The One with the Dancing Girls

The children take half an hour between classes to finish their homework! (Credit: Tanya Sharma)
The children take half an hour between classes to finish their homework! (Credit: Tanya Sharma)

Have you ever looked at a dancing young girl and smiled because she emitted such warmth and such joy? My two weeks at Aarti Home were spent experiencing just that. In 2014 I had the wonderful opportunity to begin my work with this organization. Aarti Home, located in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh — a state in Southern India — began as a small shelter dedicated to the rescue and care of abused, abandoned, and orphaned girls.

Run by Sandhya Puchalapalli, it has since grown into a much larger community that reaches out to women in need while continuing its effort with young girls. Having previously had a huge influence in its district, Aarti is now running many sensitization workshops as well as employability training programs to empower females in rural India.

I’ve always considered myself a proponent of social causes, especially those concerning girls’ and women’s rights. Seeing the immense scale on which Aarti was operating really shook me up. I realised very quickly that, if I wanted to make a difference, it was going to require grounded field work and not armchair activism. That’s when my mother suggested that I use my love for dance to support this cause.

My internship involved working with nine of the most affected girls, using dance as a form of therapy, healing and confidence building. What started off as only an internship — a way to combine my love for dance with my love for teaching — soon became one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had. The girls I worked with were aged between nine and thirteen,  but their young faces were etched with tales of past traumas. Laxmi, our oldest, had been sold to a beggar mafia on the street and was taught to pickpocket; Lalitha and Anjali were abandoned by their family after their parents died of AIDS; Kousar’s story remains unknown as she is still unable to articulate it fully; Harshita and Vashita were left in a basket outside Aarti Home just days after their birth. Yet, here they were, standing in front of me with gleaming eyes and cheeks red with delight, ready to dance!

Our first couple of days were spent getting to understand each other — where I came from and what I wanted to do here, and who they were and what they wanted out of this experience.  As dancers, we were never aiming for the utmost perfection. The girls and I had a silent understanding that we were all here for something bigger than dance: We were here to heal and to learn. We didn’t want technical movements or practiced sequences; we definitely didn’t want a robotic routine. We wanted to have fun! We wanted to be able to make mistakes and trip over our feet and laugh endlessly. And, when one of them did the steps wrong, we did just that!

The hours began to fly by. Restless with the amount of talking we were doing, the girls decided that we had to start dancing more. Our talking lessened and our dancing increased. I divided them into two groups — the younger and smaller girls in one, and the older girls in another. Each group was taught a sequence to a song they were eventually going to perform in front of the rest of their school and peers.

At first they were nervous. “Do we have to show everyone?” But, as soon as they caught a glimpse of some of the other children peeking into the dance room windows, their confidence picked up! They selected their own songs (including one Pitbull song that I had no hand in choosing) and scolded me when I taught them steps that were too easy.

“Tanya akka*,” they would say, “we know how to dance! Teach us harder steps!”

The girls imitated every movement that I made to perfection, but, more importantly, they were so excited! The energy that they brought to the room and to the pieces was incredible. I was more involved in it than I thought I’d be. I was learning that dance could heal, and they were learning to let go.

And let go they did! After two wonderful weeks, they were ready to perform in front of the rest of their peers! I had never before felt dance affect me as strongly as it did that day when I watched them hold hands and take a bow to thunderous applause from their audience. The happiness I felt was like a shrouding warmth that further intensified when the girls came running at me for a hug! I no longer saw tired faces on them, but  glowing, dancing smiles instead.

When I spoke to Sandhya aunty**, the founder of Aarti Home, much later, she said that she still speaks  fondly about this experience: The girls had genuinely opened up and were learning, slowly, to accept and move on from their pasts. But I was the most surprised at the effect this entire experience had on me. I realised that I had taken dance and art for granted. Never had I imagined that a form of art that was simply expression and performance to me could turn into an experience that physically and emotionally changed someone else as well as myself.

Harshita and Vashita talk to me about how they’ve continued dancing since our workshop two years ago! (Credit: Tanya Sharma)
Harshita and Vashita talk to me about how they’ve continued dancing since our workshop two years ago! (Credit: Tanya Sharma)

I went back to Aarti Home this summer to work on another project and meet my lovely girls again. After an emotional reception, we all settled down in the dance room and began to talk. The young girls that I had first seen in the dance room two years ago with shy smiles, hiding behind their hair and fidgeting with their hands, were now well-spoken, confident and beautiful! They asked why I didn’t come back more often to teach them dance. They asked about Berlin and if it was in the U.S. They talked about their school, and they laughed occasionally in between. Lalitha told me that she had stopped trying to run away from Aarti,that she realised it  was her home and being there made her so happy; Laxmi was no longer depressed and Kousar was no longer crying herself to sleep. They told me that they belonged to a group that practiced dance every week, and then showed me the routine sequences from two years ago! Of course I don’t think that dance did all of that — but Aarti Home and Sandhya aunty gave me the opportunity to share something that I loved with girls that could take the experience further than I could. They took dance and they let it surround them with all the warmth and emotion that it is supposed to.

They let it heal them.

*Akka: A term used to refer to an older sister, used in most South Indian languages.

**Aunty: A term of respect used to address a woman that is older than you.

(If you are interested in learning more about the Aarti Project and meeting the kids involved, watch this magical documentary by Tanya Sharma)