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  • Ainesh Madan

Transformations: my journey as a dancer with a disability

A one year old is left by his parents in the care of their maid. The maid, and her friends, while playing with the boy end up somehow injuring him. At the time, neither parent can figure out why the boy is crying so profusely. Many months later, while bathing his child, the father notices something sticking out at the boy’s right elbow. He takes him to the doctor, who upon getting an X-ray of the injury, tells the father that his child has suffered from a dislocation in his right elbow. If detected immediately, the elbow can just be slotted back in, but at this point it is too late to make any adjustments without surgical maneuvering. The adults decide that it is best for the child to stay with the elbow as is, since it does not seem to be affecting his day-to-day activities.

I don’t remember ever having a right elbow that looks “normal.” For the longest time during my schooling life, my favorite party trick consisted of showing people my left elbow and then alarming them with my right. “This is what a normal elbow looks like, yes?,” I would say, gesturing to my left elbow. “Now, watch this!” Extending my right elbow violently, I would have people reach out and touch the bone sticking out. Responses would vary from intrigue to aversion to outright disgust. I don’t recall feeling any pain as a child; the elbow was not an issue, but simply a quirk. This early phase is what I call “ignoring.”

In college, when dance became my primary discipline, I began to get curious about my elbow. What had earlier been a subject of amusement began to become a subject of direct importance that had consequences on my day-to-day activities. For my anatomy class final thesis, I wrote a paper on “radial head subluxation,” the scientific term for my disability. In my choreography, I began to investigate the links between my elbow’s dislocation and my relocation as an immigrant in the United States. When someone noticed my idiosyncratic elbow in passing and remarked on it being very hyperextended, I would be sure to tell them that it was actually dislocated. I even interviewed my parents about the accident. My research led me to discover the fact that “Nursemaid’s elbow” is a recognised term used to describe the very accident that happened to me as a child. This phase of my life, when I finally began to investigate my disability from a scientific and historical standpoint, is what I call “questioning.”

When I graduated from college, I was desperately in search of community. More than anything, I wanted to dance in a recognized company, obsessed with the idea of “making it in New York City.” However, amidst all the ambition, I made the wise choice of taking yoga classes at a wonderful studio called Katonah Yoga in Chelsea. The founder of the studio, Nevine Michaan, offered me personal guidance and helped me recognize indirect ways of working with my elbow.

“I am not going to do anything to your elbow, but I am going to work with everything around it,” she would say, making adjustments to my back and torso in Downward Dog or Half Lotus.

Finally beginning to recognize that I was different, I enrolled myself to work with Heidi Latsky Dance (HLD), a world-renowned physically-integrated dance company. Between Katonah and HLD, I had some of my most challenging revelations, and made some of my fondest memories while in New York City. I call this phase “accepting.”

For a while after working with HLD, I stopped thinking about my disability on a regular basis. My relationship to dance, at this time, was at its most inconsistent. All I wanted was to stay busy and get recognition for my work. I overworked to compensate for my inadequacies. I constantly burned myself out, and my poor eating habits led to a diagnosis of anorexia with therapy visits and antidepressants.

What really helped me recover, though, was the time I spent with my parents during extended visits to Bangalore. Time away from dance, when I re-learned French, connected deeply with Iyengar Yoga, and travelled, re-ignited my passion for the discipline. This phase helped me recognise how valuable dancing has been in dealing with my issues, and is what I call “experiencing.”

In February 2019, I chose to return to Bangalore for good. It was quite a spontaneous process, although I had considered it for some time. My father’s ill-health, coupled with my own recoveries, led me to the decision to not renew my visa. What was supposed to be a three-month stay turned into a long-term shift.

Less than a year later, I fell upon the work of Frederic Matthias Alexander, which I had briefly studied during my first year in college. In March 2020, I officially enrolled in a course for people who wish to train to teach the Alexander Technique. I have not looked back since.

The work clarified to me the oneness that is fundamental to all sentient beings and how this oneness can be continuously strengthened. Finally, I had an answer! I could not only manage my disability but be empowered by it.

“Think of your arm as something not separate from you,” advised my teachers Béatrice and Robin Simmons numerous times. In all activities, then, I focused on engaging my back, and I started learning to use my left arm for day-to-day activities. It dawned on me that the only sustainable way to deal with my ailments and issues was to work on myself all the time. I finally began to recognise dance as my calling because I began to acknowledge that I had to rely on my legs more so than the average able-bodied male. If my disability was the curse with which I had met when I was one, dance was the super-power I had been gifted with to compensate for the same. This phase, which I consider to be ongoing, is what I call ‘“living.”

My journey with my disability is unique and personal, but perhaps others with similar injuries might relate to my process. Without dance, I might never have found the strength to speak about--let alone be empowered by--what I suffered. Dance has allowed me to find a sense of connection within myself, which I now recognize as fundamental to establishing a connection with others. I am still drawn to virtuosity, spectacle and technical prowess. Dance, however, is essentially the plaster that helps me fill the cracks that I cultivated in previous lives so as to continuously prepare myself for the next one.

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