As a renowned bharatanatyam artist., Ragamala Dance Company co-artistic director Aparna Ramaswamy explores the art of expressivity in the hands daily.
Drawing from the art form’s 28 single-handed and 24 double-handed foundational gestures, called “hastas,” Ramaswamy conveys evocative narratives in her choreography, communicating setting, characters and a range of emotions through the specific placement, shape and energy of her hands.
Though the gestures she uses are specific to bharatanatyam, the intentionality behind them can be applied to many dance forms. Here, she shares her advice for teaching dancers to use their hands mindfully.
Layer the hands over a strong foundation with the feet.
It may seem counterintuitive, but before delving into the intricacies of the hands, make sure your students have clarity in their footwork. For Ramaswamy, that means having her students spend their entire first year of training with their hands on their waists. “We do this to completely absorb the rhythms and understand the relationship between the feet and the earth,” she says.
Think of approaching the body with a building-block mentality. Giving the hands the focused attention they need will be much easier for students if they’re working from a place of confidence and precision with their lower bodies.
Emphasize energy in the fingers.
The fingers have an important communicative role to play in your students’ dancing—so don’t neglect them as you’re giving instruction and feedback. In her choreography and teaching, Ramaswamy emphasizes how fingers send energy out from the body, pulling purposes and intention out of her students. She says a dancer’s intention should be like aiming an arrow. Different dance styles will require different energy in the fingers. Have dancers practice going to the limits of both tension and relaxation so that they can feel the range of energetic possibilities.
Focus on integrated strength.
Hands do more than communicate and convey energy; they sometimes bear weight and thus need to be both strong and expressive. To help them prepare for this work, focus on building musculature in the hands from a holistic perspective. The hands can only provide as much strength and stability as they are integrated with the arms, shoulder girdle and upper back. For Ramaswamy, that means giving students the image of having energy radiate from the center of the body, out through the arms and out through the fingers. “You can feel strength in all parts of your body simultaneously. It’s a nuanced strength that you can control,” she says.
As you’re teaching, find points of connection between the hands and other parts of the body. For example, if students are supporting their weight in a plank position, emphasize the role of the shoulder girdle broadening across the back to push the floor away. Or if they’re reaching out away from the body in an arabesque, draw attention to the energy lines that run from fingers to toes.
Communicate the meaning.
Above all else, be clear about the role of the hands and fingers in your dance form. “From a cultural standpoint, people speak with their hands all the time,” says Ramaswamy. “We use hand gestures to emphasize what we’re saying. It’s like an extension of the cadence of our voice.”
In bharatanatyam, the use of specific hastas “is an extension of the inner spirit and the emotions the dancer is experiencing.” In other dance forms, the hands may not have a communicative role through gestures, but they are no less important. Maybe they are meant to convey a sense of direction for the audience’s eye, or serve as an extension of the motion of the arms.
“Just the gestures alone don’t mean much,” says Ramaswamy. “They accompany the movement and the facial expression. All of those things are driven by the sentiment that we are trying to communicate with our audience.”