Indian Dance Aesthetics

Indian Dance Aesthetics

A Treasury of Form and Function

By Patrice Hawkwood Schanck

The ancient dance form known in the U.S. as belly dance has largely escaped academic and cultural respectability in the West (and, one could argue, in the Middle East as well), which has had both positive and negative effects. What belly dance lacks in respectability as an art form may be more than made up for in freedom and creativity. However, this art form has yet to develop a store of written knowledge about the dance. Consequently, as dancers we are without a common language through which we can discuss Middle Eastern dance aesthetics and philosophy.

Balasaraswati, Madras, India, 1934.

Unlike some classical art forms, no body of writing on Middle Eastern dance exists in which the collected wisdom of great dancers and teachers of the past has been set down for future reference. By and large, the stylistic qualities, movements and emotions of the dance and choreography are handed down from teacher to student, or “borrowed” from one dancer to another. This folk aspect of belly dance is one of the qualities about it that has kept it vibrant and growing as a dance form. Yet it is a very old art, linked to the dances of many cultures. One link is to the dances of India, a culture which developed a treasury of writing and thinking about dance. Looking at Middle Eastern dance through the lens of the Indian system of thought can illuminate and clarify it in a new way. One treatise in particular, the Natya Shastra of Bharata, is an extremely thorough work on dance, describing and analyzing the techniques used in the dance dramas performed for the educated elite of that time, some two-thousand years ago. It is a thorough theater manual, spelling out in great detail all aspects of the performer’s art, from hand movements (mudras) to makeup and costuming. It codified 108 karanas, or units of movement, which have been archived in carvings on ancient temples.1 It is still widely studied by practitioners of diverse styles of dance today.

One might question the usefulness of analyzing belly dance in terms of Indian dance concepts, or even of analyzing it at all. Yet the very popularity and growth of the art of belly dance can create confusion about what our dance is. There seem to be two complementary trends right now in Middle Eastern dance in the West. On the one hand, there is much important work being accomplished in recording, analyzing, learning and teaching authentic traditional folk and tribal styles. Dancer/folklorists such as Laurel Victoria Gray, Elizabeth Mourat, Aisha Ali and Morocco are helping to keep the traditional heart of the dance alive. At the same time, there has been incredible growth in interpretive belly dance forms, both in the tribal and danse orientale styles. Dancers are increasingly combining belly dance steps with nontraditional music and Western dance moves, with varying degrees of success. Also, choreographers and dancers are collaborating with artists in other fields and experimenting with belly dance in ritual, multimedia theater pieces, and performance art. One example of this is Wendy Buonaventura’s important and controversial pieces for the stage. I have had the pleasure of working with Paulette Rees Denis, a dynamic artist, dancer, and choreographer, to create theater pieces which combine myth and belly dance with other dance disciplines such as modern and flamenco. In addition, women are experimenting with traditional dances such as the zar and the guedra in nontraditional settings such as hospital delivery rooms and celebrations in contemporary women’s spirituality groups.

Because of Western innovation, it sometimes seems as if Middle Eastern dance is becoming so diverse that it may be losing it’s definition as a dance form. Knowledge of Indian dance structure can enhance our vision of our dancing, and add to the ongoing dialogue in the belly dance community. Just as Westerners have borrowed Hindu words to describe realities and states of consciousness for which there is no word in English, exploring the Indian system of dance aesthetics can enrich our dance, giving us new and more precise words for concepts we experience but perhaps have not been able to articulate.

Beginning in approximately 300 C.E. much of the vast wisdom about dance in India which had accumulated over millennia was collected and written down.2 Many of the dance treatises written have been lost, but several great works remain. It is beyond the scope of this brief article to convey thousands of years of Indian thought on dance; however it will introduce some terms and ideas pertinent to Middle Eastern dance.

Natya This word refers to a combination of dance, drama and music. In the earliest times in India, dance was not separated out from other performing arts. It was seen as one aspect of a total experience in which a theme or story was expressed through and along with dance and music.3 In the beginning, dance was part of a “multimedia” tradition in India. It is interesting to me that some of the recent artistic experimentation in belly dancing seems to be both a very new and very old dance expression.

