In the past eight years, time and place have sprinkled changes – big and small – into my life. But dance has managed to rest firmly at the epicentre of whatever I’ve been doing. Jazz lessons in high school in Delhi turned into chairing a Bollywood-fusion group at college in New England, which segued into feeling fully filmy in classes at California’s biggest Bollywood company. I’ve now come full circle. I’m back in India and back at Jazz.
Dance is a lot of different things for me. It’s a portal to a place where I’m the opposite of my usual over-thinking, over-reasoning self. When I dance, I connect with the me that’s fluid, feeling, and driven by my soul. It’s also a great way to disconnect from my day-to-day thoughts. After a long day filled to the brim with the demands of work or life, it takes everything out of me to remember and perform a difficult choreography while also mustering up the appropriate theatricality and stage presence, and also trying not to evaporate by the end of the sweatfest that is a dance class. Even on days when I have a lot on my mind, this challenge keeps all other thoughts – the trivialities and frivolities – far, far away. Dance also forces me to be in the present moment. If only for an hour and a half a few times a week, it focuses my energy on what’s in front of me. No ruminations over the recent past, no worries about the near future; just the present.
What I love about dance is that it reminds me how incredibly powerful muscle memory is. Of course there’s an official definition – something technical about it being the process of doing something over and over so it ultimately becomes more automatic. But for me, muscle memory is the magic that happens between learning something and witnessing it become part of me. When it comes to dance, muscle memory bails me out where conscious memory fails me. Once I’ve practiced a choreography fastidiously enough, the steps begin to plant themselves in my mind. At that point, I can rehearse a whole sequence of moves in my head at work or in bed or in an MRI scanner (true story). And what’s cooler is that my body remembers them as well as my brain. So even when I’m so nervous on a stage that I’m sure I’ll faint mid-performance, muscle memory comes to the rescue. It puts me on autopilot and I find myself dancing through the steps, my confident moves belying my very unconfident mind at that moment.
Dance has made me a braver person. It’s made me better at approaching new experiences with confidence. One piece of this courage is the knowledge that wherever there is dance, there’s an opportunity for muscle memory to step in and be my safety net. I know that in that crucial future performance moment, whether I freeze or forget, it will have my back. The other piece is the understanding that to even get to the stage where muscle memory can apply, I need to put in both the hours and the intent. The task I’ll need to accomplish looms over me, sweeping all other thoughts aside. It leaves just one commandment in their place: get to work.
For me, learning something new at dance necessitates both of these. The first emboldens me to step over the boundaries of my comfort zone. The second mobilises me to get somewhere from there. When my instructor shows us a new choreography, my first reaction is often to look around for the nearest exit. But my second reaction – and really, that’s what counts, right? – is to un-hunch my shoulders, un-furrow my brows, and breathe in. After all, I’ll get it eventually – muscle memory ensures I always do. And at that moment I need to stop over-thinking and over-feeling, and just get to work anyway.
It took me eight years of dancing to get to a stage where I understood this process and could annotate it with words and meaning. But once I did, I saw that it was something I’d actually done my whole life. Leaving Geneva for Delhi in the tenth grade, I was apprehensive about a lot of things. Starting school in one of the most gruelling academic years – less than a week after landing in the busy capital I hadn’t lived in for seven years – was the main one. Not melting into a puddle of my own sweat was a close second. But I had no time to let those thoughts slow me down. I was racing to settle in before I got left too far behind. That meant catching up on coursework I’d missed by joining a month into the year, and finding new friends amidst people who’d gone to school together since they were four. And it meant unlearning and relearning everything I thought I knew about Math, English, French, and how to do well at school in general. Indian schools were a whole new ball game. To survive was to adapt. And adapt I did. Eventually the jigsaw pieces came together. Colloquialisms started to roll off my tongue: “tests” became “papers” and “grades” became “marks.” From far, far away, I became adept at deciphering even the most nascent of frowns forming on a teacher’s face and knowing exactly where to hide before being yelled at for my skirt length. I became a master memoriser. Flash cards filled from corner to corner with every detail that was important (i.e. everything); colour-coded scribbles in my textbook; printed out notes that went everywhere with me – they all felt normal and part of how I did things.
That was muscle memory. So was reading ten books a week as an eight-year old in Colombo. (We went to the library every week, you could take out ten books at once, and I wanted them to be new ones each time – the math is pretty easy to follow.) So was scanning through papers at record speed when helping students edit and proofread their assignments, as a peer mentor at college. So was instinctively sidestepping all the human faeces strewn on the sidewalk during my distracted-by-my-phone walks around San Francisco last year. Most of my life has been characterized by adaptation and re-adaptation. The steep learning curves of shifting geographies, transient friend groups, and my own evolving personality were all things I taught myself to settle into, to make a part of myself. And without realising it, without having the language to describe it, I was doing the same things I consciously do at dance.
For every new change, my stubborn optimism wouldn’t allow me anything but hope. I’d subconsciously tell myself that soon this too would feel automatic. And the enormity of the task ahead – be it adapting to a new culture or learning to live away from my parents – meant I had to focus more on the legwork ahead than the emotions at hand. Somewhere deep down, knowing that something would soon feel normal actually helped me feel normal in that moment. It helped kick my butt into shape and work to get into the groove of things as quickly as I could. Just like learning a new routine at dance, each change in my life has been an opportunity for muscle memory. And at each point, it’s served me well.
After spending all my life moving from place to place, you’d think I’d have connected the dots about adaptation and muscle memory sooner. But I think there’s a reason it took till now for me to see this. This is a unique phase for me. I’ve been in India for half a year now. And this move is unlike the many before it. I had seen the others coming. I had prepared for them, or at least, was privy to the decision-making process behind them. And I guess I thought that’s what made adapting easier: having time to react to and account for the upcoming change. But this time, the first time probably ever, I have to settle down into something I neither planned, nor anticipated. I didn’t choose to be at the receiving end of the immigration laws of a broken political system, and I didn’t think I’d be working in India at this early stage of my career. The past six months have been a rollercoaster of emotions, decisions, and realities. So much to say that, I did not think it would be easy to settle back in. This time round, I thought it would take a lot more emotional reconfiguration to make myself at home at home.
But the reality is, I’ve been working and socialising and dancing, and quite frankly, doing just fine. This time, I’d had none of the advance notice, and still, I did it. I adapted. Just like I had every other time a big change came my way. So maybe the common denominator has just been muscle memory. Whether I was originally ready for something or not, I got used to the way it was, and the way it had to be. And ultimately it always became a part of me. I’ve been lucky that most the big changes in my life have been planned. But I’m sure there will be plenty that aren’t in the future. Knowing that muscle memory – in its many forms – will be there for me, and that I will likely find a way to cope with the things that are new? Well, that gives me courage.
My life experiences have motivated – let’s be real, forced – me to learn to adapt. But it’s dance that made me recognise that every difficult/terrifying/brand-new thing is surmountable. That every new gesture can be learned, every new style imbibed, and every new rhythm internalised. It tells me in physical form what life has told me in subtler ways. The pieces will fall into place, and with time and effort, what’s uncomfortable now will become automatic soon. Dance didn’t teach me how to adapt. But it made me realise that I can, that I have, and that I’ll continue to. I’m grateful for dance because it’s taught me how not to be (so) afraid of things. And I’m grateful for my everyday, because it’s given me plenty of opportunities to put that into practice.