"Every little brown girl does at least a bit of traditional dancing," I say to my friend, laughing at her story of the day she spent dancing before giving it up.
Since I was four, I spent almost every week at dance class learning Bharatanatyam.
As a gay Sri Lankan woman growing up in Australia, the element of performance has had so much more relevance in my life than just dancing on stage.
Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest forms of classical dance in South Asia, it’s known for the technicality, strength and telling incredible stories through the art form. Just like my mum learned to dance in a studio in Sri Lanka, I learned from my great-aunt in her Western Sydney garage.
I attended class week after week – learning to pound my feet on the concrete floor until the soles were covered in whitish dust and my shalwar had stuck to my back with sweat.
Our productions were chaos - complex makeup, jewellery and costume, hours of training, gossiping mums, and mishaps galore - but it was always incredibly rewarding.
I didn’t realise I was a minority until around 8 years old. My family moved from Western Sydney to the Hills area and with that I moved from a diverse public school to one where I was the only brown face in my class. I learned that white people were different and many girls took that difference to heart when deciding whom to invite to birthday parties. In all that exclusion, it was in my weekly Bharatanatyam class that I returned to an accepting community. Where people didn’t ask weird questions about where I’m from and we danced to music written for us from the other side of the world.
Soon I believed that being ‘cultural’ was for losers and cool kids assimilated to be ‘real Australians’. While year after year I performed Bharatanatyam on stage in a celebration of my culture, my true performance was the faux whiteness that I demonstrated as I tried to fit in with my peers. Regardless of my efforts, when Saturday rolled around, all the white girls headed to netball and I to dance class.
When we’d go on Coles trips after dance class, I would refuse to go into the store as I’d be wearing my shalwar. The harsh lights of the supermarket felt akin to those on stage, the cracks in my performance of white person would show too clearly through my clothes. After begging and crying my mum would let me and my sister stay in the car, crouching on the floor until she returned.
As I grew older I worked hard to move through the stages of Bharthanatyam. Alarippu (the most basic dance) became second nature and I continued through Jathiswaram, Padam and more. I learned that doing Bharthanatyam is so much more than just the steps, most of the time you are telling a story.
I especially loved the romance. Our dance school was all women so we would play both men and women in the story. So during practice my teacher would say things like ‘pretend the boy you like is asking for your phone number’, and my friends and I would dissolve into fits of giggles that certainly marred the coy flirtation we were supposed to be illustrating.
During practice I became transfixed watching the way two women – one dressed as a man – would fall in love and dance together. I couldn’t take my eyes off the older girls who played the lead roles. Soon I found that acting in love with a woman, while filled with teenaged awkwardness, felt natural.
I now know my admiration for the older girls resembled the feelings of a crush and the butterflies I got watching romance scenes weren’t really nerves.
When I watched the dramatic love story of Rama and Seetha from ‘Ramayanam’ - played by two women - it was the closest thing to women loving women representation I would get.
For most of my dancing life I would be cast in ‘male’ roles. I always felt confident dancing as a man. Dancing as a man was the depiction of power, strength and even arrogance that I immensely enjoyed. Blurring the lines of gender was so fulfilling.
The life of a teenager, especially a closeted one, is filled with confusion – dance was one thing that always made sense.
I stopped Bharatanatyam at 18 because of the HSC, and it was shortly after that when I really came to terms with my sexuality. Homophobia in the Tamil community and being a racial minority in the Aussie LGBTQ+ community, can cause a profound loneliness.
However, dancing helps me feel less alone. Maybe because when I’m performing, it’s one of the few times that I’m not actually ‘performing’ at all.
Madhuraa Prakash is a queer Tamil woman who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia. She is currently studying law at USYD while spending time on activism work. She also performs as a drag king under the name 'Manish Interest' and commonly dances Bharathanatyam in her act. She can be found on Instagram at @madhuraasp and Twitter at @mads_sp.
This story was originally entered in the 2020 SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition and forms part of a special collection curated for Mardi Gras celebrating LGBTIQA+ writers and stories.
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