures in specific ways for indicating or expressing one’s emotions and feelings. Gesture language is symbolic and evolved through a process of selection and elimination. In classical dances, only those gestures are chosen which provide the qualities that can evoke rasa, of course, when used in the precise manner. These gestures of hands, legs and face are described in the various natya sastras and are discussed in great detail by ancient writers from Bharata, Abhinavagupta, Nandikeswara, and Dhananjaya in their respective manuscripts. The present generation teachers have translated their Sanskrit works into English and other languages of the present century for easy assimilation and understanding of the students of the present generation.

In the “language of gestures,” each gesture is a symbol which conveys a meaning. These symbols are depicted using single hand gestures, double hand gestures which describe the meaning of the words in their exposé. Hand gestures have been designed to depict gods, relationships, castes, planets and many others. Facial gestures have also been evolved for expressing various emotions with help of the minor limbs of the body - the eyes, eyebrows, eyelashes, cheeks, lips and neck. Gestures have also been developed using different leg movements and stances to help depict the different gaits, leaps and turns or whirls of the human beings, animals and birds. In fact the works of Natya Sastra and Abhinayadarpanam have not left out any movement that a human body has the ability to perform.  The student is taught the names of the gestures and applications and is enabled to use these, in order to express or interpret thoughts and emotions while performing nritya.

Using of Direct Method in training of gestures
For teaching this gesture language of dance, the researcher recommends the adoption of the ‘Direct method’ as explained below. “The Direct Method is a method of teaching a foreign language, especially a modern language, through conversation, discussion and reading in the language itself, without use of the pupil’s language (mother tongue), without translation, and without the study of formal grammar.” [2]

There is a difference in learning a new ‘language to speak’ and learning the ‘language of gestures.’ “In foreign language the student starts to think and speak in the new language without the need of translating his idea or thought from the mother tongue into the foreign language.” [3] In dance the artist thinks and forms sentences in the language he finds easy to communicate with and shows gestures to mime the respective words used in the poem to express his idea.  It is the audience who need to know how to interpret the gestures used and translate them into appropriate or respective meanings with the help of lyrics to interpret the gestures. It is important to understand that the lyrics are only guide lines and the music provides a rhythm for movement and expression. The artist sees and gives many meanings (sancharis) to a line of verse, to present and strengthen the sthayi bhava, which the audience should grasp. The audience will need to know the language of gestures too to interpret the gestures.

Creation of Rasa-experience
“The direct method aims at establishing a direct bond between thought and expression, experience and language. The idea is that the learner should experience the new language in the same way in which he/she experienced his/her mother tongue.” [4] Dance uses the gesture language to convey thoughts and feelings. Therefore, the gestures should be interpreted quickly and naturally as one understands one’s own mother tongue. The intent is that the audience should experience the rasa evoked in a natural way as he experiences his environment.  The sattvika bhavas that indicate rasa-experience originate naturally from the mind of the involved spectator or sahridya. For this, the spectator should be in step with the artist for a harmonious apprehension of experience. These gestures can be taught and are to be taught by using normal situations that the student faces in day-to-day life. Therefore, through the direct method, a dance teacher can aim at establishing a direct bond between thought (idea) and expression (emotion), experience (rasa) and language (gestures or angika abhinaya).  The only difference between day-to-day experience and rasa-experience is that both the artist and the spectator participate in art presentation and an idea is shared (rasa-experience); while day-to-day experience is individual and a mundane one. The emotional experience presented in dance is aesthetically dramatized and so rasa-experience is enjoyable and blissful.

Teaching method and teaching approach
“An approach tells us what to teach while a method tells us how to teach.” [5]

“The direct method helps in teaching dance as it is to learn by way of doing.” [6] It deals with presentation and repetition. Like the teacher presents the movements (skill), the child learns it by imitating and acquires the correct movements only by repeating it several times (drill). Like speech which has to be learnt by practicing to speak orally, dance has to be learnt by practicing body movements.

