While the arts usually tend to get pigeon-holed into the category of one’s hobby or leisure, the crucial role that it can play in empowering young minds often goes unnoticed. When one thinks of dance, we immediately think of busting out strenuous moves that make for magnum opus performances. But once we remove the frills from the art form, the very essence of dance translates to a form of expression. A way of communication, that goes beyond words, using every inch of our body, the core of our being, to express our emotions. It does not discriminate between the abled and the differently-abled. It shouldn’t. Art cannot discriminate. And neither does Vishakha Verma, a 48-yearold teacher of the classical dance form, Kathak. Director of the Vishakha Dance Academy, Vishakha has made it her mission to introduce inclusivity through dance, welcoming students of all abilities, into her dance classes across India and the UAE for over 14 years.
With a diploma in Kathak dance, Vishakha has trained over 250 children of determination with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, ADHD and Rett Syndrome, from all across the world. Coming from a non-dance background, Vishakha took up dance on a whim for a school show, which kick-started her journey of making a full-time career out of her passion.
A civil engineer by profession, Vishakha established her place in the performing arts, navigating the aberrations of taking up an unsought-after career path. “Dance was not celebrated in my family. There were a lot of disruptions. The moment I finished my education, the wedding preparations swept in. I was often told, “who would want to marry a dancer?”
After marriage, having swayed away from her love of classical dance, the dance director reunited with her love of the art form, upon attending a school performance by children of determination. “When I was invited to this dance performance, I had very little idea of what autism and other such disabilities are all about. There’s still very little awareness on this. So, when I saw these kids up on the stage, supposedly taking part in a ‘dance’ show. I thought to myself, why aren’t they dancing? Being a dance teacher, I wanted to see these kids moving about, twirling around, lifting their hands and emoting their feelings. But these children were escorted by their teachers, shook their heads and exited the stage,” remembers Vishakha. “This got me thinking. I waited for the show to get over, to speak to the director. I asked her why the kids weren’t actually dancing. She looked at me and smiled. And then asked me whether I would teach them, for free. And I said yes, without even thinking for a moment.”
Opening her academy’s doors to everyone, Vishakha affirms that dance as an art form should be inclusive of all capabilities. Endearingly called Vishka by her special needs students, the dance teacher says, “When I met these children for the first time, I saw wide-eyed faces, with the biggest grins, oozing unfathomable eagerness of wanting to learn dance for the very first time. I immediately connected with them. We felt safe in each other’s company and they came and hugged me. Few of them could talk, a few could just stammer.”
Pondering over the devoted skill-set required to teach dance to children of determination, Vishakha reminisces her deep dive into learning dance movement therapy — breaking free from the set notions of linear counts, devising fusion movements, to teach young minds with special needs. “Teaching kids with special needs was completely out of my domain, so I went home confused, wondering how I would manage it. That’s when I decided to study dance movement therapy. I studied for two years and went back to teaching these kids, equipped with the necessary knowledge.”
Having experienced the cathartic benefits of dance expression in her own life, the dance director firmly believes in the recreational power of movement therapy, to empower children of determination, in immeasurable ways. “I really struggle with making parents understand the importance of dance therapy. I put up posts on my Instagram every morning to tell people that dance is just not about pursuing a career in entertainment industry,” adds Vishakha, expressing the primitive apprehensions of associating oneself with this field. “Dance is a way to express yourself without words. These kids cannot speak. But they understand me and I understand them. And if I’m happy they also smile. Communication is not just through words. Dance helps them through this.”
A connoisseur of classical movements, the dance teacher doesn’t shy away from the fact that she had to teach herself acceptance, the moment she decided to embark on this journey. “When we’re born in this society, we don’t learn acceptance. Nobody teaches us acceptance. People teach us how to compete. We’re born in a rat race”, essays the dance teacher. “These kids just want to learn, they want to be included. But most institutes don’t accept them saying that this will take up too much of their time and effort”, adds Vishakha, highlighting the importance of creating a judgement-free zone for these children, to be able to express themselves uninhibitedly, fostering their sense of self.
Recounting the many occasions where these children have contributed to her own growth, not only as a professional but also as a human being, Vishakha says, “I teach two boys who are deaf and unable to speak. But when you look at them, you will not be able to tell that they are differently-abled. So how do we teach them? We increase the volume of the music. They put their hand on the speaker and feel the beat.”
“When we were performing with these boys a couple of years ago, the music on the stage accidentally stopped. But these boys didn’t realise that the music had stopped. So, they carried on with their performance till the very end. And they got a standing ovation. So, who’s the real performer? It’s them,” exclaims the Kathak dancer. “The difference between us and children of determination is that we are too afraid to make mistakes. And they know that they’re born with a mistake, so they make it perfect. So, we need to learn to be wrong, and make it right.”
The dance teacher was also a recipient of the Global Disability Empowerment Award by the Indian Government, in 2020, for her contributions towards the differently-abled. “I did not want to receive the award myself. I asked my parents to go up on stage to receive it. They accepted the honour on my behalf, wrapped in the Tricolour, beaming with pride for their “dancer” daughter,” signs off Vishakha, brimming with emotion.