Classical dance (of any form) requires huge amounts of dedicated practice, effort, focus and determination to see it through. The technique of dance demands a concentration, a willingness to abide by the stringent rules and principles for accuracy and tradition to be upheld. When a child learns it, it seems like an easier absorption, and to a large extent, is. The age, the flexibility of body, the mind-space and the simplicity and stress free student life encourages and makes learning a simpler, faster experience.
Introduce the rigor of classical dance to an adult, and it takes on a whole new dimension.
However, something is to be said of passion and childhood dreams and realizing and recognizing opportunity and seizing it to line all your ducks in a row and then well, achieving it. It’s a childish pleasure and happiness, I assure you.
Kuchipudi is the classical dance form of Andhra Pradesh. Made popular by Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, back in the 60s, this is a detailed, expressive form of rhythmic dancing set to music and story telling. Mastergaru as he is fondly and popularly called was the embodiment and authority of this artform and I was and am fortunate to have learnt a few years under his guidance back in Madras (Chennai). He has many exemplary students who carry on the torch, and one such is Guru Mrinalini Sadananda who started a dance school: Kalamandapam in Springfield VA in the 90s, and under whose guidance I re-started in 2000.
Today, am introducing to you, Kavitha Cheedalla, a Kuchipudi dancer who started as an adult along with her daughters and now performs, and teaches in Northern Virginia at Kalamandapam. She is an example of what determination, grit and passion can bring together when the situation has made itself conducive for it. I’ve known Kavitha since the early 90’s, through common friend circles and then later on as part of the Kuchipudi dance school run by our Guru Mrinalini Sadananda in Virginia. We learnt, and then taught together for a while, and I have seen Kavitha grow as a graceful accomplished dancer and it gives me great pleasure to write about her. Her passion and devotion to this art form comes through in many ways.
Read her story: Kavitha Cheedalla
So, let’s start at the beginning! How, when did you start here in the US?
In June 1998, I started learning as an adult in a summer camp with Madhavapeddi Murthy master. I still remember that day. I just went to admit my girls in the camp. I had previously mentioned to Subhash uncle (our Guru’s brother and a popular wonderful violinist) that I always wanted to learn and he casually told me, “Why don’t you join?” so I did.
Where did the enthusiasm come from? What made you jump in?
I had always wanted to learn growing up. I learned from Mahankali master in our town (in Andhra Pradesh) for a month or so when I was 8 years old. After that, I saw master garu around town, and he would always ask me, “Why did you stop coming?” I also admired two of my friends in high school who were dancers. I started again because I always wish I had continued when I was little. I didn’t continue as my parents were not too keen, school and other things took over my time, and these classes got lost.
So it’s safe to say that it is not a new passion but an old dream? One from childhood?
Yes! An old childhood dream, of course. ☺
It’s such an incredibly deep happiness am sure! Tell me, how was it to start as an adult?
Starting as an adult was very tough because the body does not cooperate as it would for a young girl. There is an enormous strain on the limbs and mind because our postures are not perfect or right most of the time. Also I had many distractions and obligations: job, cooking, house work, leaving my husband home alone while the daughters and I went away for hours together on Sunday mornings for class.
I agree. It is hard to keep at it, when your thighs, legs and back hurts with staying in posture and moving them to the rhythm. How did you stick with it in the initial stages?
I was able to stick with it because of the encouragement from my guru, Mrinalini aunty. I also had little roles in the ballets which made me very excited and proud of the little accomplishments. I was lucky that I worked in a school system and had summers off, so I got to do summer camp every year for about 8 years or so. That helped a lot because of the daily practices, and when you do something everyday, it only makes you stronger.
So true! I know that you are a huge advocate of practice. How many hours do you spend on practice?
Initially there was no set number of hours. Whenever I got a chance I would practice alone or with other friends. Now I practice 4- 5 times weekly to keep up with all dances and to keep my energy levels strong. Practice is what helps me remember what I have learned and helps keep me in shape. It’s the memory to remember the sequence, and also our body has memory, and we have to keep refreshing it for it come with ease.
How was your first performance on stage? Tell me about it 🙂
I was very nervous and scared about whether I will be able to do a good job. I first played the role of Guhi (guha’s wife) in Ramayanam. The scene was taking Lord Rama and Lakshmana on a boat to get to Sita. Even though we practiced so many times, it is a different story when you get on the stage. The lights, the pressure, the makeup, and the adrenaline to be on stage and to not freeze even knowing the routine well is a challenge. After the performance, I was so happy and proud listening to everyone’s compliments.
Regarding learning, you speak with such enthusiasm and live it when during practice and class, would you encourage picking up and starting to learn as an adult? What are the differences you find as opposed to starting as a child?
