Dance Mathematics

For a long time I thought that the most difficult part of dance had to do with physical conditioning – lacking stamina or flexibility or the correct posture by default. And yes, these things can be painful to develop. But before I got into Indian classical dances I’d never expected that there could also be non-physical factors that make dance difficult. So as I’m preparing for some mohiniyattam performances, it’s a surprise to find that I’m struggling most with just wrapping my mind around what my body is (supposed to be) doing.

To be clear, this is a dance style where your hands can be going at a different rhythm to your arms while your your upper body is swaying to a yet another count and your legs are doing their own thing entirely. The movements themselves are generally easy (at least on my body) – but the challenge doesn’t seem to lie in doing so much as doing all at once.

I’m finding that the trick lies in figuring out, for any given sequence, (1) what to pay active attention to, and then (2) how to distribute the count so it’s easiest to act upon. (Both of these things are idiosyncratic, though occasionally I find that someone else’s trick works for me or they benefit from one of mine.)

(1) can be deduced by attentive repetition. You figure out what things you can get your body to grasp unconsciously, and what things will require your attention to get right. As with most things that happen in the body, it’s hard to put into words, but in my experience it involves breaking things down and then putting them back together – ideally figuring out ways to make multiple movements “feel like one”. With enough practice/experience you can let all of the movement become somewhat unconscious and focus more on being expressive, but the more technically demanding something is the longer it takes to get there.

(2) is a sort of game involving what I call “reverse school mathematics”. My point being, at school you’re generally taught with exercises like:

3 + 4 = ?

where you’re supposed to come up with an equivalent value in the simplest terms (in this case, 7). But for dance, you often need the opposite: if you have to do something over 7 counts, what are different ways you can break that down? 7 can be 3 + 4 or 1 + 2 + 4 or 4 + 1 + 1 + 1 or many other combinations. If you’re choreographing, different combinations can inspire or allow for different kinds of movements. If you’re performing, finding the right way to break it down can change the way you pay attention and make a sequence easier to execute.

Case in point: I was struggling with one section that the choreographer was counting as “1 2 3, 1 2 3 4” (changing mudras every time you count 1 or 3). This morning I finally nailed the sequence – and all I did differently was to count instead: “1 2, 1, 1 2, 1 2” (changing mudras on 1). Somehow it just “feels simpler” and lets the hand movements become automatic.