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Ancient Dance of India To Add Excitement To Classrooms

By Jan Aaron

Can you imagine an ancient Indian temple dance as a teaching tool in your school? Educators at St. John's University can. They plan to spice up their curriculum with exotic Bharata Natyam.

Faculty enrolled in the Lincoln Center Institute's program for the arts recently prepared for this by studying Bharata Natyam at a special dance seminar-their final seminar in a four-seminar course. Each has dissected a single art form-art, music, drama, dance-to develop skills of perception as well as appraise its application to the classroom. (Education Update has covered all the sessions.) Next, their program integrates these arts to St. John's classrooms.

"The first step in developing an appreciation in the arts for our students is an awareness on the part of the faculty of what is involved in the creation of an artistic piece, "explained Peter Quinn, an associate professor and coordinator of undergraduate elementary education, who will pilot these programs into St. John's classrooms. "I don't think any of us will ever look at a dance recital, painting or play in the same way again," he said, summing up their seminar experiences.

During their dance seminar, the educators watched spellbound a special performance by Swati Bhise, one of India's foremost Bharata Natyam exponents in the United States. In lavish silk costume and make-up, her carefully orchestrated movements and subtle shifts of expression and mood helped her tell a story derived from rich mythology. Small bells tinkled at her ankles as an ancient raga (musical mode) kept her beat.

Prior to the Bharata Natyam performance, the faculty, guided by Clifford Shulman, a Lincoln Center program manager, performed stylized story-telling gestures intrinsic to understanding Bharata Natyam dance. Before she performed, Swati Bhise showed the group how the eyes, face, and hands are used in this highly stylized dance.

The educators gave Bharata Natyam high marks and thought it could open new worlds for students. They believed it might even inspire teachers to use mime to reach non-English speaking kids.

"These Lincoln Center Institute sessions have developed a rapport among faculty that we never would have achieved through a series of meetings," said Mr. Quinn. "We hope the sessions with students will be equally fruitful."

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