But selection and gradation of teaching materials is required for effective results. For this, an approach is to be taken to help us decide what to teach and how much to teach in a session. This is done by selection and gradation of material to be taught for each unit of the lesson. Structural approach deals with selection and gradation of material. Therefore direct method is combined with structural approach to help us decide what and how much needs to be taught in each dance session or lesson. The above definition of method to teach language by W.F. Mackey combines both method and approach.

Principles of structural approach
“The structural approach is based on the following principles: one – in language it is the importance of speech as the necessary means of fixing firmly all ground work.” [7] This means   that speech should precede writing skills. Just like a language has grammar for proper usage of language, e.g., subject, predicate, object - this structure or order of words (S+P+O) makes a full sentence, the basic unit of language is a sentence. In dance the required movements of the body or cadences of movement are to be fixed firmly through adavus. There are special ways and positions of the hands by which the hastas and other limbs of the body are to be moved and placed and replaced, i.e. angashuddam, to make dance patterns. Nritta hastas used in adavus convey no meaning; they are used for ornamentation or for purpose of creating beauty.

“Secondly, the importance of the pupil’s activity rather than the activity of the teacher is paramount.” [8] This means repetition of the skill learnt a number of times by the student is required for absorption and internalization of the skill. The child has to practice speaking, using vocabulary to make sentences or structures in various situations and usage as in affirmative sentence or interrogative sentence etc to develop language skills. And in dance, the pupils have to practice the adavus and gestures taught by the teacher again and again to achieve mastery over different body movements and expressions.

“Thirdly, the importance of forming language habits, particularly the habit of arranging words in English standard sentence patterns, to replace the sentence patterns of the pupil’s own language.” [9] The student should be able to converse in the new language without resorting to translating in the mother tongue. It is a process of habit formation. Likewise in learning dance, one learns to make clean and clear body movements in geometrical patterns with a variety of adavus where one familiarizes the body to the various ways it can move artistically and aesthetically. The movements are internalized with practice so that it looks natural. One trains the body only to forget it.

Using different methods and approaches for gestures, adavus and abhinaya
From the above discussion, one understands “Structural approach is linked with the oral approach, the drill method and the situational approach,” [10] and direct method is linked with skill lessons and drill lessons.

(i) The structural approach
“In the adavus, particular importance is attached to angashuddha (correct postures of the limbs which include the nritta  hastas and padabhedas), Talashuddha (correct rhythm), the tandava (strong movement) and lasya (graceful movement)”. [11] These form the structural validity or grammar of the adavus or nritta patterns. While performing nritya (abhinaya) too these rules of the nritta movements are to be adapted and emphasized. Dance patterns (adavus, korvais, jatis) and structures of various items (alarippu, jatiswaram, tillana, varnam) and choreography etc. are taught using structural approach. Like sentence structures of the English language (SPO), these items too are designed in specific manner and have defined structures as names attributed to the items signify.

(ii) Skill lessons and drill method for training of adavus
Learning a language or dance is a skill. In a skill lesson of dance the teacher demonstrates cadences of movement and orally instructs the students to imitate or follow her. Repetition or drill is the key to success in acquiring any skill. It is repetition which ensures retention, absorption and helps the learner to acquire the skill. A teacher is to supervise and guide the students’ practice. It is very essential that errors should be pointed out, eliminated and corrected so that wrong habits are not acquired and get fixed. “Thus the cycle of Practice - Correction - Practice goes on until mastery is achieved.” [12]  Practice makes a man perfect. In Bharatanatyam, the araimandi and the angasuddam is to be emphasized in the beginning from the initial adavus itself. In other words drill work in skill lessons or practice of skills learnt, is of great importance and value.

(iii) Situational approach
The natural way to teach a language or for that matter any subject is to teach it in situations. In a language, items of vocabulary, parts of speech and structures of sentences are to be taught in appropriate situations. The students are to be given various situations like buying a ticket, inviting a friend for tea etc. and make the pupil use appropriate vocabulary and sentence structures to practice speaking. Likewise, items of abhinaya that depict many mythological stories and anecdotes of visualized scenes of social life are to be taught in appropriate and meaningful situations. Like a song in praise of Goddess can be taught around the time of Navarathri festival. Also the child can be asked to relate the Goddess to her own mother for easier understanding of the concept of universal mother. Also, the indirect experience of reading the story is brought to life through dance when the stories from different myths are presented with actions and expression enabling direct experience through the senses.

