Dubai: Indian expatriate Ancy Alexander was diagnosed with partial cerebral palsy when she was a toddler. As she walked with scissor gait and flat-footed, her doctor prescribed dancing as a form of physiotherapy.
Thus, at the age of six, she got enrolled for her first dance class. Thirty years later, Alexander has now mastered Bharatanatyam, despite taking multiple breaks from dance classes that lasted for years. Dance has given Alexander the courage to go for activities such as Pilates and yoga and she has even earned a brown belt in karate. Her next wish is to learn Kalaripayattu, a form of martial arts.
Of course, she does not dance like a regular trained dancer. Yet, in her quest to perfect her dance, not just perform, she has used the art form to overcome her movement challenges. It has been a journey where every day is a day of relearning, says the communication specialist who refuses to perform for sympathy votes.
“I learned classical dance from my first guru Melattur Natarajan Sir for five years till I turned 11. In my 20s, I learned Kathak from Guru Pali Chandra,” she told Gulf News. “Years later, I trained at Sima Performing Arts in Dubai, run by Alaa Krimed and his wife Lana, where I learned contemporary dance to overcome my fear of using my body more freely and confidently.”
Usually a dancer’s body goes through a lot more wear and tear than that of any other person. In case of people like Alexander, that is even worse. She has had to work twice as hard in her dance classes to keep up. She often had cuts and bruises on her feet. “(My) body shuts down at great speed. It gets regressed. Legs are weak. Toes go inwards. There have been days when I struggled to remove my shoes from my swollen feet.”
Alexander takes all these as reminders to stay fit. “It is so important for people of determination to find a way to be active and fit. We don’t notice things when we don’t move much. I feel we need constant reminders that we need to stay active and reassure that we are not overtaken by the conditions.”
Having been obsessed with “mindful inclusive choreography”, Alexander went to the United States to attend an intensive workshop. Armed with her skills from there and creative movement workshops in India and from the United Kingdom (which she did virtually), Alexander then decided to conduct dance workshops for differently-abled children and adults.
Instilling a sense of confidence
Said to be Dubai’s first inclusive dance workshop, Alexander titled it ‘Kriyability — So you think I can’t dance?’ The sessions she did before the COVID-19 pandemic had a list of agreements that participants had to enter. That included points such as “zero judgement, respect all, safety first and I am possible”. Her aim was to instil a sense of confidence and integrity in people of determination.
Alexander said she genuinely made use of her dance classes to keep a check on her body. “It is from what I feel in dance classes that I can explain to my doctor what the problems in my body are and that helps my doctor plan my treatment schedule.”
“There are people who assume that everyone with a disability is mentally challenged. There are people [dance teachers] who asked me to hold the wall or do the face pieces,” she recollected.
Even when COVID-19 hit her workshops, Alexander wanted to continue training.
“When I wanted to continue with my training, something that I kept discovering or the roadblock that I kept hitting was that I was most used for Abhinaya (expression-based dance) or seated performances. And I felt that my dance journey was getting limited as I was forgetting to use my body in dance. I think that is where there was a necessity and almost an urgency for me to get proper dance training.”
No sympathy votes
That is when she got introduced to Puja Unni, who runs the Indian dance institute Spanda in Dubai. “Puja was very accepting. It was difficult for me to be in a class to be trained for performances just to bring in the sympathy votes. After a gap of five-six years of Kathak training, spins were shocking for my nerves. Dropping to the floor and then rising back was extremely difficult. Revisiting Bharatanatyam as an adult with disability was very difficult and Puja relentlessly supported me and let my body explore the maximum that it could do.”
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On the International Day of Persons with Disability on December 3, Puja released a video showing the journey of Alexander overcoming her challenges through dance. “There is a tendency to utilise a person with disability to bring in sympathy votes. But our goal was different,” said Unni. “We wanted to add value to Ancy’s passion. We wanted to challenge her limitations, get her outside the comfort zone, try experimenting with multiple movements and allow her to understand the kind of scope that the art form has. It was a learning process for us as well,” she added.