Dance: Movements and Therapy


by Chitra Ahanthem
Most people say that those born in Manipur have an innate sense of dance. Often, elders “teach” or rather, introduce small babies to body co-ordination movements by saying, “taadhing dhin, taadhing dhin”. A majority of us would have had something to do with dance at one stage or the other: either taking part in Lai Harouba or performing at school/college or University functions. Manipur has a rich legacy of dance forms that reflects its vast diversity and the folk forms of dances are as renowned as the Classical dance form of Ras Leela.

Growing up in a neighbourhood that did not have its own Lai Harouba function and a rather strict family that kept the sole focus on studies, one did not have much to do with dance except at school functions where I had my first induction into Manipuri dance forms. Over the years at school, we ran through Kabui dance, Thougal jagoi, a Dus Avataar rendition amongst many other forms ( the most memorable being a mix between a folk dance and a Physical training exercise drill with ribbons tied on our wrists and attired in tribal dress!). One thing that remained with me was being totally confused over why the dance teachers who came in to train us in the various dances would insist that while performing, it was imperative that we kept expressions out of the performances and that we were not to look beyond our hand movements. A rather excited look on my face at a dance rehearsal led to a teacher led to my knuckles being rapped and much later, it was while in college performing a Manipuri group dance for a total Punjabi audience in College (who are known for their boisterous ways and total animation!) and subsequent reflections and discussions with friends that it dawned on me that the lack of facial animation in Manipuri dance forms could also be reflecting our own lack of emotional communication within the Manipuri society. While at hostel during College time, it was disconcerting to see the kind of emotional expression and affection that parents showed to their children or among siblings since family communication in our own Manipuri society is often stilted. But coming to the dance performance at College, there were only two refrains. The first was, of course that the dance movements were beautiful and full of grace. The second was a question and complaint, “why cannot all of you smile or look at the audience?”

Another interesting insight into the many mysteries of dance came quite by chance: Angana Jhaveri, a dance enthusiast and film maker was video documenting dance and symbolisms in Manipur. She wanted me to assist her in the logistics of the film with translations and accompanying her to shoots. Her film was mainly to look at dragon motives found in South East Asia. Accompanying her on a shoot to interview Padmashree N. Khelchandra, it was fascinating to learn that the grace seen in certain dance movements are taken from martial arts. When asked how martial arts which is about toughness resonates in the grace and subtlety of hand movements, the martial arts expert simply smiled away softly and still remaining seated did the sword/thang -ta movement where the wrists are rotated with great dexterity and swift movements in rhythm. He gave accompanying sounds with his mouth and then, the fast rhythm slowed down and suddenly, it was the soft movement of the hands and wrist doing the kajeng leiba that is a feature in Thougal jagoi!

Around the world, dance forms are a natural flow of social norms, its ways of courting and socializing. There are the imprints of religious fervor and devotion in some while others reflect the soul of being marginalized. Over time, not only have new dance forms come up but there are now many people who have begun to find out ways of looking at dance as an integral element for therapy. The announcement of a training on Creative Dance Therapy for Care givers at Imphal recently was a bit of a surprise since not many people here have looked into this arena. A bit of inquiries later, it came to light that the training was being organized by the Human to Humane Trans-cultural Centre for Torture Victims (H2H), an independent health and humanitarian service for survivors of Trauma and Torture in Manipur, India. Participants at the training included not only people dealing with people undergoing various forms of violence and trauma but also those dealing with people living with HIV/AIDS.

The sessions were being held under the guidance of Tripura Kashyap, who is not only a dance performer herself but also a trained and experience dance therapist. Asked how dance could be used for therapeutic purposes, Tripura also an author of a book “My body, My wisdom – A handbook of Creative Dance Therapy” published by Penguin said that it entailed not only dance as a performance but a process of dance forms to explore mental, emotional, physical awareness and communication. Thus, by modification of music, movements and props to suit specific needs and problems of people with disabilities or undergoing trauma were developed and taken up in stages. The book had interesting anecdotes of her experiences of working with autistic children and those with hearing impairment. But the best part of being an observer at the training program in bits and parts was the absolute freedom that participants (ranging from young children to people in mid life) exuded in their dance movements. The difference was palpable even within the short 2 day exercise: day 1 saw most women participants being a bit stiff and closed starting from their apparel (married women came in full sarees) but day 2 saw them more lively, interactive and more free in their movements. The dress too was on the comfort quotient: smart kurtas and leggings.

