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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Parallel play: the mothers bonding with their children via dance

Discover an engaging way for mothers to bond with their children, through dance.
Mothers and daughters dance at Ductac at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Delores Johnson / The National
Mothers and daughters dance at Ductac at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Delores Johnson / The National

The lights come up in the ­Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre (Ductac) at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, and 30 young dancers come onto the stage for the annual ­Sharmila Dance ­Extravaganza. The harmonies of Sam Smith float into the risers. As the dancers start to move, their fathers, aunts and siblings look on in appreciative wonder. Many of their mothers, however, are counting out eights, anticipating the choreography to come, because they know it in their bones.

These mothers have been in class with their daughters, and have learnt the same sequences happening on stage. From her seat, a mother like this can feel the crank of her daughter’s hip in her own when a high kick is executed. Her neck registers the snap as her daughter spots a turn. She sighs in empathetic frustration when her girl hits an accent one beat too late.

In many cases, it’s the child who has encouraged her mother to start dance, and not the other way around. ­Mayalen Fernandez followed the lead of her daughter, Sofia, who dances with Sharmila Kamte, who runs the classes, every day after school and on Saturdays. Last year, when her mother took a year off from teaching maths, ­Sofia encouraged her to try the adult class. “I know my mum has always wanted to dance,” says Sofia. A symbiotic relationship developed, with mother and daughter glimpsing something familiar and reassuring in the other as they pursued the same goal. “Dance is an extra connecting point. It’s almost like therapy for me. I’m now healing myself through dance,” says Fernandez.

When Sencha Chung from South ­Korea returned to Kamte’s classes recently, she demonstrated a new combination for her two pre-teen daughters at home. They were surprised at how well she had picked it up. “Mummy, you’re really good,” her daughters Chloe and Jade de Groot told her.

For Mena MacLean, the shared experience is a catalyst for conversation at dinner with her daughters Emma and Neela. Because she attends class herself, as well as driving her daughters to class five days per week, she knows not only all the moves, but also all the players. When her daughters bring up their dance friends and teacher, they know their mother will “get it”. “It keeps us connected,” MacLean says, adding that the music chosen for the dances becomes another point of bonding.

It works the other way, too. Renata Roy was a dancer in her youth and used to perform. When her daughters Ria and Kara were younger, she would bring them to class and sit them in a corner. They used to doze off or complain of boredom. When they turned 7, they joined in, and there were no more complaints. “They just fell in love. Year after year, they became better.”

Kamte’s classes are filled with mother-daughter (and mother-son) pairs of both patterns: a mother who shared her passion for dancing with her child, or a child who invited her mother to give it a try.

In the first scenario, the mother has to tread lightly if she wants her offspring to fully engage; too much pressure can lead to the child’s rejection. In the second, the mother enters the arena with admiration for her child and trepidation for herself, and their roles temporarily reverse: the daughters enjoy a rare opportunity to encourage their tentative mothers.

The beating heart behind the Dance Extravaganza is an unassuming but spacious studio with a wooden floor and a wall of mirrors, in a far corner of the theatre. On a Saturday night, it’s filled with girls and boys and their mothers learning jazz, contemporary and hip-hop moves in a class called Live Dance. Plaid shirts and clunky trainers are the unofficial uniform. Instead of counting, which Kamte avoids, she hits a movement with a “huh” or an “ugh”. The dancers do push-ups and planks, double turns and the latest music-video gestures. “You have to be real; express yourself sincerely,” Kamte coaches. Her class helps to perceive tiny ­distinctions in movement and incorporate them bodily.

Kamte trained in New Delhi and the United Kingdom, and has performed in concerts, commercials and music videos all over the world. Her performing phase folded into teaching, as it does for so many dancers, when she took over a class at the Jumeirah Beach Club in the late 1990s. Then it took on a life of its own. “I’m here to see these kids through,” Kamte says.

Just as a mother knows the moods of her child by their appetite or how much time they are spending in their room, Kamte perceives what her students are going through by the way they dance, circumventing their words. “I can see it in front of me,” she says. “Their dancing starts to change.” Teenage talk is mostly an exercise in obfuscation, but dance has a way of cutting to the core.

Many of the mothers interviewed expressed their appreciation for the extra hand Kamte offers in shepherding their children through adolescence. Kamte’s classes are infused with lessons in perseverance and self-respect. “I can tell my kids about priorities at home – family first, then school, then dance – but when Kamte says it, it’s as if they’re hearing it for the first time,” MacLean recalls.

The psycho-social theorist Erik ­Erikson was the first to characterise the ages of 12 to 18 as a stage when we establish our identities. To do this, a young woman has to pull away from her mother in what is usually a painful process, full of slammed doors, rolled eyes and tears. But if it doesn’t happen, the girl risks being stuck in her mother’s shadow. The same holds true when mother and daughter pursue the same hobby: if the engagement is too close, it puts the relationship at risk.

At one stage, Kamte organised a show with mothers and daughters on stage together. This led to “too much friction”. Such close performance quarters opened the door for the mothers to turn into the kind of dance mums we see on reality shows; mums who want their daughters centre stage, and micromanage every detail of make-up, costume and limelight.

The mother-daughter dance duet only works, it seems, when it runs on parallel tracks. You don’t dance with your mother, but next to her – preferably without eye contact. “OK, Mum, I’ll help you a little,” MacLean’s daughter ­conceded when asked. For Fernandez and Sofia, Friday morning dances in the living room came to an abrupt halt when they started studying more seriously. When my own dancing mother tried to review ballet positions with me when I was 8, the lesson quickly dissolved into frustrated tears.

But having your own mother in your dance class, learning the same combinations you do, is most of all a safe harbour. As Kamte’s charges progress in their dance skills, so do the stakes. Who will be tapped for the invitation-only class? Who will be chosen for the professional company? When the waters get rough, your mother gets it. The tension. The frustration. The sense of ­soaring.

When the curtain falls on the ­Sharmila Dance Extravaganza, the rest of the family rushes in for hugs and congratulations, but the mother who dances stands back, biding her time to discuss the finer points. Did her daughter clear the double turn? Did she hit the fastest beats on time? Together they parse the finer details, because they share a common language whose elements are as much movement as words.

Classes for all ages are held throughout the week at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, and cost Dh65. For more information, visit www.sharmiladance.com.

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