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Dance that heals

Kolkata, India | Two women take part in an outreach dance event at an International Dance day celebration in April, 2010 / Ranjita Biswas - Panos London

“Dancing changed my life. For the first time I felt that I was doing something I liked,” recalls 18-year-old Shampa Roy. Shampa, from Kolkata, the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, grew up in shelter homes for girls from the age of five after both her parents died. “I was always angry, I didn’t know why. I beat up other inmates at the slightest provocation; people used to avoid me. I didn’t respect my teachers or my elders,” she admits. And then she discovered dance. Shampa realised she could express her inner turmoil through the dance steps. It was, she says, a discovery of joy.

Shampa is now an assistant dance instructor herself, sharing her discovery with other women.

She was trained by Kolkata Sanved (which translates roughly from Bengali as sensitivity), a local NGO that uses dance to help participants cope with mental trauma.

One of the main areas of Sanved’s work is with trafficked girls and women. Bordering Bangladesh and Nepal, West Bengal is on a vulnerable international trafficking route, making Kolkata a significant source and destination for traffickers.

Sanved was set up in 2002 by Sohini Chakraborty, a sociology graduate from Kolkata. Sohini first started to use dance as a form of therapy when she volunteered to work with Sanlaap, a local NGO that works with girls rescued from prostitution.

Using her background in classical Indian dance, Sohini initially taught the girls a combination of classical and contemporary dance movements. However, they didn’t respond to the classes.

So instead she began to create a series of body movements based on everyday actions, such as making chai or sweeping the floor, and this clicked with the girls. She would ask a girl to imagine that she was a tree. How would she project it? Gradually the girls started to open up and learnt to express their inner turmoil through their individual projections.

“Sometimes we were startled by the extreme emotions the girls articulated through their body language,” Sohini recalls. She explains that for many of the girls the biggest hurdle to normal interaction with other people comes from a sense of shame that affects their body image.

It was only later that Sohini realised that this form of movement is a recognised therapy, known as Dance Movement Therapy, or DMT, which was devised in America in the 1940s.

As Sohini explains, the women she works with often feel a deep inferiority and have extremely low self-esteem. “DMT encourages them to think, ‘I am creating my own body through my own expression’.” By taking control of their bodies physically, they are able to rebuild their shattered confidence and begin to cope with mental trauma. They are encouraged to discard thoughts such as “my body is impure” and start believing that they could create their own bodies on their own terms.

Over the years, Kolkata Sanved has expanded its work to other groups. Today Sohini collaborates with NGOs working with street children, at-risk youth living in red light areas, people living with HIV and also people with mental health issues. The NGO also helps elderly women staying in shelter homes of organisations such as the All Bengal Women’s Union, where Shampa occasionally conducts classes. Sanved’s work is not confined to urban areas. Workshops are held regularly in rural areas in collaboration with out-reach organisations.

Another group Sanved interacts with is domestic workers. The women, who commute to the city by train to work in households, are usually poorly paid and work very long hours, often working in several houses.

Kolkata Sanved has teamed up with Parichiti, which means identity in Bengali, to run a DMT programme on the platform at Dhakuria station in south Kolkata.

Anchita Ghatak, Parichiti’s secretary, explains: “These women are always running around, starting early from home and then working in three to four houses. We have a drop-in centre where they can rest for some time in between shifts, listen to music, watch TV [Bengali soaps are great favourite] or relax. DMT has given them a sense of liberation – something they can do for themselves, and not at anyone’s behest.”

Ruma Naskar, a shy 18-year-old, is going through the dance movements taught to her by a trainer at the Parichiti drop-in centre.

Ruma comes from Naraynagarh, a village in a region of West Bengal that borders the Sunderbans delta on the Bay of Bengal. The area is densely populated and poverty is rife and each day hundreds of women board trains to Dhakuria station to work in Kolkata.

“I leave home at 5am and walk for one hour to catch the 6am train which takes one hour to reach the Dhakuria station,” Ruma explains. “My first job starts at 7am.” She takes the train back at 3pm and arrives home at around 5pm where she has to help her mother with housework.

Ruma studied up to the seventh standard (age 12) but dropped out of school and has been working since the age of 15.

“I like coming to this drop-in centre because these Sanved didis (elder sisters) teach me to do byam (exercise) and dance movements. I feel relaxed.” Ruma’s ambition is to be financially independent and “not beg anyone for money, even from parents.”

Another regular is Sakuntala Baidya, who is in her thirties and is married with two children. She comes from Bagha Jatin area in the south, not far from Dhakuria. “I find shanti (peace) here,” she says. “The Sanved people show us how to relax – they even give me a massage when my legs hurt me,” she says.

Ananya C Chakraborti, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who focuses on gender issues, watched some of the dance therapy workshops while shooting a film on the trafficking of girls.

“It seemed liberating for the women,” she recalls. “Among Bengalis, especially among women, spontaneous dance – whether in a religious celebration or social function – is very rare, unlike in many other communities in India. It seems a lot of energy is dammed up artificially. DMT breaks that barrier.”

Indrani Sinha, director of Sanlaap, observes: “A lot of pain and hurt haunts these women, but there’s a lot of beauty too. We have to look for their wellspring of beauty, try to bring it to the surface and not treat them as only case studies. DMT helps them to rise above the brutalities they have gone through.”

From the initial DMT experiment, Sohini and her group have developed a regular curriculum to train instructors called “Dance therapy Movement for Mental Health and Recovery”, which they launched this year. The first batch of 16 students completed the 100-hour course, combining it with clinical practice in hospitals. Behala Shaw Public School for girls has also introduced DMT as part of its curriculum, a first for a school in Kolkata.

Sohini now has another milestone in mind. “We want to take it to the policy level and earn recognition that DMT can and should be a part of the national educational curriculum,” she says.

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