Also the items are to be pupil-centered and are to be selected according to the maturity level of the learners. Our work and lessons are to be properly graded to suit the intelligence of students. While determining ‘easy’, we must take into account the psychological make-up of the child - The younger students are to be taught items related to god and mother, while the senior students can be taught items of love and relationships of husband and wife in different situations.“Thus situational approach combines psychological approach, logical approach, and linked to life experiences. Psychological approach implies selection of material according to maturity and previous knowledge or already known concepts of the student and logical approach implies the systematic arrangement and explanation of the matter to be presented.” [13]

(iv) The oral approach 
In dance, the theoretical part is to be taught orally. The knowledge of theory helps in grasping the practical part for it provides explanations necessary for a complete understanding. For e.g., the words pallavi, anupallavi and charanam help demarcate the parts of items and enables the students to remember the order of the dance in progression. The adavus’ names will enable the students to remember them in their groups. Why the adavus are named as such, will remind them of the technique involved in execution of an adavu. Here usage of technical terms to instruct the students to learn their movements will be very helpful. The teacher will have to use a dance vernacular language i.e., use of technical terminology for giving instructions, so that the student understands and learns the theory with ease. She has to use the names of all poses, stances and hastas while teaching the nritta and nritya items of Bharatanatyam. Therefore for planning and conducting teaching-learning experiences of dance or lesson plans of dance sessions, the teacher should train herself in giving instructions perfectly in dance vernacular language. The students also should orally be able to name the adavus, gestures, and items taught. The understanding of these concepts and content of items by the students should be tested by taking oral tests. Thus oral method also has great value in teaching techniques of skill based lessons.

For training in gestures, the use of direct method for teaching foreign language is already explained above.

Selection and gradation of structures
Structures are to be selected and graded in the order of their difficulty.  Simple structures should precede the more difficult ones. “While selecting and grading of structures, the principles of usefulness, productivity, simplicity and teachability should be kept in view.” [14] Like we find the tatta and natta movements are regularly repeated in other adavus too. So, these adavus are taught first. Also they give a sense of balance and understanding of the central line or bilateral symmetry of the body. “While grading structures, one should also ensure proper grouping and sequence.  Grouping means which structures that fit together because of their similarities. Sequences indicate arrangement of structures within a group according to the rise in complexity of the structures.” [15]

For this we know the adavus are already grouped and sequenced long time back by the Tanjore Quartet.  These follow the maxim ‘simple to difficult one.’  The earlier adavus are the basic movements that are simple and easy to teach. They are used again and again, in varied ways to create more complex adavus. These are further used in adavus, where difficult and complicated movements are introduced. The earlier ones are simple and easy to learn.  The latter complex adavus are also easy to learn because the pupil already knows the basic movements which are synthesized to make more adavus. At a later date, when the sadir moved to the proscenium level, this grouping and sequencing of adavus have been credited to Rukmini Arundale too.

“Grading of ideas and matters to be expressed with thoughts and feelings, depend on the intellectual level of pupils, their age, their educational and socio-cultural backgrounds, and the aim of the selected portion to be taught.” [16] This is applied while teaching the items in the margam. The items of abhinaya are taught with use of the situational approach explained above.

Whatever be the methods employed by the teacher in her teaching learning process, it is very important that the teacher after every class, reflects on what is taught and how the unit was taught and how much of the portion taught have the students been able to grasp. It is necessary that after every lesson the teacher takes time to evaluate what she has done in the class room. This will help enhance the confidence of the teacher’s teaching abilities and the students feel a sense of achievement when they score well in the interrogative and diagnostic session. This raises the students’ interest in further lessons.