Nrita This refers to pure and simple dance, or dance which consists of movements of the body and limbs which are performed for their own sake, for their own beauty and decorative effect, and not to convey any special meaning to the beholder.4

Nritya In contrast, nritya is dance which is essentially expressional, or dance which is performed specifically to convey the meaning or import of a theme or idea to the onlooker. This is accomplished through the use of suggestive facial expressions, codified gestures of the hands and symbolic poses of the body.5

Malavika Sarrukai performing bharata natyam.

I think many people automatically assume that belly dance is ‘pure’ dance, i.e., dance that does not tell a story, in contrast to the hula, for example. Yet there are aspects of many kinds of Middle Eastern dance which are symbolic: the couscous and makeup dances of the Berbers are two examples that come to mind. And often when I see Oriental dance, there seems to be an attempt by the dancer to dance the qualities of a young, coquettish girl. It is important not to project meaning in an absolute sense onto dancing where there is no meaning or none is known for certain. However, it can enhance our dancing when we contemplate what our movements and gestures mean to ourselves. In other words, what do we feel when we make different movements in our dancing? Which movements do we use to communicate something about ourselves to the audience, and which are done purely for their own beauty?

Sangeet This term is sometimes used to mean simply music. The correct and full meaning of the term, however, conveys the sense of music and dance being done well together. This collaborative relationship between the dancer and musicians is an art in and of itself.6

Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi These two terms relate to the varying degrees of informality and structure in the dance. Lokadharmi refers to dances which are down-to-earth and close to everyday experience, while that which is natyadharmi is formal and adheres to rules and principles. Lokadharmi is accessible and easy to understand by everyone, and natyadharmi is more remote and complex, appreciated only by those who are equipped to understand the art.7

Desi and Margi These terms are similar to those above, and loosely correspond to the English terms ‘low brow’ and ‘high brow.’ A desi style of dance is light and entertaining, while a margi style of dance is classical and rooted in refined aesthetics. In India, distinctions are drawn between folk and tribal dances, belonging to the realm of lokadharmi and desi, and classical dances, belonging to natyadharmi and margi.8 This same contrast of more or less accessibility of movement exists within all styles of Middle Eastern dance; some movements and isolations are simply more appreciated by aficionados of the dance than they are by the larger public. Other movements look impressive to the general audience, but do not take great muscle control or advanced skill.

Tandava and Lasya These terms refer to a fundamental division within Indian dance. Tandava is masculine, robust, expansive; lasya is tender, graceful, lyrical. This does not mean, however, that men always dance with the quality of tandava, or that women always dance the quality of lasya.9 The two aspects refer simply to the style of executing the dance, not to the gender of the dancer. In one Hindu myth, it is said that dance originated with the god Shiva. He was an excellent dancer himself and taught his consort, the goddess Parvati, the art as well. Shiva danced the tandava style and Parvati danced the lasya aspect of the dance.10 Interestingly, in the books on dance which survive in India, the tandava style of dance receives much more attention than the lasya, to the extent that the entire basic structure of the dance is presented in the writings as being founded on the tandava system.11

It seems clear that both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies exist within Middle Eastern dance, even though the lasya, or feminine is more obvious or perhaps just better known. For myself, I like the idea that as a woman I can draw on both qualities to enhance my dancing.

Abhinaya This is the element of communication and projection in classical dance. Through the four elements of abhinaya, the performer transmits to the onlooker meaning and emotion: 1) angika, movements and gestures of the body; 2) vachika, voice and speech; 3) aharya, dress, adornment and makeup; and 4) satvika, play and interplay of emotions, moods and sentiments.12 Some of these are more relevant to Middle Eastern dance than others.

One unique feature of Indian dance is the intricate hand gestures of the dancer, known as the language of the hands, which is generally not as extensively developed in Middle Eastern traditions. However, the elaborate gestures of the hands in Indian dance can inspire us to be aware of the power of the hand to complete or cut short the line of our arms when dancing. We can welcome or ward away, bless or dismiss with our hands when we dance, and the more awareness we have of this part of our bodies, the more control we have and the better we communicate.

American belly dancers typically do not sing or speak during their dance. However, song is often part of the musical presentation in belly dance performance. There are also new experimental pieces using writing, poetry and story along with the dance. I look forward to more creative play in this area in the future from dancers and musicians.

