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Dimple Vyas shares her inspirational story of how she took up dancing in later life.
PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN TURNER
MAY/JUNE 2023 ISSUE
Dimple Vyas works as an anaesthetist in the NHS, so she knows more than most how important it is to keep moving as you get older. Though she’s a medic, she has a creative soul: she loves to dance and sing, alongside her daughter. Recently, Dimple decided to return to her childhood passion of Bharatnatyam Dance and she joined a class with South Asian Arts (UK) in Leeds. Dimple shares her story of how it felt to take up dancing again in her 50s, how she ended up learning with a group of children and she explains how keeping moving helps her to stay healthy.
How did you get involved with Indian dancing?
This particular type of dance – which is called Bharatnatyam – I used to do as a young child. I did it for only about 6 – 8 months. This was back in India, where I grew up. I was also very much interested in other Indian arts – singing and classical music. Our school really promoted end-of-the-year activities, so we formed a really lovely dance group and we entered competitions. And we used to win them! As a group of kids, we would choreograph lots of different folk dances from different Indian states. For example, from Maharashtra we took Koli Dance; from Punjab we took Bhangra. It was great. An amazing feeling when you perform and it comes to the standard you want it to. I was about 11 or 12. But I never really followed it through. At that time, education was the priority for my parents: “Your test results aren’t great – dance is a diversion.” Everyone got dispersed, your focus goes to professional qualifications.
And you came back to it as an adult?
My daughter learned some dance, we tried out a bit of Bollywood dancing. She’s learned Indian classical music for about 10 years, and I joined her in that about 5 years ago. But I was keen to dance. I’m not a very sporty person, but always enjoyed dance. I always stuck to yoga, following a knee injury. Due to some health reasons post-Covid, I couldn’t continue with yoga. I started putting on a bit of weight and wasn’t happy about it. I couldn’t do much, what with working hours. Trying to find the time to go for walks – and that’s weather dependent! Around Autumn time last year, I was rushing into the house to turn the alarm off and had a nasty fall, because it was slippery. I hurt my shoulder. I felt I was losing strength from my muscles, I should be able to support my body better. That’s when I thought I needed to do something about it. I happened to meet a friend who does dance with South Asian Arts UK, so I got the number from her.
Tell us a bit about Bharatnatyam?
It is Indian classical dance, originating from the south of India. It has the involvement of every muscle in the body. It requires co-ordination of big muscle groups and small muscle groups. It requires a lot of awareness of your body when you’re dancing – though I suppose any dance would need that. There are mudras in it [mudras are symbolic or ritual hand gestures, often used in yoga]. You learn different mudras, using fingers, the small muscles of the hand get involved. This is really good for preventing arthritis as you grow older. Those muscles you might not normally use if you are typing or using a pen. All the muscles of your fingers and thumb and hands get utilised. You are squatting in an Aramandi posture, the main posture of the dance. This requires you to bend your knees and move your legs outwards. Aramandi really strengthens your thigh and hip muscles. It’s really good. Your hand posture really strengthens your upper arms. Lot of eye muscles exercises too – my eyes follow my hand movements.
What particular health benefits does the dance give you?
It's really good for women as they are getting older. Really helpful in strength and balance, along with getting bone density. Osteoporosis is a big issue. My mum suffers from osteoporosis, so I have started taking some preventative steps, supplements etc. But you need to do some exercise to get some bone density. The dance is very energetic. But it can be as gentle or as energetic as you want. It suits my temperament. The health benefits are absolutely amazing. Before you start the dance, you go through the stretch exercises – these are absolutely great. You start to get these proper endorphins going through your system! You do perspire a fair bit. A bit of cardio.
I’m really conscious about memory getting foggy. With Bharatnatyam, there is lots of theory, lots of co-ordination, steps to remember. It’s really good for memory – prevention of neurodegenerative disorders.
Tell us how you felt, going into the Bharatnatyam group for the first time?
The group was already established and I walked in new. The youngest member of the group is 5-years-old and the oldest is 9-years-old! I was warned about it – they said, “Would you feel self-conscious?” I said, “No, not with children – they are such great learners.” They hardly bother about who is learning alongside them. It’s a great inspiration to be learning with children. It’s been really good! Honestly, I’ve made some great friends there. The 5-year-old, she is absolutely amazing. She’s my best friend, she says, “I’m always going to stand next to you at the front.” She’s my best buddy. She used to get a little bit nervous and she has felt some comfort in having an adult who is there and can also make mistakes. I’m not the teacher and I am learning too.
Why do you have to be in a kids’ group?
They said, “If you are starting right at the basic level, you have to go with the kids.” I said, “Fine, that’s how it is.” There are some mums who sit and watch their kids, who have started to become a bit motivated too. They say, “I’ve been thinking about doing dance but wasn’t sure. But looking at you, we think we can also do it!” You have to learn the whole syllabus before you progress. There is lots of singing involved as well. There are hand mudras to be remembered. There’s a theory exam as well. I fully intend to carry on with it.
