DanceDanceDance to liberty

We have a new volunteer here at Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) by the name of Hannah from Germany. She has been with us for just about 2 or 3 working days so far. On her first day, as the post-rice-filled-lunch-lazy-afternoon turned into evening, the sound of drums reached us from the workshop room. The dance rehearsal for the Cultural Program of the 20th edition of the Women’s Festival had begun and the participating ladies from the tailoring and crochet units upstairs had come down to perfect their collective movements to the beat of the drum. The sound of the drums has a special, inexplicable magnetic quality that draws everyone slowly away from their desks and computer screens and toward its source. I called Hannah to stop working and join me in watching the rehearsal; This festivity is important to partake in. As we stood at the door, tapping our feet to the rhythm, clapping our hands to the beat, I wondered if Hannah knows yet what she’s looking at. Later, I introduced her to one of the women and asked her to read her story.
It may seem, to the unseeing eye, like a regular group dance rehearsal these days at the AVAG office, with a young man playing loud drums (one a traditional Bambai drum and the other a home-made barrel drum) and an instructor urging the group to coordinate their movements exactly. To keep time. The count of “1, 2, 3, 4…8” being heard on loop between nervous laughs every time someone forgets a step. It is somewhere between this embarrassed, innocent laughter of the women and their sweat and panting breath as they push their physical limits to twirl in circles repeatedly, shift their weight from one leg to the other gracefully, all the while chanting under their breath “1, 2, 3, 4…” that I see the wonder of their courage, resilience and spirit. In time, Hannah too will learn the names of many of the women who are dancing and know their stories of struggle and triumph.
Hemamalini, who is a member of the Udhayam Federation and a regular face at AVAG, always bright and smiling, was not the same a few years ago. She was often in tears due to conflicts with a physically abusive husband. Even though she is educated, her confidence was low since her education only led to further ego clashes with her husband. While in this state, her group members nominated her to join the Federation since they believed that this responsibility would help her to overcome her personal difficulties and also saw in her the potential to support the group. With time, Hemamalini has learnt to speak in a sure tone that inspires confidence. She has pulled herself out of her helplessness by organizing the women’s groups to implement different programs in the villages, such as the inter-caste exchange programs.
On recounting the story of the first time she participated in a group dance performance for the Annual Women’s Festival, she remembers how afraid she was that her family would not appreciate her dancing on stage. In India, it is not considered socially and morally acceptable for a married woman to dance under a spotlight in public. The trust in AVAG and the company of other women encouraged her. “When we attend Women’s day festival, we become freely expressive and this is taken in a positive light by our families”, says Hemamalini. Though she fell down on stage she got up and continued dancing because she wants to set a good example for her daughters. “The performance is a collective effort”, she says. And it is the spirit of this collective that gives her the strength to overcome her individual limitations and rise.
Another dance group this year comprises of women who began with extreme stage fright and no prior experience of dance. They were apprehensive and rather reluctant. With some encouragement from Anbu Akka (Director at AVAG) in the form of organised dance training from professionals, several women from the tailoring unit of AVAL (an AVAG social enterprise) have participated in the events this year. They have moved past their fear of upsetting social norms. Of these women is a lady by the name Jayabharati; a nervous looking round-faced lady who occasionally breaks into impossibly twinkling, genuine smiles. She has successfully pulled her husband out of a lethal mixture of depression, suicidal tendencies and alcohol addiction. Her strengths include sincerity and hard work, both of which are easily seen as she practices the dance steps diligently, counting under her breath relentlessly, lest she miss a beat. When speaking of her past, Jayabharati is often overcome with emotion and allows tears to flow as she remembers the state her family was in. But then her story takes a turn of hope and now eventually, one of dance.
This year, as I see her with all the women every evening, shaking off her awkwardness as she jumps in delight to the sound of music, her very being appearing light as the petals of the small orange flowers she wears in her hair, I know that every move she makes is in defiance to the injustice society has thrown at her. Every carefree laugh is a cry of protest against harsh misery and every twirl of the body is a victory.
Since the inception of the Women’s Festival celebration at AVAG twenty years ago, the number of Self Help Groups participating in the cultural events has increased significantly. This year we had 26 scheduled performances which included dance, singing and drama. This is a result of the safe space provided by AVAG for adult women to express freely, unapologetic of their female bodies that are often hidden behind curtains of shame imposed by a patriarchal society. A space to break away from the unreasonable restrictions put on women in this conservative culture and simply dance, connected to the spirit of Woman.

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