Since I was little, the rule was take off your shoes when you walk into a home, or else risk showing disrespect. Shoes. We wear them to feel comfortable outside our homes, so when the road gets rocky or you step on something sharp, or cold or hot, your fine. But when you enter a house, your supposed to leave your insecurity about stepping on the ground, at the door. Visiting Hindu temples works this way, you always take your shoes off before going in.
As an Indian-American family, my parents were always pretty lenient about making me connect to my heritage. We speak only English at home, and honestly I know more Spanish than Hindi. As for practicing Hindu tradition? We light candles on Diwali and make traditional Indian food, but I wouldn’t call us devout. The only things that really connects me to India on a daily basis is well, my appearance, my name and of course dance.
Bharatanatyam is an Indian classical dance form that originated 3000 years ago as a means of passing down religious concepts. I began training in this dance when I was 5, learning to appreciate the values these stories told, even though most of the time I did not even understand the words of songs I danced too. One of the first things I learned as a dancer was that you never dance in shoes. The amount of effort and achievement put into a dance was measured in how badly your feet hurt after practice.
Last April I stood on this very stage, and performed an arangetram, which is a four-hour recital demonstrating my capabilities as a dancer. Over the course of junior year I spent extra hours almost every day outside of typical class time, choreographing and training hard for this goal, a chance to become a teacher at my dance academy. The recital is a test of endurance, technique and creativity, and it required all 10 years of my experience to make it through, and still my feet were burning when I left the stage .
Not all dance forms require you to be barefoot, with a dance instructor yelling at you to step like you mean to break the floor. but Bharatanatyam does, and I understand why . Every time I tell some story through dance, taking off my own shoes and walking barefoot allows me to more easily step into the perspective of the person I have to become. When I stop to think about it, stepping onto the stage to tell another person’s story, is a lot easier to do when I establish that I have left my own opinions and concerns behind with my shoes, to become present within the story I am telling.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit India, more specifically the Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu, which is the state where Bharatanatyam formed. It’s a beautiful temple, with intricate artwork, golden pillars and towering statues. However while I was in the temple all I wanted was to get out. Every square inch of area was packed with people, making every step forward an achievement at some points. Between the smoky smell of burning incense, deafening clanging of bells, chanting of priests, and clamor of people, I was panicking. I had discarded my shoes at the entrance of the temple , and I really, really wanted them back as I struggled to not fall on the slippery brownish sludge coating the temple floor. I was trying to push my way out of the crowd to find some escape, when suddenly there was this elderly lady in front of me getting pushed around by the crowd too. She had some garlands and held one out to me and I was like no thank you, but she kept beckoning me forward and I was stuck anyway so I let her put it on me and finally, looked up from my feet. Yes I was still thinking about what exactly was in the brown sludge I was stepping in, but I also realized everyone else was stepping in it too. As I looked around I realized that people around me were praying, chatting, even laughing, content with what I saw as chaos around me. I was finally present in the situation around me, able to leave my own judgements and concern behind and calmly find my way out of the temple, back to my shoes.
Seems like all my contact with the Indian culture have involved me having no shoes on! And why has that been important to me? Let me tell you one more story.
Senior year startled me, not entirely in a good way. My computer broke down every class in the first week of computer science. I accidently left my brother, who is 3 and in the GA daycare, at school and drove home before realizing I had to pick him up. Twice. I accidently taught my dance students the wrong dance for a performance. And the Common App became by newest arch enemy. The worst was yet to come though because on a crisp December day when I should have been in class at GA, I was instead at a viewing. Standing without shoes, of course, in all white, per tradition, in front of a hundred people. My grandfather had died four days before this, but this was my grandmother’s funeral. I felt vulnerable standing there, speaking of perspective and memories and moving on with strength, and suddenly I was back in that Hindu temple finally looking up from my feet, looking around with focus instead of panic, recognizing discomfort and finding the strength to be calm in the chaos.
Entering a house, a temple. Walking. Dancing. Panicking. Grieving. Barefoot. It has taught me how to be present in my life. To find strength in discomfort and realize that part of understanding others requires you to be vulnerable yourself.