Moving to literature

A graduate from our 2012 batch, Mythili Zatakia reflects on the convergence of movement and storytelling through dance, as well as on her experience, as a dancer and an IBDP graduate.


For anyone who has studied literature — in any language — through the IB, storytelling, literary appreciation, interpretation and analysis are almost visceral. We looked long and hard into words and sentences, underlining, annotating and attempting to deconstruct the complexity of each character we came across and the prose itself. Learning how to appreciate, comprehend and justly represent literature is a skill that every IB student develops through the course of their education. I have widely utilized this skill in my practice of dance.

The territory of painstaking inquiry into text that is both metaphorical and literal is widely explored by a dancer. The primary job of a dancer is to tell a story through movement.

“As a student of literature, I developed an empathy that would help me develop as a dancer”.

Classical dance has its roots in classical literature. Reading and feeling stories is fundamental to illustrating them. I knew I couldn’t dance it if I hadn’t felt it, if I hadn’t dived deep into the mind of the author or the character and truly understood where they were coming from. As a student of literature, I developed an empathy that would help me develop as a dancer. The pen was beginning to have power over my whole being. I would formulate the truest possible movement to complement what was written, exploring my physical, mental and emotional capacities.

There is an aspect named ‘Abhinaya’ in Indian classical dance. Very simply, it translates to expression of emotion. It is the dramatic element of dance where we assume the role of a particular character in a particular state of mind and tell their story, either in whole or in part. It takes tremendous effort, study and empathy to nail—getting under the skin of someone who only exists in ink on paper.

As a student, you begin to recognize and believe in the interconnectedness of the arts. That dance isn’t simply movement. It is movement set to an idea written in words, with the potential to be exhibited through various methods of communication and forms of expression such as music, painting, sculpture and dance.

“Reading and feeling stories is fundamental to illustrating them”.

I vividly recall being in class, reading poems, wishing that I could dance them, instantaneously, right there and then. It was probably my own version of a commentary upon them. For instance, my first reading of the Caged Bird by Maya Angelou, was probably my strongest and most impulsive stimulus to dance. I thought the Caged Bird would break free if I did. As I read more, getting progressively provoked by each piece of writing, I grew more cognizant of the ultimate purpose of all art—to collectively or individually help humanity unshackle, express and advance.

As classical dancers, we dance to words in languages we don’t understand, to fairy tales that don’t quite exist, to folktales that are ancient, seemingly outdated and figments of fantasy. Through them, however, we create worlds that are magical, metaphorical, glorious and deeply evocative. All at once, it allows an escape from the world and the creativity to better it. Perhaps that is what writers and artists are after.

Movement holds the power to move. It is both ignited and strengthened by words that provide a complete picture. A dancer has to start somewhere. Literature is a fine place to begin. And the intricacies of language, grammar and meaning are best imbibed in the empathetic setting of an IB education.


This post by Mythili Zatakia originally appeared on the IBO blog in December 2020.

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