As one beginning belly dancer said to me, “We get to dance AND dress up? This is great!” For many of us, costuming is a big part of our attraction to the dance. We don’t need an ancient text to tell us that. However, what the Indian tradition does add is perhaps a finely tuned awareness of how the power of costume can shape what people see when we dance. The fundamental point in these writings is that all adornment, dress and makeup should accentuate whatever mood or meaning the dancer is trying to convey in her dance. Everything should meld harmoniously and contribute to the overall mood.

The last aspect of abhinaya, satvika is the play of the expression of emotion in the eyes and the face, the affect of the dancer. This is considered to be the soul, the spark of life and spirit of the dance. It is the addition of satvika that transforms craft into art. The expressions on our face can influence what we communicate with our dance to a great degree, yet many dancers do not focus very much on this part of their performance. We have all seen performances where tension, annoyance or fear showed on the face of the dancer. The face is in many cases as important as any other part of the body, conveying beauty and other entrancing qualities of the dance. The audience often “checks” the face of the dancer to see how they are supposed to react.

Rasa The Natya Shastra has long been revered as one of the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition, and is considered to be the “fifth Veda.”13 The four principle Vedas contain prayers, hymns, and ritual formulas designed to enliven the laws of nature and produce enlightenment. The treatment of the details of the performer’s art described in the Natya Shastra is very similar to the treatment that rituals and sacrifices receive in the principle Vedas. The dancer is expected to bring the same single-mindedness to a performance as the devotee does to a ritual. The Natya Shastra “asserts that dance drama, properly performed, ‘emboldens the weak, energizes the heroic, enlightens the ignorant and imparts erudition to the scholars by showing humanity and divinity as they really are.”14 This is accomplished by producing states of emotion or consciousness, called rasa (Sanskrit for flavor, taste, juice, or sweetness), in the sensitive person (rasika) who participates in the dance by witnessing it.

The Natya Shastra identified eight fundamental rasas15: love (sometimes translated as “eroticism”16), humor, pathos, anger, heroism, terror, disgust and wonder. Serenity was added by later commentators, who said that it encompassed the others. These rasas are not ordinary, transitory, personal feelings, but are aesthetically refined and universal. Experiencing the rasa of love is not like falling in love with the performer; the rasa of anger does not compel the viewer to attack the performer. Rather than focusing on the individual “flavors,” rasas reveal the commonality of human experience, and draw the awareness to the unity underlying the diversity of the performance. It is a peak experience, the ultimate in aesthetic bliss and fulfillment.

As a performer, to evoke rasa in an observer is to enter into a dialogue. The dancer evokes the quality, the flavor of life, and both she and the onlooker taste it. We have all had the experience of seeing a truly and completely entrancing belly dancer perform. We become totally and blissfully unaware of everything around us except the dancer. Nothing distracts us from the performance, and we lose all awareness of the passage of time. Through no conscious effort on our part, we almost become one with the dancer, her movements, the music. This is truly a zenith experience of aesthetic joy, one that has been compared to the attainment of brahman, or the stage of consciousness where one’s soul is reabsorbed into the all-pervading soul and spirit of the universe.


1 Jonas, pg. 57.

2 Samson, pg. 17.

3 Khokar, pg. 58.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., pg. 59.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Samson, pg. 9.

11 Khokar, pg. 59.

12 Ibid. pgs. 61-63.

13 Jonas, pg. 57

14 Ibid., pg. 58.

15 Ibid.

16Khokar, pg. 66


Ancient India: Land of Mystery, Ed. by Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA., 1994.

The Dance in India, issued by on behalf of the Tourist Division, Government of India, New Delhi, 1958.

Jonas, Gerald, Dancing, the Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY, 1992.

Khokar, Mohan, Traditions of Indian Classical Dance, Clarion Books, New Delhi, 2nd ed., 1984.

Samson, Leela, Rhythm in Joy, Classical Indian Dance Traditions, Lustre Press Pvt., Ltd. ,New Delhi, 1987.

Singha, Rina, and Reginald Massey, Indian Dances, Their History and Growth, George Braziller, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1967.

Patrice Hawkwood Schanck is an instructor of mythology, the psychology of myth and women’s spirituality, as well as a belly dancer in the American tribal style tradition. She has co-taught the Ancient Echoes of Tribal Belly Dance series of classes, seminars and weekend retreats for women with Paulette Rees Denis for six years. She is currently writing a book on mythology and belly dance.

Originally published in Habibi Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1997, Santa Barbara, CA. Copyright Shareen El Safy, 1997.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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