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 the classical Indian dance of Bharata Natyam. Credit. S. Tournois|
|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.