How Do You Know?

By Suchitra Sairam

Over the years, but particularly in recent months, I’ve been asked a similar question many times; “How do you know that a student is ready for their (insert “Salangai Pooja” or “Arangetram”). Sometimes, it has a student who aspires to see themselves in that same situation, or a parent who would understandably love to see their child as a soloist. Sometimes, it has been an audience member at a Salangai Pooja or Arangetram I have conducted. Sometimes, it has been another artist or teacher wanting to share thoughts, or perhaps mine information – and I’ve learned the hard way this in particular is a nearly impossible conversation to have with another teacher, because so much of this depends on your own values, perceptions, and personal compass.

As I’ve been asked this question, I keep reflecting on it – the process probably hasn’t changed much for me over the years, but the way in which I have articulated it has been refined. For me, there is no formula or checklist for this; simply guiding principles and values, and knowing what I want to aim for artistically and for that student’s growth. Then you work hard and hope for the best.

I think one of the most important things to remember is that there are some big jumps involved here… from a weekly group class to multiple solo rehearsals. From performing a single piece in a group to performing a single piece as a soloist. From performing a single piece as a soloist to multiple pieces as a soloist. And so on…

The bottom line for me is this; a student should want to learn MORE after going through the process and presenting these important milestone performances. These milestones are when you finally start to figure things out about your art, not when you are done.


So… How DO I know?

Most of my students have been with me for a long time. I get to know them well, and vice-versa. I know how I have trained them, what I have taught them, and what they should know at certain stages of their journey. They get to know how I work, what my values and expectations are, and have an idea of what they need to be willing to put into it. For Salangai Pooja or Arangetram readiness, I look for a few things (in some particular order):

  • Attitude. Attitude. Attitude.
    • The art is bigger than any one of us. Full. Stop. If a student doesn’t get this, they aren’t ready. Oh, and parents need to get this too.
    • It’s about you, but not ALL about you. If a student doesn’t realize that we all have a responsibility to the masters who came before us as well as our own aspirations, ability, values and identity, they may not be ready. Again… parents need to get this too.
    • The process is more important than any single performance, or any recognition or kudos. If we do things right, the actual Salangai Pooja or Arangetram performance is almost incidental.
  • Aspiration, with humility AND action. A student can want a lot of things; there is no doubt an attraction to being a soloist, wearing all of the beautiful costumes and jewelry, the list goes on. But, is a student ready to take ownership of their journey? Are they self-motivated? A teacher can drag a student through a process and get them performance-ready, but is that lasting?
  • Ability to take corrections, make corrections, and hold on to corrections. Take corrections – see Attitude. Make corrections – see Action. Hold on to corrections – if we keep talking about the same old things, how do we move forward? See The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There for You” – “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear”
  • Aptitude to work on multiple things at the same time and develop the capabilities required. Think mental and physical capacity and stamina!
  • Awareness – of one’s self, one’s strengths, and one’s current limitations. Studying art reveals the best and worst of who we are and what we can do. Being aware of these things is necessary for any movement forward.
  • Acuity – does a student have the learning capacity and emotional maturity to be able to handle this journey? It’s an incredibly beautiful, rewarding and tough journey to be on.
  • Audience – there is an intangible but very necessary component of being able to connect with and hold an audience. Does the student have the capacity to develop this ability?

Students obviously may not have all or many of these things at the beginning of a process – so the real question I have make my best judgement on… do they have the capacity to get there?


“Remembering the Samosa”

Objectivity is a really important element of any journey as a teacher and a student. It’s easy to think we are all that and a bag of chips AND that we are “so bad” at the same time. Human nature. But we have to find a way to be objective about the quality of the work while still pushing ourselves to improve.

I tell my students that it is very important that we encourage and acknowledge the courage it takes to get up on stage alone and dance. A dancer is putting themselves out there for others to watch and judge, and hopefully enjoy. But we must also acknowledge that it is separate from the quality of the work.

I tell students that I want their dancing to speak for itself to the audience. Aside from the positive and constructive guidance, I suggest that they should have a respectful “fear” of “polite applause.” And that if people remember more about the samosa they ate after the show than anything you danced, then something has gone sideways.


It’s not foolproof

Needless to say, this is all dandy, but not foolproof by any means. No matter how many times I have been to the rodeo (19 years of Kala Vandanam, 22 Salangai Pooja students and 12 Arangetram students), I still make mistakes and misread things. So, when have I been “wrong”?

Sometimes, I’ve taken a chance on a student being able to emote freely, completely and maturely. I think that with time and the intensive focus, I can get them there and their abhinaya will be “performance ready.” They want it, they work at it, but it’s just not there yet. They just needed more time, and I underestimated how much time it would take them to “let go.”

Along the same lines, I’ve taken a chance that a student will be able to develop the physical strength and stamina required. With the fitness routines and adavu classes I give them, along with personal practice, this has been well within reach for most students. But there have been times when they are not willing or able to do that work needed to get their bodies prepared for this intensive work of dancing. I misread that they were ready and/or able to do the work.

Despite my many efforts to ferret out what people’s attitude and values are, there have been occasions (fortunately VERY few) when my enthusiasm or naiveté or foolishness (see the section heading) has blinded me from being able to read a student’s or parents’ actual intentions. I’m pretty clear about what I look for and what each process means. They may say the right things, but may not actually believe in them. I have misread this on a couple of occasions; while we were able to have lovely programs and the students really grew in the process, they stopped dancing soon after the program was done. Violation of the “prime directive” of wanting to learn MORE and dance MORE – not be done. While I would have liked to avoid it, it’s been a very good and important learning process for me around attachment, and going with the flow.

After all this…. How do I know? Well, I clearly don’t know much of anything for sure. But I get a little closer to knowing a little more… Every. Single. Time.