The grace and coordination of experienced dancers is breathtaking to watch.
I KNEW MY HANDS would be challenged in my Odissi classical Indian dance class; I had no idea my feet, torso and chin would struggle as well.
I was excited to learn about classical Indian dance at Ratna Roy’s beginning Odissi dance class at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill. Odissi is a classical dance from the eastern India state of Orissa, now known as Odisha. The dance is known for a fluid upper body, wrist work and strong, rhythmic footwork.
The hourlong class was for beginners, but it is also a warm-up for advanced students who stay for another two hours to work on choreography. Senior dancer Marissa Betz-Zall ran me through various exercises at a slower pace, including foot positions and hand gestures. The dancers do multiple exercises every time, and I interpreted the 10 Chouka and 10 Tribhangi as the equivalent of warm-up scales for a musician.
Velocity Dance Center
1621 12th Ave., Suite 100, Seattle
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From what I could tell, Odissi dancers stay in a permanent squat position when they dance. We started with toes and knees turned out, legs bent. Arms are held the same height as shoulders, elbows bent, forearms parallel. We focused on our feet, stomping in time to the beat.
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The rhythmic slapping of feet on the floor is loud and mesmerizing. I loved it and had to remind myself to focus on my own instead of watching the elegant dancers.
Next, Marissa had me sit against a wall and practice moving my upper body, arms still lifted at 90 degrees. Shoulders stay stable in Odissi dance, and the torso is fluid to help with weight transfer from foot to foot.
Once I figured out the movement, Marissa added in hands, which rotated in opposite direction from my torso. My head also had a task; Marissa told me to wobble my head like a bobblehead, chin going opposite direction from my hands. For added flair, she told me to look in an exaggerated fashion to opposite corners of the room.
We stood up to practice. If we went slowly, I could get the torso and occasionally my hands. Forget about the chin bobble or eyes. Once it sped up, I was lucky to stomp my feet in time.
We moved on to one of the Tribhangi exercises, with a foot setup similar to third position in ballet — the base foot at a diagonal, the heel of the other foot pointing in. Legs bent, of course. We had one hand on our hip, another on the leg. When I focused on just legs and torso, I could manage for a little bit, although my quads were trembling.
We stayed in this formation and added new footwork, moving from heel to ball of the front foot, while still stomping our back foot and moving our torsos in opposite directions.
Marissa layered in hands, holding index finger to thumb. Imagine pulling a string, she said. Marissa made it look easy. It is not. Ratna, who worked with the dancers, occasionally came over and moved my arms or fingers into position.
After the foot exercises, we sat in a circle for various hand gestures, such as a conch, an eagle and a snake. My hands frequently refused to obey orders from my brain. I didn’t know my fingers were so rebellious — and inflexible.
I’m not sure what burned more during the class — my legs or my brain from all the information. Marissa acknowledged there’s a steep learning curve.
I stayed after to watch the dancers practice choreography. It takes extraordinary focus and commitment to become a skilled Odissi dancer. I could see why one would; the grace and coordination of the dancers was breathtaking to watch. It’s a challenging, beautiful and fascinating way to move.