The training program could well be the beginning of something unique in Manipur for there is certainly no doubt that there is a need for therapy for the many people undergoing various forms of trauma, difficulties or suffering. And what better to undergo therapy than doing it through dance moves?


  1. Sorry to jump into the discussion..may be an unwanted person but I thought I better to
    share some of my opinion
    @Chitra Ahenthem
    Thank for showing sympathy towards repressed manipuri society. Manipur is yet to catch up with developed society mostly in the fields of fincial health and other facilities like road, waters, electricity etc. Let me call it materialistic facilities which are required to make a place Developed state or country. This backwardness is due to
    political reasons like geographical location of manipur (I mean distance from Delhi), negligence of GOI, low population to have a say in India politics, disgusting politicians of our state. See, once there is poverty, then I don’t need to say anything further regarding the crisis that will automatically come in.

    However, your interpretation regarding the weakness of Manipuris in the emotional sphere, I am afraid to say Madam, that your choice of words to describe and interpret the dance of manipuris and relating it to parent child relationship and even social relationship of Manipuris may be totally naive.

    My grandfather was a Nitya Ratna Awardee (not bossing around but as a child I learn many interpretations regarding Jagoi and why we dance like this which is different from others and of course what are the social interpretation of each steps).

    Let me generalize, most of the Manipuri dance forms are based on extreme Bhakti and total devotion to the Almighty. Our dance is not meant attracting for Sexual appeal. So, for those dance like Ras, thougal jagoi etc, no eyes contact with audience is required and meaningless. Manipuri dance is the dance which mesmerize Rabindranath
    Thakur with its subtle movements, reflection of bhakti, devotion, dedication, respect, peace and tranquility.

    As far as eye contact is concerned, look into Thang-ta. You should not be distracted at any cost, you should be well aware of every small reflexes of opponent’s body parts and should be able to read his motives and anticipate correctly what will the opponent will do next. Look into Sharit-Sharak (Sha – lit, escaping from animal and sha- lak, taming the animal), here you just don’t need hand movements.

    Manipuri cultures and traditions taught its people to refrain from being expressive overtly (Which is really wonderful culture). Maintaining safe distance between persons even between parent child, brother sisters, friends, people opposite sex etc. From sociology point of view, these are wonderful teachings of a culture and traditions. I came across very interesting articles of Sociology which point out that Men is also an animal. Among the traits of civilization, keeping safe distance among opposite sex people to avoid unwanted sex is also very important. Some family relationship can turn into sexual relationship. Vulnerable relationship are brother in law-sister in law etc. To maintain the status of civilized animal among the species on the planet, different festivals, traditions like Rakhi, Bhai Dhuj, etc by Hindus.
    I salute Manipuri forfathers for understanding the science of vulnerable human psychology and make many traditions to keep their kins civilized.
    Forget about comparing Punjabi culture with Manipuri culture. they are differrent and I respect their culture as someone else culture. I am proud that we have different traditions and culture (which I didn’t realize when I was in Manipur).

    Anyway, thanks for the article which bring up the interesting aspect of Dance therapy.