Yes, I would definitely encourage anyone who wants to learn at any age. It is super important to keep practicing daily or 2- 3 times a week. The initial stages are very hard. Takes a lot of co-ordination, of the hands, legwork, hands, mudras and the changes along with expressions and posture. It takes couple of years to get the basics and the feeling of confidence. I would think it is definitely easier learning as a kid because you don’t need to worry about other things. You can give all your time to dance, but most kids don’t realize that, and that’s just the way life is. They cross that stage and then realize that only when looking back.
If we take up a hobby or a goal, it usually eats up into our hours and life. Did you have to make any kind of adjustments at home because of dance?
Not a lot of adjustments, since it was just Sunday classes, except when we used to rehearse for dance ballets. For ballet rehearsals, we stayed 4- 6 extra hours on weekends. I always made sure that I had cooked for my husband. I slowly got more and more involved and now I have a lot more responsibilities. I have very nice, understanding husband who also helps me with accounts and also backstage during ballets. He’s been very supportive during all these years and has always encouraged me to do what I love and enjoy, and that is to dance, perform and at the school.
Looks like behind every happy and successful woman, there is a man who supports her and fills the gaps at home. Like Sheryl Sandberg mentions and celebrates the #LeaninTogether, where the man encourages the woman to go after her dream! 🙂
What about the physical demands and challenges of learning and dancing as an adult?
Well, you must keep yourself fit. You must eat right and sleep well. It takes discipline to watch what you are eating, and keep yourself in shape. Aerobic exercise and strengthening (abs and upper arms etc) are all involved, and you realize that with time, that the body gets used to the rigor and we build stamina, and because of the exercise, there is the endorphins that make you so happy and pleased with yourself, just like any other exercise. Body movements are easier when you practice everyday. When you take a break, it is harder to get back on, but the body remembers and with practice, it comes back.
Great! Let’s talk about (y)our Guru. 🙂
My guru, Mrinalini Sadananda , is a very enthusiastic, exciting, and encouraging person in dance and in my life. I am where I am in dance because of my guru’s encouragement. I remember practicing so hard for the Lord Brahma role in one of the ballets. Even when I played the role of Narada (my very first solo role) for Venkateswara Vaibhavam, aunty did not stop giving me practice until she was sure that I got it. I also want to thank all our visiting gurus Pasumarthy Vithal, Sathyapriya Ramana, Dugakka, Balakka, Devarkaonda Srinivas, Chinta Siva and Bhagavathula Srinivas! They all taught me and helped me improve.
When did you graduate to teaching?
I don’t think we graduate, and stop learning. We are always learning, especially in dance. Dance is like an ocean (samudram); there is always more to learn. We learn so many different things from different teachers and even when we teach. Aunty encouraged me to teach beginners around 2003.
Teaching is a special skill and talent, and I have always believed that just because someone is a good performer doesn’t make them a good teacher and vice versa. Not always at least. What do you think?
It depends on the person. For me, teaching helped me become a better dancer. When you teach, you are perfecting the student, which helps you correct yourself. I would say they are related. I love teaching because it makes me proud and gives me the satisfaction of sharing what I learned with others.
Right, I suppose I meant that teaching requires more patience and the interest to share what you know, those are different from just practicing what you know. You’ve been running the school for a few years now, what are the challenges you face?
Since we only have classes once a week, we have to accommodate students of different levels in the span of 4 hours. The challenge is to place them, make sure they are reaching their full potential, and keep them motivated. Sometimes it is hard to organize practices and have everyone committed. Another challenge is keeping up with finances, inventory. Every year we try to make things better organized sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. All of our teachers are volunteers and I am thankful for all they do.
Yep, very few understand the demands of a completely volunteer-run organization like Kalamandapam. It’s run primarily to spread the joy of learning and that of dance, something that is hard to maintain in the society and the pressures we face. Are you happy where you are with dance?
Yes, I am happy with where I am learning as an adult. I missed out on learning as a kid so I felt that I needed to work extra hard to get here and I will continue working hard.
Have any goals (in dance?) or do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
My goal was to learn to Kuchipudi dance. I reached that to a certain level but I am still learning. My next goal is to keep this tradition going and spread the tradition as long as I live.
You’ve performed at so many venues, from local temples to various events including the Kennedy Center. Where do you see yourself in 5 years as a dancer, as a teacher?
Lord Nataraja’s and guru’s blessings got me here and I will work towards spreading the tradition continue teaching, performing and pass my torch onto the next generation.
Kavitha’s two daughters are also accomplished dancers and watching them together is endearing and shows how nicely art can be a bonding that can bring a family close
So there you have it.
Have a childhood passion that you have resigned to live vicariously through your child? Maybe it’s time you re-think it, and if you wanted it badly enough, then well, you have inspiration in front of you. Do it. You have but one life, live it well, and realize that dreams don’t have to stay dreams if you have the zeal, and determination to see them through. Yes, if you work hard enough, you can have your cake and eat it too! 🙂
Like this feature, check the other lovely ladies I feature on here. Know of someone who deserves the recognition and who inspires you or others in the community, feel free to contact me and we can get that going! We all could use some ignition every now and then 🙂