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Severine Tournois - Graceful Stomping
07.13.12
 
Not too many French women come to America and discover Indian Classical dance. That is, however, exactly what optical engineer Severine Tournois did. “I was never exposed to the Indian culture growing up in the Loire Valley, France, so I don’t know where this is coming from,” says Tournois.

In 1999, while a student at University of California at Davis, she visited Berkeley and saw Indian dancing for the first time. “I fell in love with Indian dance. I was fascinated by the moves, the music, and the costumes. The moves are complex mathematical patterns but at the same time they are very graceful. My dream was to learn this type of dance,” explains Tournois. After moving to Greenbelt in 2000, she happened to drive by the Shiva Vishnu Temple and someone there recommended a local teacher from the Jayamagala Dance School.

There are five main styles of classical Indian dance, each of which is associated with the five elements of water, air, earth, sky, and fire. Tournois is learning Bharata Natyam, which is the fire dance from Southern India. “But,” admits Tournois, “I do not see how this dancing looks like fire.” She dances to live musicians with singing in Sanskrit, which the teacher translates for her. Tournois finds this dancing very rich in history and mythology.
Severine Tournois performing a traditional Indian dance.Severine Tournois, performing the classical Indian dance of Bharata Natyam. Credit. S. Tournois
“This type of dance combines pure dance with dramatic expression. It is like poetry and mythology put into music. We use our faces and bodies to express the emotions of the words,” says Tournois.

This type of dancing consists of a series of poses one flowing into the next. The poses are inspired from sculptures of the ancient temples and share common roots with yoga. “Every second of the dance is choreographed to a precise pose, from toes to fingertips to facial expressions. There is no part of the body left without a particular pose,” says Tournois. The head movements include striking neck and eye movements. Even the precise position of each finger has a special meaning. “There are over fifty different finger positions called ‘hastas’,” says Tournois. At times she uses her hands to indicate animals, as, for example, making “S” curves while slowly sinking down to the floor to mimic a snake.

Severine Tournois performing a traditional Indian dance.Severine Tournois, performing the classical Indian dance of Bharata Natyam. Credit. S. Tournois
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Tournois had her costume custom made in India. It consists of four pieces cut from a single silk sari. She wears arm bracelets and other traditional jewelry as well as a headdress with symbols of the moon and the sun. She weaves jasmine flowers in her hair. Her makeup includes thick black eyeliner and red body paint for her fingertips and toes.

She dances barefoot, which is very important. “We stomp our feet very hard in complex patterns to mimic the drumbeats with our feet. Our ankle bells emphasize this rhythm,” Tournois explains. Before each class and performance, the dancers say a prayer blessing thanking the earth for allowing them to dance and stomp on her.

She goes to class once a week and practices at home about three nights a week. Progress is slow, requiring much patience. “It can take the entire class to learn the movements for one line, which may be only one minute of the song,” notes Tournois. Most dances last from about five minutes to one hour.

After two years of study, Tournois first performed in 2002. She is unique in that she is the only non-Indian in the entire dance school, which gives one to two performances a year. She has performed in various Indian temples and schools as well as in The Cherry Blossom Festival and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Although she has achieved the advanced level of dance required for graduation, she has not yet officially completed the graduation, which requires a two hour solo performance. “For me,” says Tournois, “Indian dance is a hobby. The graduation is for people who want to teach. Also, it costs thousands of dollars because you must pay to rent the space, cater for about 400 people, and pay the musicians. That would not be a hobby anymore.”

Bharata Natyam is the only kind of dance she likes or ever wanted to learn. “When I’m dancing Bharata Natyam, I feel very natural and spiritual. After ten years, I still love it as much as I did on the first day. I want to continue Indian dance for as long as I do not mind hearing my teacher ask me to stomp harder.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.