  2. Miss/Mr Ahanthem,Let me define jagoi in kanglei perspective briefly but I must say it wont be justified much as until you come out in true sense to learn kanglei jagoi holistically.First of all I wud advice you to seek some elders or master or dance Oja if u truely seeking for the answer.Anyway here it,Jagoi as we know is derived from word “Chakoi” mean turning round.If one elaborate,in kanglei phylosophy time which warp around the event of past,present,and future embedded with events that embodiment of kanglei society and “chakoi” or anoi became the expression and manifestation.kanglei chakoi or jagoi as mentioned by malem is true that is not about pleasing audience.Now u must be cleared by then!More lucidly,its about respect,politeness,honor etc(this is wat average kanglei knowledge have usually)…There is nothing wrong in expressing with facial too but u know its about cultural projection.U do it but u know the truth also!I like some of the countiho…(nice name man,but intriguing:)).Quite an elaborate but sound true in loose way with nice justification.Now I have a question to u Mr/Miss ahanthem!Is not true to project a society with narrow perspective.I do se dance as by now in kanglei society akin to any other culture.Application are just an offshoots.There is no argument.Why we need to stop it!U mentioned about martial art,and its true that some of the movements are direct in relation attributing to Chakoi or anoi or Jagoi.It is true to mention here that both has the same origin and inter-relation.No denying!And how one wud argue the differeces too which one has been part of kanglei society to defend for eon of years.(only when practice was stop,kangleipak was ruined:(…rather over weigted with Jagoi(not that real jagoi I mentioned but fallen to mayang chicanery)Plz refer the aforementioned definition:)…Ok here is the question!Tell me how did you feel or concluded that expression and present or watever’s kanglei society…he he people I refering to the second para Miss/Mr Ahanthem has written.Thats the part u ve created the blunder.And wow U replied to one the comment that regarding “maibis cavorting” he he wats that?Is that the point the whole long way it led to?Thats personal wethere that maibis cavort or frolicking!Na na na I must say u are acting really sinistic.So I conclude that here ur article was just purely a personal obsevation and nothing to do with anyhting outside but under ur precinct.

  3. Dear Malem:
    many thanks for joining in this discussion but I wish you would have read the perspective I was trying to put forth in my piece: nowhwere in the column do I claim I am an expert on peice was born out of experiencing a dance therapy workshop where participants were NOT being taught dance steps but made to use dance as a form to express themselves as part of therapy..the discussions there-in led me to think about the dance form we have..yes, we say Maibi jagoi is an act of worship..but notice that it still comes with the noun “jagoi” which means dance..and I am NOt talking only about maibi jagoi: the ras leela of manipur has no facial expression: no warmth in the eyes..while the ras leela performances ot its interpretation in say Bharat natyam and others has expressions..I was ONLY looking at whether the fact that expression in manipur is rather stilted had any influence on our dance forms..things have chnaged somewhat in our generation but ours is a very formal and social taboo-ed society: even communication in the family is formal..we dont hug family members..etc etc..and as a columnist was just wondering aloud 🙂
    on the Devadasis..would you know that this tradition of “pleasing the kings” actually led to Bharat natyam later on..that Bharat natyam was much scorned upon because it was more to do with DEvadasis?
    on Maibi jagoi performances..ah I was part of a camera crew (mentioned in my piece I think) and we spent a lot of time at the Moirang Lai wasnt all devotion ONLY: we saw maibis cavorting with young men they fancied gyrating wildly..I was very amused and thought the elders would mind but everyone actually laiughed and enjoyed the show 🙂

  4. I can reassure you with a safe prophecy which you will not like. Over the next decades there will be no resurgence of Manipuri culture. Perhaps it may be gawked upon in a museum but they may not even build the museum. And that will be a sad day, and life goes on.

    And if I have your attention then I’ll begin. I used to be in the business of religion and it is very difficult to inspire faith in others. The defence was that faith is caught not taught. If you were driven by love, if you were inspired then all that is required of you is to demonstrate the outer rituals with devotion, and then you let the divine spark inflame whom She wills. The theological discussion had moved among some of us to if God wants Roman Catholicism to remerge as Communism and spread from the lands of the Rising Sun then it is for us only to recognize divine action and to serve. It is not for servants to command the Master what dress he should wear today.

    Do you love the old gods and the old ways enough not to cling to them if they are in chrysallis and seek to emerge in new ways? Or maybe the flame just needs to be tended kept safe for a better time.

    But I go ahead of the conversation because I have never managed to go further. So you may suggest oh read this on the Sanamahi creation myth, and read this to discover what the Jagoi is not. And I have read and now what.

    The devadasi confusion is interesting. I had dismissed it last time it was raised as a throwaway line from a disgruntled sex pest. So the mistaken belief runs deeper, as NIetschze put it they promised union with the Goddess but all they offer is whores for Eleusis. So I’ll read up on the devdasi just to increase my confusion.

