Dance Education in India: Some Issues and Questions

by Aadya Kaktikar

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

India is a country that loves to dance. From festivals to films, dance is an integral part of our cultural heritage. A dance culture that is vibrant, diverse, multidimensional, and simultaneously old and new is the legacy of the youth of this country. Though dance had always been a part of the social life of the community in India, the last decade has seen major shifts in the way dance is produced and performed. It has traveled from once being a ‘morally corrupt’ profession, to a spiritual discourse, to a cause for social change. Once considered a ‘esoteric art,’ dance today has become the signifier of a socially mobile, globally aware, politically astute, media savvy, technologically advanced younger generation.

Dance holds a very peculiar position in Indian society and culture. The performing arts have a continuous, albeit not unchanging, discourse of practice from as early as the 2nd century B.C. India is also a young nation state; barely eighty years old. In post-colonial India, Dance came to be associated with ‘morally corrupt’ groups of women and was ‘rescued’ by the newly formed middle class. This reform movement, supported by legislative acts such as the Devadasi Prohibition Act 1947 and the formation of the Sangeet Natak Academy in 1952, made classical dance forms signifiers of a national identity, and by the 90s, one of India’s largest cultural exports.

The production of artistic work, both in performance and research has been, for more than seven decades, driven by state policy and funding. “It will be the aim of this Akademi to preserve our traditions by offering them an institutional form” (SNA 5). In order to reinforce the newly formed Indian identity, it was deemed important to take action for “…preserving and promoting the vast intangible heritage of India’s diverse culture expressed in forms of music, dance and drama”(SNA 5). To this end, for the last seven decades, government bodies like the Indian Council for Cultural relations (ICCR), Sangeet Natak Academy (SNA) and the Ministry of Culture, have spearheaded a policy of preservation of traditional arts through a schema of grants, awards and festivals.

This mass of tradition sits within a fast-changing global India, where ‘fluidity and flux have become significant metaphors for the way we define our cultures and our world” (Shapiro 253). The twenty-first century is an age of drastic changes in the way arts, including dance, are a part of everyday life. Perceptions of what dance is and what role it plays, are undergoing a rapid change. As the world opens up, young people now have access to dance forms from around the world. In this multidimensional scenario, young people in India seem to be negotiating cross-currents of Ancient Vedic Philosophy, British colonialism and American Individualism; rendering complex contours to the meaning of dance.

In a country where such plurality of meanings, forms, and contexts exist, the opportunities and challenges presented to the area of dance performance and education are colossal; produced by the porosity and unstructured nature of training.

Dance education in India today is a study in contrasts. A large number of schools do not have basic equipment, even electricity and water; let alone a dance teacher. Yet there are other schools with state-of-the-art studios and extensive performing arts departments. For most young people in this country, the only exposure to dance is through movies or social dances, which they learn by participating in community activities. And there are those who have access to every possible avenue for training, both nationally and internationally. In some communities, dance education is considered to be an important aspect of a child’s education and in some others it is considered a morally corrupting activity.

Private classes, conducted by performing artists, form the bedrock of dance production and education. This tier of dance education produces the maximum number of dancers and dance GRteachers which feed into the top two tiers. Students inherit a huge cultural capital from their masters, including a repository of knowledge, social contacts, and their place on the artistic map.

Schools that provide dance training view dance as an important physical and creative activity. The NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), which is the apex body for school curriculum has established an elaborate curriculum for dance training in schools. This curriculum focuses on “an aesthetic culmination of movement, musical expression, literature, mythology, philosophy, rhythm, yoga, sadhana etc” (NCERT). Dance training primarily focuses on familiarizing students with the dance traditions, both folk and classical, of this country. University education in dance is limited to about ten out of 200 universities in the country (Vatsyayan 12). These universities offer courses in theory and training in primarily traditional dance practices. With few exceptions, educational institutions (schools and universities) have not been conducive to producing great performers, academicians or researchers of dance. These institutions have largely served as repositories of traditional teaching systems and function as ‘conservatories’. Dance has a place but not a goal in higher education in India.

