Teaching Bharatanatyam through Covid (March 2020 – present)

Teaching Bharatanatyam through Covid (March 2020 – present)

For years, my husband Arun had been telling me to try online dance classes through Skype or Zoom. Traveling to class was always a challenge for students and parents. There were many students who were traveling long distances to get to class or coming only a few times a week for serious practice. My view on online classes was always an emphatic no. I was convinced that this would not be effective and shut down the idea by saying you don’t know anything about dance. After many attempts to convince me, he finally gave up. My regular in-person classes continued until Covid eventually forced me to take online classes. Now, a year later, seeing how all my classes are going so well online, I guess he is the one having the last laugh ?
In the third week of March 2020, restrictions were imposed on large classes to prevent the virus from spreading. But thanks to a tech-savvy husband whose forte was in online teaching and training, we had our first zoom class within a few days (March 22nd ). Ours was one of the first dance classes to go online.
We began with theory classes as I thought it was only for a few weeks. I shared videos that I had been wanting to show my students. We took this chance to discuss topics like the Navarasa, Karanas and so on. Then, we started practicing Adavus, they were asked to follow the videos being shared on screen. All the batches were attending these sessions together as we were still getting used to the online mode. I thought this was just a temporary model for a few days.
Initially, we faced a number of challenges including the following:
• I was not able to see the full view of the students. But slowly the girls understood how they had to position themselves and their cameras.
• Some found the idea of learning online hard to manage, and we saw a few dropouts. That was truly their loss considering the amount the others have learnt in this past year.
• I had to make the kids understand that they cannot all talk at once. We instructed them to raise their hands and wait for me to call their name before they can ask a doubt or answer my question.
• They were taught not to interrupt me to ask if they could go to the washroom, drink water, and so on. They were asked to msg me on the chat window. Kids being quick learners are now very good at following these class protocols. Now we also send a list of written instructions that kids must follow.
After realizing that this Covid situation was not going away soon, by April, we split up the groups and started batch-wise classes on Zoom. By using breakout rooms and having senior students assist in every class, we were able to give pretty much the same attention as we used to before. I really need to thank my teaching assistants without whom we could not have maintained the same quality and discipline that is the foundation of Samarpana academy.
Samarpana YouTube Channel goes Live
Since all the scheduled Arangetrams were postponed, I realized that students needed to have a place where they could watch our class programs. So on May 14th, Samarpana YouTube went live. Videos from past Salangai poojas and Arangetrams were posted regularly for the students to stay connected.
In June, to break the monotony of the regular classes, I decided to ask Mrs. Rashmi to have sessions with various groups. Rashmi, an experienced storyteller of our Puranas had on earlier occasions come to our class to talk on various topics. We started with the topic on Jyotirlingas for middle and senior levels and on Lord Krishna for junior kids. Based on student’s response and seeing how useful it was, I thought of having these classes that were open to all on a regular basis. And that is how the idea for our Sanskriti Classes came about.
On July 5th, we circulated our Sanskriti poster for juniors and advanced levels with three different classes. Our first-class began on July 7th, – the interesting stories got many hooked ensuring it goes on even today!
In August, I felt the students needed something to keep them motivated. Keeping this in mind, I decided to get them to perform an item together. I got them to record the item from their homes and ultimately, we combined the videos for the final product. This activity was put forward to both Intermediate 3 and the Senior group. A lot of discussions followed on what item was going to be done, what they would wear, which part would be done by whom, etc. It was challenging as students had to record the video with a clear background, and many were not able to find a suitable place in their homes. After lots of hard work and multiple retakes, the girls were able to get everything right. By September 1st, the videos by both groups were ready! My huge thanks to Nikita Giri and Aaria for putting this together.
In the mean time, I sent out our first-class newsletter to give the parents an update regarding class happenings.
September 5th (Teachers Day) this year was like never before! Usually, a few children would wish me or send me messages. But this time, thanks to Zoom, every child was showing me greeting cards they had made, wished me one by one, sent voice messages and so on. The senior group gave me a big surprise in class by playing a Teachers Day video for me! It was of an item they had learnt on their own, recorded it wearing coordinated dance attire, and put it together. It even had old students taking part who I hadn’t seen in a while. The girls had also each spoken about their relationship with me, and it was very touching!
October 26 saw our first virtual Vijayadasami Pooja. At first, I was hesitant about how to do a virtual Pooja, but then I wanted the students to know that Vijayadasami is an important day for a dancer and didn’t want to miss the tradition. So did the Puja multiple times for each group and ensured everyone learnt something new, and practiced something old as was the tradition that had been followed by my Gurus.
By January 2021, things were getting better, so I registered 8 of our students to participate in the Natyanjali festival in Hosur. For that, we had few sessions at home, which both me and the students enjoyed. When the girls came home after many months, they even forgot that after the Namaskaram, they had to come and take my blessings! With the girls excited at the prospect of getting on stage after a long time, the program in Hosur went on well!
Feeling confident after this, I told our next Salangai Pooja group to start working on their items and decided to have a class for them in my house every two weeks. In February, we ordered their costumes to be stitched, and seeing that this group was doing quite well already, we decided to hold the event on April 17. But soon, the cases started going up again, and slowly a sense of panic started setting in. But thanks to our preparations that started quite early, the girls were well prepared, and with hardly a few sessions, we decided to go ahead with it. So, for the first time, we live-streamed a class event, and the function went on very well with just the parents of the participants. So that was our Covid-19 Event!
I have always encouraged students to attend workshops conducted by other Gurus under my guidance. A few of our students attended an online Adavu workshop conducted by the famous dancer from Malaysia Shri Shankar Kandasamy in May. Some have registered for the workshop organized by Kalakshetra in June.
Sometimes I ask the students whether they like learning online. From their response, I understood that they really miss coming to class, miss the company of their friends and learning from each other. While I can definitely understand that, I can’t help but see all the other advantages that online classes have brought:
• Usually, when children or parents are sick, they miss the class. But now they join the class and watch even if they can’t dance so continuity is not lost.
• While they are traveling, they can still attend their dance class.
• There is also no question of forgetting anything at home. All they need to do is turn around and pick it up.
• Parents are more involved and get to see where their kids are falling behind.
• I am able to show them videos of great dancers and show slides of sculptures and temple architecture that previously involved taking a projector to class.
• We can send recordings of classes for more practice.
• A few of our older students who are studying in US were able to join back to class.
• We now know that even after our regular classes start, we can always come back to zoom in case of a lockdown or bad weather as the students know exactly what to do now.
Reflecting back on this past year, overall, I think the children have adapted beautifully to the online model. Though we can’t wait for things to get back to normal, we are grateful for what this situation has taught us.