    On Shamanism which another writer objected to but as they didn’t know what Shamanism was and I didn’t know what the Meetei Jagoi was…, Shamans tend to say that they cease to shamanize in public. The Government forces them to put on shows so they just pretend, but they do not really shamanize. I’ve heard criticism of Manipuri dance productions as for starters it can’t be done in a theatre, it is connected to the earth and the wilds, it cannot be abridged for tourists yet they always shorten productions. They’ll be talk of the healing ability of the tradition but then as Western Medicine would laugh they say little more. Western theoretical physicists would gawp in wonder but that’s the disconnect of western science for you.

    PhD research takes 3-5 years on average, but the basic training for say Soto School Zen is a minimum of 10 years.

    In Japan in Zen to preserve a dying tradition after WWII the Japanese created a whole generation of American Zen Roshis, enlightened masters, who were authorized to pass on the and therefore preserve the tradition. Now they regret. They passed on meaningless form and institutionalized sex abuse. Though even from a dead tree sometimes blossoms may bloom.

    Japan is now what New York will be in the future, overcrowded overworked fascinated by technology and bereft of any spiritual or earthly connection to Japan except of course among underground Japanese Fascists.

    I have time enough. True seekers always find each other. But we learn nothing from polite conversation and reading intellectual digestion. It is only in the mess of community life, in the rubbing of ego upon ego, that true belief, true culture is nurtured. Culture is what sticks to your shoe when you return home in the evening.

    Young people want IT skills, English Language Medium teaching and a Green Card. If the Divine has given them that desire then we have no right to obstruct them. it is for those who believe they are inspired to inspire others. If you know how to dance then dance. I am prophesying that you will fail. But if you dance dwelling on the fruits of success then you aren’t dancing.

    All I have for now is a DVD with Bimbavati Devi. And I probably have Rabindranath Tagore to thank even for that little exposure. The real work for the children of the Gods begins not when we agree but when we disagree violently about what is good evil truth and falsehood. At those times I was commended to put down my belief embrace the stranger’s until it fitted better than my own skin and then to come back. But you can come back to where you began. Hence I am an aberration.

    I have more faith in the dance which I do not know than in all the human rights agitation of which I am aware and sometimes practise. And were the world to end in ten minutes I would just have time to plant another apple tree.

  5. Thank you Mr Coutinho for your thought provoking words . I wish to request you to please continue with your contribution , but I strongly believe your words will allow a lot of ignorant and naive population to start introspecting about our own views and thoughts .

    I am pretty sure you won’t be suprise to see some quite strong / blunt ideas , especially if its from people who have live in a very artificial world , isolated ( not protected ) by RAP , dehumanise by AFSPA , entertain by endless bollywood songs etc

    With regards to the article , I am sorry but it is quite sad and alarming that one of our most recognised columnist has quite a very minimal idea about some of the most important aspect of our culture . things that have beocme inherent part of our life and civilisation , attributes that have become to identity who are the meiteis .

    The Meitei jagoi or dance isn’t literally a dance which most of us are aware. to the meieis , the dance is a part of our worship and devotion to our God and goddesses ( Lai-Haraoba ) . all the expression , all the rhythms , the movements is part of a rituals which we Meiteis have become to associate ofr hundreds of years.

    it is as such why the maibis or anyone during the Jagoi are as such , worshipping . ( does the author ever make faces or gyrates into la-vida loca trance while worshipping Lainingthou Sanamahi ?) and it is the same reason why the ‘dancer’ have this calm features on thier faces during the jagoi.
    it is the same why there is no random jerky movements or kicking out movements of the legs and foot , during the dance .

    the dance signifies worshipping , devotion and respect for the One, the Lainingthou . any random jerky movements of the limbs , any giggly facial expression are considered unrespectful and as such won’t be found in the meitei jagois.

    the rhythmic , smooth movements of the dancer signifies the cycle of life , the energy of the universe etc

    this is quite unlike some of the dance forms of india , where most of them are based on dev-dasis ( temple prostitute) dancing to please the intoxicated kings , nobles , brahmans etc during such dance form you would find the ‘unrepressed’ facial expression and movements of the dancer , which seeks to get attention of the audience.