The definition of ‘dance education’ is currently, for all practical purposes, limited to performance making. Training for young dancers typically means learning the semantics of dance, and imbibing and promoting the repertoire of the Guru. The concept of ‘dance as education’ or ‘dance in education’ has yet to emerge. This situation highlights an urgent need for ‘conscious engagement with’ and ‘ an awareness of ‘ what is being taught and its ripple effects on the larger dance ecosystem. Dance education has the potential to encompass an area of study which includes performance, choreography, educational studies, history, anthropology and policy-making. In the words of Eeva Antilla

Dance education is a manifold concept that can include anything from semi- professional ballet training to community dance projects. Very generally speaking, the connotation is towards humanistic, student-centered practices… A clear divergence from traditional training where dance students were treated as objects and their bodies as material to be molded for artistic purposes (cited in Musil 116)

In India today, as Ted Warburton laments, “Decisions about teacher quality still seem to be…often based solely on an individual’s dance experience and professional reputation” (in Musil 115). Even within these select groups of teachers, a hierarchy is created with those being well-known performers and choreographers at the top. One’s position in this hierarchy is not determined by what he/she can or does teach. This current system fails to recognize that “Those who can dance, can’t necessarily teach” (Musil 115). Within an institutional setup, be it schools or universities, certain teaching qualifications are required to be able to manage young people. Hence a physicist cannot teach young people until he/she has received the appropriate training. Dance, as offered in Indian schools, is one of few subjects that does not require any specific training to teach. This might also be the reason why dance is included in the extra-curricular activities for children. Kinesthetic education is not seen as viable as there aren’t enough educators trained in the area.

In the Indian context, currently the artist is the educator. On one hand though, it provides students who aspire to be professional dancers a distinct advantage, what this also does is to make performance the beginning and end of what it means to be a dancer (Kerr-Berry 5). Dance then becomes ‘product-driven’ and students and teachers who are unable to deliver this ‘product’ become alienated from it. Dance therefore has become an exclusive pursuit of those who are able to embody codified movement techniques; be it traditional or modern.

Another challenge for dance educators today as articulated by a 14th-century writer on dance: “I don’t know for whom I write, because those who can read cannot sing or dance and those who can sing or dance don’t read” (Vatsyayan, 6). This is true even today, as a large population of young dancers have barely completed basic schooling. Dance is relegated to the field of performance and not seen as an area of serious academic study in India. For centuries, dance was taught through the model of the Guru-Shishya Parampara, where the personal relationship between the teacher and the student determined what was taught. Through an oral pedagogy, an in-body transmission of knowledge took place from generation to generation in the mode of a ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. This model of training is no longer practical as students can no longer live with their teachers and interactions between the teacher and student are limited. Dance teachers of traditional forms are grappling with this issue, as it is no longer viable to teach the way they were taught.

For a dance teacher, success is measured by the number of performing artists created. Creation of a performing artist would be judged by the student’s participation (and therefore the teacher’s visibility) at festivals, empanelment with various government organisations, reviews, awards and titles. Most students give up dancing to take up another profession to earn a living. For teachers who have spent years training their students in the hopes that they will perform in their productions, this leads to high levels of frustration and insecurity.

Why do we dance and why do we teach? What do we teach/ What meanings does it create? Who do we teach and who do we leave out? Where will we go from here? Is dance to remain the pursuit of the elite few who make it to the professional stage? Can the scope of training in dance be expanded? Can dance be a legitimate source of knowledge creation? Will dance ever move from extra-curricular to mainstream curriculum? These are serious questions dance teachers need to ask themselves.

This paper is an excerpt of my work done for the MTD Programme at the Royal Academy of Dance, London.


– Attakalari. Web. 13th April 2014.
– NCERT. Dance Syllabus. Web. 10th March 2014.
– Banerjee. S. “Designing a dance curriculum for liberal education students: problems and resolutions towards holistic learning”. Research in Dance Education, 2010. 11:1, 35-48
– Chatterjea Ananya. “Why I am committed to A Contemporary South Asian Aesthetic:
– Arguments about the Value of ‘ Difference” from the Perspective of Practice”. Traversing Tradition: Celebrating Dance in India.Eds. Munsi, Urmimala Sarkar, and Stephanie Burridge. London; New York: Routledge, 2011. 83-103.Print.
– Kerr-Berry Julie A. “Dance educator as Dancer and Artist”. Journal of Dance Education. 2007. 7:1.5-6
– Musil Pamela S. “Perspectives on an Expansive Postsecondary Dance”. Journal of Dance Education. 2010. 10:4, 111-121.
– Shapiro Sherry. Dance in a World of Change: Reflections on Globalization and Cultural Difference. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.
– Sangeet Natak Akademi Report 1953–1958
Vatsyayan Kapila. “Dance Scholarship and Its Future: The Indian context”.
Traversing Tradition: Celebrating Dance in India.Eds. Munsi, Urmimala Sarkar, and Stephanie Burridge. London; New York: Routledge, 2011. 1-21. Print.

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