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Radhika Merchant loves Bharatanatyam! Know health benefits of the dance form

Radhika Merchant, set to wed Anant Ambani, is trained in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form with a host of health benefits!

All eyes are on Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant, the soon-to-be-married couple whose pre-wedding festivities have been underway since almost a year. Radhika Merchant’s dazzling smile has been the centre of attention, starting from the time she staged her first solo Bharatanatyam performance or arangetram in June 2022. The bride-to-be is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, like her to-be mother-in-law Nita Ambani, who continues to perform the dance form even today. While this oldest dance form looks most elegant, do you know it also has physical, mental and spiritual health benefits?

Bharatanatyam is one of the toughest Indian dance forms and requires great perseverance and commitment. It has a host of health benefits such as building muscle, stamina, and balance as well as improving cognitive abilities. Therefore, this dance form requires immense training and perseverance. Radhika Merchant trained for eight years, under the guidance of her mentor Guru Bhavan Thakar of Shree Nibha Arts dance academy of Mumbai, before her arangetram.

The history of Bharatanatyam

One of the oldest dance forms in India, Bharatanatyam originated from the Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu, India, almost 2000 years back. It has led to the formation of many other dance forms as well over the years. Initially, it used to be performed at Hindu temples in South India and flourished in the region. The features of Bharatnatyam are intricate footwork, as well as gestures such as nrita, nritya and natya. The basic stance of the dance includes a squat-like formation, with a straight torso. You balance yourself while moving your hands as well as legs.

Health benefits of Bharatnatyam

Here are some of the physical and mental health benefits of Bharatanatyam, according to Bharatanatyam artiste Sophia Salingaros.

1. Good cardio workout

Bharatanatyam is a rigorous dance and proves to be an excellent cardio workout. The movements provide the same benefits that aerobic training provides. A study published in the journal TMR Non-Drug Therapy assessed cardiovascular endurance levels in Bharatnatyam dancers. It was seen that the aerobic capacity of dancers, versus that of the non-dancers, was significantly higher. The increasing intensities of performance pieces also helped increase fitness levels.

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2. Good for flexibility

Bharatanatyam is great for improving the posture and flexibility of dancers. A study published in the Bulletin of the Faculty of Physical Therapy suggests that Bharatanatyam requires dancers to maintain their postures for a long duration of time. This leads to a lot of physical demands on the body. The study analysed 40 female Bharatanatyam dancers in the age group of 18 to 30 years, and 40 age-matched female non-dancers.

Hand movements in classical dance
Bharatnatyam gestures such as nrita, nritya and natya. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

3. Increases stamina

Just like any other high-performance exercise regime, Bharatanatyam too increases stamina. A study published in the International Journal of Physiology, Nutrition and Physical Education, analysed muscle strength in female Bharatanatyam dancers. It was seen that dancers were required to have optimal muscle strength to perform well. At the end of the study, it was observed that the dancers were able to perform more push-ups than the non-dancers and that dancers had better lower and upper limb muscle strength compared to non-dancers.

4. Helps maintain balance

Bharatanatyam requires you to balance in a squat-like position for an extended period. There is specific footwork, and body turns to make beautiful postures. A study published in the Journal of Society of Indian Physiotherapists, stated that balance is the mainstay of the dance form. It was observed that Bharatnatyam dancers showcased better balance than their age as well as gender-matched non-dancer counterparts.

5. Improves concentration

Bharatnatyam can help to improve the dancers’ cognitive abilities such as concentration and memory. According to a study published in the International Conference of the Indian Society of Ergonomics, Indian classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, require memorisation. It was seen that Kathak, another Indian classical dance form, as well as Bharatanatyam dancers, reported better cognitive abilities, as compared to non-dancers.

What to remember before starting Bharatnatyam?

Just like any other physical exercise, Bharatnatyam also requires a warm-up session before you begin. A warm-up session will prepare your body for what lies ahead. It helps to regulate your pace of breathing. This helps to increase your heartrate and improve blood circulation. This helps to loosen up your muscles, and you are all set to start. This warm-up leads to fewer injuries while performing the dance form.

Start with some stretches, and focus on your breathing. You can do this on a yoga mat, rather than on the cold floor. Surya namaskar is a great way to stretch well before Bharatanatyam, and 5-10 of these should do the trick. Remember that as a Bharatanatyam dancer, you need to stretch the muscles in your lower back, Achilles and feet arches. You need to also stretch your hamstrings, quadriceps and calves.

How many years does it take to become a Bharatanatyam dancer?

This answer depends on the level of perfection you want to attain in the dance form. However, it may require a minimum of 5-6 years to learn the dance completely and perform it in front of others. Besides time, you also require a passion and love for the dance form.

Feet of an Indian classical dancer
Bharatnatyam involves foot and leg movements, while maintaining a half-squat-like position. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Another thing to remember is that it is important to be consistent. Regular practice of the dance form will help you achieve mastery.

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