    Meitei jagoi isn’t about pleasing the audience , but a part of our act of worship .

    I sincerely hope in the next few decades , we the Meitei ourselves would have the strength and the wisdom to understand our culture , our heritage , our philosophy , so that we don’t continue to insult our culture unknowingly .

    It would have taken the author just a couple of chats with the right person to have all these information , before writing this article which can be very misleading to the readers .

    I am not sure , but a word of apology to those Meitei Ipa , Ipus , Ema , Ebens etc who have nurtured the Meitei Jagoi for centuries, would be a good start.

    it is also worth noting that here are many among our own Meiteis and many other Indians who are slowly corroding the ‘soul’ the essence of our meitei jagoi , by spreading lies tha it originated from the bharatanatyam and other devdasi associated dances , as part of building the great Hindustani Nationalism . It is sad but it seems many of our so called educated section seems to want that , no mater how wrong , and how much of injustice it is to the Meitei civilisation.


  6. If you can recommend where I can see either old Manipuri films, or recommend any Manipuri novel in English translation I shall research further. I read in a small circulation literary magazine that current Manipuri Theatre is highly regarded I have never lived anywhere in India among people who had any interest in the arts and I have never had the opportunity to see a modern Manipuri Play. A DVD would be a start if one existed.

    Stiff upper lip used to define the British. Have you ever seen Brief Encounter the original version. On one level two strangers meet at a train station and talk. The incidental music is Rachmaninof (forgive spelling) and there is more passion brewing, the intensity comes from the restraint. The difference between two americans having a slanging match with colourful expletives, and the smoldering anger of two gentlemen that you know must one day lead to sex death and tragic regret. The Twilight Samurai shows Japanese culture as very similar to the British.

    Women and children don’t exist in India. Certainly in villages first thing to happen when there was a visit by strangers was all the women were rounded up and went to a separate hut, semi-purdah they call it. But they were Lambadi tribals. Usually experts argue that North-Eastern women especially Manipuri are much more independent when compared to northern Indians.

    Traditional Classical Ballet does not encourage emoting with the eyes, there is a whole mime language for traditional ballet. I believe Rudolf Steiner worked on something similar, that you can let your whole body express affect.

    But then there is a theory on how beliefs become established. Maybe you had bad experiences with Manipuri dance and poor teachers. And god love them maybe your family and growing up experiences could have been more affectionate. The belief becomes entrenched when you are forced to defend it. I don’t know enough to say why you were told not to emote with your eyes. Maybe the eyes of a Manipuri woman once bewitched Alexander the Great, the King of Kings. Maybe it’s part of an ancient SALT treaty. I don’t think Sharmila was trying to bewitch anyone with her eyes.

    My tradition yep the men did the work earned money and then at a social gathering they sat drinking quietly while all the women gathered in the kitchen had loud full and frank discussions and made all the decisions. If you could send me something or a bookshop contact details which would send me any research material in English, or even a decent book to learn Meteiion, then I’ll get back to you once I know more.

  7. my only issue is on the performer not beinga llowed to have a connect with the eyes while performing..that when I am to take to Manipuri dance, my eyes should be not emotive..that I find symptomatic of the fact that we as a society are very repressed..much like the stiff upper-lip of the British..I am not questioning dance movements..I am only particular about why we should not emote with eyes (not as part of the dance but as a person while dancing)..if you take a look at old manipuri films or read manipuri literature, you will also see similarities there..people do not communicate..feelings and emotions are supposed to be read from gestures or actions…one gets a bit stiffled and social gatherings, women and young people are not supposed to speak..the war zone bit gets added in contemporary times too but I am also takling of things and practices that exist apart from that too.

  8. There is something odd about Manipur society but I would suggest it has more to do with it’s status as disturbed area, suspension of the constitution and massive militarization. If you grow up in a warzone then paranoia and fear become normalcy not healthy human communication. I can see how you use Manipuri dance as metaphor but if I may try once more to defend the art form.