You love music too, don’t you?
I have been learning Indian classical music for 5 years. Singing is done with a harmonium, an Indian keyboard. This was a passion, that had to be left behind with my studies, graduation, post-graduation and migrating to this country.
Tell us a bit more about that journey?
I was born in Mumbai, grew up there. I went to school and college there. It was a fascinating childhood. A very loved childhood. Very nurturing parents. In those days it could happen that there are boy/ girl differences. My brother is three-and-a-half years older and we never felt that. We both got equal opportunities – though, being the youngest, I was pampered somewhat. I became an anaesthetist. Like any traditional Indian family, my dad worked and my mum was a housewife. My dad would set goals and Mum would support them. It was a fantastic family structure. Dad had set a goal: “One of you is going to become a doctor.” There was no choice! I was generally good at studies. When I got to Year 10, I told my dad, “I absolutely want to do arts, I can’t be doing sciences.” He said no. I did get very upset with him, but not a moment do I regret. He said, “You are a woman, you have to have a very respectable job in society. I’m really keen on your financial and professional independence in every way. Who knows what comes in life. Make sure you will be ok.” He was able to explain himself really well and by the time I was doing A-Levels, I had the maturity to understand what he was trying to say. The first year of Medicine was a little bit hard. I was a very artistic person at heart – I was good at drawing and painting and dance. But I was very good at sciences, so with time I fitted in and didn’t look back. I’m ever so grateful for my both parents pushing me in that direction. I met my husband when I was doing a post-graduate qualification and we both came over to the UK to follow further studies.
How was it to return to your creative side later in life?
When you move into a different country there are a lot of adjustments to be made. Getting into married life, we had to re-do our exams after coming here. Retraining, having kids, job applications: there’s lots going on so any artistic stuff gets put aside altogether. But then you rediscover a lot of it through your kids. Singing was something I was very passionate about, so I made sure my daughter started with that. I used to sit in the lessons, like the mums in my dance class, thinking, “I’m sure I could do this as well.” I gradually started singing with her, to the point when the teacher had to say, “Come on, sit down with us, don’t sit at the back. Get on the harmonium.” The singing has been so good because it has bonded me with my daughter tremendously. We do performances together; we do duets. It’s now a mother and daughter act, a famous thing in the little circle we are part of.
How are you feeling about getting older?
My sub-specialisation at my work is chronic pain management. I run a clinic and I see so much of it, it makes you want to prevent as much as you can. A lot of the time you see that there are not enough opportunities for people. Chronic pain can lead to a lot of difficult issues. That fall I had really made me aware that things might happen to me as well if I’m not fit enough. That was a big driver for me. I guess, in my heart, I have always felt you should never stop learning. Life is all about learning and getting as many new experiences as you can get. You’re never too old to learn. If I can keep that learning attitude until my last day, that would be great.
DON’T STOP MOVING
The Health Benefits of Dance for Older People
For those of us who, like Dimple, don’t see themselves as “sporty”, the idea of exercise can have negative connotations. What if there was a way of keeping fit that was fun and creative? Dancing is just that. You’re not competing with anyone and you’re expressing yourself with your body. Whether it’s shaking your booty whilst doing the washing-up, or attending a formal class, there are huge health benefits from dancing.
Dancing is an excellent aerobic exercise that can help improve cardiovascular health. This means it is good for your heart. The more vigorous the dance, the more blood you are pumping around your body. Regular dancing can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. You’re also strengthening your muscles and keeping flexible, which helps prevent falls and other problems.
Osteoporosis is a big risk for older people, women especially. You may have heard about “bone density” – this is a measure of minerals in your bones. Low bone density means that your bones may be brittle and liable to break. The good news is that you can do something about it – exercise can improve the bone density. And dance is a great way of doing this. Recently, the Royal Osteoperois Society recruited Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood to speak out on just this issue. They teamed up on a Boogie for your Bones campaign. “Dancing is a fantastic way of keeping your bones strong,” Craig says. Don’t worry, it’s not just grumpy TV choreographers who say this – the science backs Craig up.
As well as the physical benefits, there are mental benefits too. Dancing requires concentration, memory, and coordination, which can help improve cognitive function. Most dances require you to learn moves. It’s a bit like doing crossword puzzles to ward off dementia – but learning a movement exercises a whole different part of your brain. Most of the time, you are dancing with other people – and this has a health benefit too. You’re interacting with others – and connecting, both literally and mentally.
One particular health condition that has an association with dance is Parkinson’s. Studies have shown that dancing can alleviate some of the symptoms associated with the disease. Ascendance is a Leeds-based dance company that does specific sessions for people with a diagnosis. Dance has an amazing impact on our members!” says Rachel Wesson from Ascendance. “From physical benefits to being able to work together and connect with others who have shared experiences of life with Parkinson's.”
You may choose a cha-cha, you might select a salsa, or you might be partial to a polka. Whichever dance you go for, it’ll improve your mental and physical health – whether that was your intention or not!
South Asian Arts UK (SAA-UK)
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