“Gaining confidence in one’s own teaching techniques endows the teacher with new sensibilities that later become intuitive. These intuitive responses alert the teacher to problems so that he/she can dissipate them before they occur in the class room.  Intuition prompts the teacher to find ways to enhance students’ learning. The teacher will need time and patience to acquire intuitiveness; it is a welcome reward for the teacher’s preparations and diligence in practicing his/her teaching skills.” [17] And so after the lesson, the teacher should take time to evaluate what he/she has done in the classroom.

Factors that influence choice of techniques
“There are a number of factors which affect our choice of materials and techniques.  Such factors may be:  the objectives of teaching language (or dance), the class for which the objectives are set; the age, the ability and capacity of pupils; the ability and training of the teacher; the availability of aids (charts, videos, projects, group discussions, workshop, seminar etc), the size of the class and even the location of the school whether rural or urban. Methods of teaching will differ accordingly as the teacher is teaching language (or dance) to 6 year olds, 16 year olds or 25 year olds. An inexperienced teacher or one with an average ability may not be able to make a success of the methods that suit brilliant teachers. Methods successful in a country such as America may be out of place in India. Methods that work with small groups of pupils may not suit large classes.  The social background also contributes to study of art. Pupils in rural areas who have less opportunity to see performances are in a disadvantageous position as compared to the pupils in urban areas who can afford to see a lot of performances. They miss out on actual experience and must make do with representative ones like books, etc.

Spontaneous teaching
The foregoing discussion leads us to the conclusion that there can be no particular method which can suit all people, all places and all conditions.  It is the teacher who has to select by himself or herself the best in all methods according to their need. He may create his own methods according to his inspirations, experiences and need of the hour.

Teaching has always been and remains, more of an art than a science.  That is to say, it is largely intuitive and dependent on the personal abilities and convictions of the teacher.  Most of a teacher’s success is the result of such qualities as enthusiasm, intelligence, and love for the students and her art.” [18]  

The best thing about dance is: it can be learnt by all, at any age group and by those who have varied educational and socio-cultural background.

Footnotes to reference:
1.    A.L. Kohli, Techniques of teaching English, Dhanpatrai and Sons, Jullunder, Delhi, 1988, chapter 3, pg 39.
2.    Ibid, chapter 3, pg 42.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Ibid.
5.    Ibid, chapter 3, pg 46.
6.    Ibid, chapter 3, pg 42.
7.    Ibid, chapter 3, pg 47.
8.    Ibid.
9.    Ibid.
10.    Ibid.
11.    Mrinalini Sarabhai, Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy  of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, 1981, chapter 4, Pg 26.
12.    K.K. Bhatia and J.N. Arora, Methodology of teaching, Prakash Brothers Educational Publishers, 1981, chapter 9, pg 192.
13.    Ibid, chapter 5, pg 50.
14.    A.L. Kohli, Techniques of teaching English, Dhanpatrai and Sons, Jullunder, Delhi, 1988, Chapter 3, pg 48.
15.    Ibid.
16.    Ibid, chapter 3, pg 48-49
17.    Gayle Kassing & Danielle Mary Jay, Dance teaching methods and Curriculum design, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, US, 2003, pg 177.
18.    * A.L. Kohli, Techniques of teaching English, Dhanpatrai and Sons, Jullundur, Delhi, 1988, chapter 3, pg 54-55, much of the part is written from the text.

1)    Bhatia K.K. & Arora J.N., Methodology of teaching, Prakash Brothers Educational publishers, 1981
2)    Kohli A.L., Techniques of teaching English, Dhanpat Rai and Sons, Jullunder, Delhi,1988.
3)    Sarabhai Mrinalini , Understanding Bharatanatyam, The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, fourth edition,1981.
4)    Anand Chandra,
5)    Kassing Gayle & Jay Danielle Mary, Dance teaching methods and Curriculum design, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois, US, 2003.


Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under Guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014). This article is adapted from the dissertation titled “Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam” under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Malati Agneswaran.

Post your comments
Unless you wish to remain anonymous, please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted with name & email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.