    On the values of Dance, these vary considerably. In Irish Dance nothing above the waist moves. It produces virtuouso footwork. Even within a specific dance form if you compare Russian style to English School standard classical ballet. The English keep the torso rigid, the Russians tend to twist are more snakelike. The values of both are to create maximum extension via the limbs, to appear to float, defy gravity.

    In terms of connection with the audience. That’s something about the dance presence of the artistes. Old Sadlers Wells was one of the smallest dance hall’s in London it still seated over 2000. The Royal Albert Hall theatre in the round with the pit removed, takes over twenty thousand. No one is going to notice your eyes that much. Even in small dance halls lots of paint grease, some dance forms use masks.

    People change by becoming who they are not by trying to copy what they are not. A lot of the problems of Manipur society are not intrapsychic. People are growing up in a war zone. I would argue work with and enhance what is there. So Manipuri dance starts from the feet, it is solidly grounded in the earth. It picks up and plays with energies that derive from the soil the rain the depths of the world. It has therefore the opportunity to light up depths. It could make dance forms that rely heavily on smiles and teeth look superficial in comparison because its communication would be deep speaking unto deep.

    A discussion here would be good. For this there needs to be more self-awareness. I might be completely wrong about Manipuri Dance. And maybe you are right. Maybe it’s a reflection of a stilted and repressed culture. I have seen only a few examples of Manipuri dance and that on DVD. There are 2.5 million Manipuris who might have something to contribute, but without the self-awareness, and with the paranoia bred into a militarized securitized state no one else will say anything meaningful.

  9. Perhaps the disconnect comes from not being taught Manipuri dance effectively rather than Manipuri dance not relying on facial expression. So when you ask the Martial Artist about what appears to be a lack of toughness, though in eastern martials they tend to speak of yin and yang soft and hard. And there’s the problem already those who know do not speak those who speak do not know. The martial artist didn’t answer your question he showed you he didn’t tell you. He didn’t tell you because you would find him inarticulate and it’s not that simple. Me on the other hand I am happy to oversimplify to produce a cogent persuasive thesis which is utter nonsense. I hope it helps.

    If I may shock you. The hand movements are unimportant. They are the final outcome in spinning twists and turns that should have begun far lower down. Next time you watch a classical dance retrace the movement at least to the waist.. The whole body takes part in the dance and the hand movements are merely the tail end of a whip. The disconnect occurs because you were taught hand movements as if they were separate from the rest of your body. And I am guessing you were taught that because you can teach hand movements to people who live in their heads very quickly but it would take several years to retrain them to treat their entire body as one integral being. To feel rather than to pose.

    Therapy again relies on returning to body wisdom and bypassing analysis. But that’s a whole other thing.

    I wonder how all this connects with Irom Sharmila. Your mistake with martial arts is in thinking macho movements are tough. You mistake bluster and bluff for real power. A martial artist in soft style should easily be able to throw you several feet off the ground with what appears to be a gentle flick of her hands, but that would be because you did not recognize the qi flow.

    But now it begins to sound too strange. Irom Sharmila the quiet ignorant Metei woman will bring an end to the black law. Yin and Yang are not about overt toughness or even grace. They are about connecting to something deeper and allowing that energy to flow and direct action. They call it Mushin in Zen. Now if some extortionist shoots me in the kneecap then I’ll bleed. I am not suggesting there is an easy way out of the maze of violence but that there is a way.

    You have never danced by the way. You came closest when you observed the dance therapy training. You have to lose yourself to find yourself in dance. Stop thinking.

    Some people can look at Irom Sharmila and really not see her. Forget the hands. Oh but I like the article. It made me think of her and how she must have grown up.

    • Dear Desmond,
      many thanks for reading the piece above and then for beginning a discussion. since the newspaper in which my sunday column (footnotes from a diary) also has its own web site, I hardly check this one..but I am glad I did today:)
      what I am rambling about in this piece is not so much the technicality of dance movements but the fact that we in Manipur live in a very repressed society: in terms of social, cultural, familial and also emtional spheres..the lack of facial emoting and eye contact with audiences..I have not even gone any further into what comprises dance therapy since I have not undergone it..


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