Why I Dance: Shantala Shivalingappa
Shivalingappa’s 2013 solo program Akasha. Photo by Elian Bachini, Courtesy Shivalingappa.
The first time I danced kuchipudi, it was like I’d been bit. I became mad, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. My mother had taken me to learn a sequence from her kuchipudi master, Vempati Chinna Satyam, on one of our trips to India when I was about 15. I was completely taken by the way the movement felt in my body: The footwork was so strong and quick, but the torso was full of grace. That combination of power and elegance created a particular chemistry that I found exhilarating.
I was so engrossed that for several years kuchipudi consumed me, body and soul. But there’s a weariness that can come from so much energy spent on something. After a few years of working quite hard and performing, I questioned if this was what I was meant to do. At times I felt frustrated that I wasn’t able to take the style to the level I wanted, to share it with as many people as I wanted to.
Fortunately, I had the unique gift of working with Pina Bausch. A family friend, she had invited me to dance for her when I was 22, and through her I developed a taste for contemporary dance. It was a slow journey. Coming from kuchipudi’s very structured framework, suddenly here I was with a group of incredible performers generating their own, completely free, movement. Style is a language that becomes familiar; it gives you habits, ways of moving, ways of expressing yourself, and it’s easy to stay within that. Daring to be a beginner again is not comfortable, but it’s how you grow and discover new things. I found the distance from kuchipudi gave me perspective. It helped me see the craft of dance—the dynamics, the use of space, how you start a movement, how you get from A to B—in a whole new way. By stepping out of it, I could once more see not only how incredibly refined and powerful kuchipudi is, but also how precious and unique.
You have to constantly make a choice at every moment: Is this what I want to do? Am I finding my joy? When you ask those questions really deeply and sincerely, you always get answers and they guide you along your path. If my answer had been no, I was ready to change. But it became clear that this is my path, and I want to go as deep as I can and refine my mastery for as long as I can.