Aarthi Shankar is a dance teacher with a difference. She talks to Nithya Sivashankar about dance and its therapeutic effects on special children

Aarthi asks Gowtham, “Akka ku Tripathakam vechchu kaamipiya?” Gowtham struggles a bit. However, with help from Aarthi, he succeeds in bending his ring finger. “Mudras such as these are exercises for his fingers; Arai Mandi (a half-sitting posture in Bharatanatyam) is good for his knees and calf muscles,” she explains. Aarthi Shankar is a Bharatanatyam dancer, and her pupils are children with physical and mental disabilities.

We are gathered at an indoor badminton court at Vidya Vikasini Opportunity School, where Aarthi is helping her students get ready for the photo-shoot. Their faces are made up with lipstick and powder. Eleven-year-old Preethi clings to Aarthi. The others mill about her too. She arranges them according to their height, and the 20-odd boys and girls are ready now for their dance class.

“Arai Mandi,” instructs Aarthi. With great effort, the kids bend their knees and keep their spines erect. “Some children you see here suffer from mental retardation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Down's syndrome; some others from physical complaints such as bowed legs and bent fingers,” says Aarthi. She has been volunteering at Vidya Vikasini Opportunity School for about three months now.

Several experiences in her life influenced Aarthi in her decision to teach dance to special children. She had an uncle who had special needs. “As a child, I have seen my mother and grandparents go through a lot, while dealing with my uncle. That experience moved me,” she says. But the turning point came when she was introduced to Rekha Ramachandran, President of the Down Syndrome Association of Tamil Nadu. She volunteered for Rekha's initiative – the Joy of Giving Week. “That was when I came across Rekha's daughter – Babli Ramachandran.” Babli, who has Down's syndrome, regularly performs Bharatanatyam in the country and abroad. “Babli is a disciple of Dr. Ambika Kameshwar of RASA. Ambika Ma'am teaches dance to children with special needs,” says Aarthi. Inspired by this, Aarthi decided to work with Down's syndrome children as part of her project work for her Master's. She worked with the Down's Syndrome Association of Tamil Nadu. She wrote her thesis on the effectiveness of basic Bharatanatyam movements in children with Down's syndrome.

Born and educated in Mettupalayam, 23-year-old Aarthi Shankar has been dancing since she was two years old. She moved to Coimbatore to pursue a bachelor's degree in business management from PSG College of Arts and Science. She also teaches at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. “When I turned 10, I started taking dance lessons from Nalini Prakash, disciple of famed dancer Sudharani Raghupathy. I used to travel to Coonoor every weekend to stay with my guru, and learn dance from her.” After securing a bachelor's degree, Aarthi did her Master's in Bharatanatyam from Madras University.

Aarthi says nothing gives her more joy than seeing how Bharatanatyam helps her pupils. “Even though they are physically ill equipped to dance, they can move their limbs in time to the sollukattu. They have an innate sense of rhythm,” she says. The kids keep time with the thattukali to match Aarthi's “thai thai thai”.

Aarthi invites me to watch as she works with Priya and Das, whose lower limbs are almost immobile. When Aarthi holds Priya by her shoulders and says, “Thai thai,” the little girl's legs automatically start moving up and down. “It has taken me three months to get this response,” beams Aarthi. Three-year-old Das sits on the floor, makes a great effort to move his legs, and does it.

“I try to make dance fun for them. And they, in turn, teach me patience,” she smiles. She asks the kids to pretend they are bears, elephants, deer and peacocks. They love that. Some of them work at getting their mudras right, while the others simply jump around.

It has been an unforgettable day. Just before I leave, Aarthi asks Senthamizhchelvi and Keerthana to perform “Kurai Ondrum Illai” for me. They do. “Unglukku Aarthi Miss pidikkuma?” I ask. Nandini says, “Enakku miss a romba romba pidikkum,” and stretches out her hand. Pragati, Senthamizhchelvi and Preethi imitate her, and stretch out their hands too.