Treading the Light Fantastic: A Devadasi Weekend
It is one thing to say that 60 is the new 40, but it is quite another to say that 66 is the new 15.
Yet this past weekend, I was thrown back into my teen years at dance camp when I went to a professional development training at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn. As a Dance for Parkinsons teacher, I have ongoing classes every week, but I admit that I don’t take dance class much myself. I feel that yoga, Pilates, and the gym’s elliptical machines are my teachers right now.
But Saturday, I had ballet, tap, and hula. On Sunday, I had modern, jazz, and an Israeli dance form called “Gaga.” These were given to us 37 vaguely in-shape professionals as a way of immersing ourselves not only in the traditions of dance, but also putting us in the mind of a new student who not only has Parkinsons but also has never taken a dance class—or at least not for decades.
At 15, knowing that I was going to be an actor, I wanted to learn movement from the ground up. My parents indulged this craving by sending me to Beaupre, an astounding camp for girls in the Berkshires right near Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Berkshire Theater Festival. We were taken each week to dress rehearsals at the feet of the greatest musicians, dancers, and actors of the time—and very often, these performers would come over to Beaupre and teach a master class. It was in one of these magical hours, in a barn practicing Bharata Natyam (a Southern Indian dance technique), that a tabla player from India looked at me (blond, plump and Jewish, wearing a sari) and said, “SHE is the devadasi.” The translation was a temple dancer from an elite cult who were similar to Japanese geisha, women who performed but were also spiritual. They were held in high esteem in their society. Not prostitutes (although they did bestow sexual favors), but dancing goddesses on earth. Something to live up to!
I am still proud of being a devadasi, and this weekend, dancing my heart out, my knees and hips crying for mercy, I reached for my potential. The devadasis were dedicated to the service of a deity or a temple for a lifetime, so they had to keep going, even as they aged. And one of the best things is that a devadasi was believed to be immune from widowhood and was called akhanda saubhagyavati ("woman never separated from good fortune"). I thank my lucky stars and take a little ibuprofen.