Veteran dancers Astad Deboo and Anita Ratnam reveal their fitness mantras
For dancer-choreographers Astad Deboo and Anita Ratnam, crossing the 70 and 60-year mark has been as graceful as their moves. The artistes reveal their fitness mantras that keep them going in a physically demanding career
Astad Deboo, 70
A remarkably versatile repertoire is what defines Padma Shri recipient Astad Deboo’s career spanning over five decades. The dancer-choreographer, who began his training in kathak at the tender age of six, found his calling in contemporary dance in his twenties. And to perfect the art, he trained in institutes of international repute, including learning Martha Graham’s modern dance technique. He returned to India and learnt kathakali, and his unique style paved the way for collaborations with renowned artistes like Pina Bausch and Pink Floyd. He even choreographed Bolshoi Theatre’s ace ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. All these years of strenuous performances haven’t deterred him from continuing to push his limits. In fact, hour-long performances are still the norm for Deboo, who turns 71 this July.
A daily workout of 90 minutes, done at home without a trainer, is Deboo’s fitness routine for five days a week. "As my work is all about control and flexibility, I practise yoga aasanas and Tai chi. This is something I have developed for myself, based on what I feel I need to do to keep my body fit," he shares. Deboo also likes to walk as much as he can, often covering a considerable distance, from his Girgaum Chowpatty residence to Nariman Point or Worli Sea Face, and back, for instance. Swimming is another activity that he enjoys, while building stamina remains one of his key focus areas.
Though careful about avoiding fried food and red meat, Deboo prefers everything else in moderation. "Over the years, my cartilage has [suffered damage], so I need to take glucosamine tablets. But other than that and Vitamin C, I try to ensure that all nutritional requirements are met with food intake," he says.
On the day of performance
This is the day when Deboo stays on a liquid diet. The performance follows rehearsal and warm up. However, a performance in Deboo’s profession is often preceded by extensive travelling. "During long flights, I get up and walk in the aisle, while for domestic travelling, I get some movement after the flight," Deboo says, as he prepares to leave for a tour of Kolkata, Delhi and Thrissur the next day, only to return to Mumbai briefly and leave again for Auroville, all packed into the month of March.
The final word
Listening to his body is something Deboo considers important. "If I feel tired, I do not exert myself because it’s also necessary to rest the body," he says, adding, "As one gets on with age, you figure out what’s best. At the same time, I don’t want to damage my body. Better to be safe than sorry."
Anita Ratnam, 63
With over 1,300 performances in 37 countries to her credit, few artistes have embraced the natural phenomenon of ageing as elegantly as Anita Ratnam. The accomplished Chennai-based dancer, choreographer and scholar has her roots in Bharatanatyam, while she has also diversified her classical training in mohiniattam and kathakali. Known for her contemporary approach to classical dance forms, she has created a unique dance style called Neo Bharatam, which is suited for a mature body, and celebrates age and the experience that comes with it. "I wonder why dancers, when they mature, want to look young," the award-winning artiste had once told this writer.
Ratnam begins her day with kapalbhati, a yogic body-cleansing technique, and then moves to a cardio workout, and weight training under the guidance of a professional. This is followed by an hour of yoga, while she also does pilates twice a week. "Yoga and pilates don’t burn calories, but are important for strengthening muscles and joints," she says. She also advises artistes to go beyond the set of muscles that their dance form actively involves, and adds that swimming is a great exercise for all dancers.
Dancers, Ratnam believes, must continually watch what they eat and not just work towards a performance. "At the same time, a strenuous rehearsal needs good carbohydrates. We need to ask what carbs we are cutting off from our diet," she says, adding that unpolished rice, bajra, dalia and quinoa are a part of her regular diet. Intermittent fasting has proved to be beneficial for her, too. Ratnam enjoys sipping on a variety of juices made with fruits, vegetables, or a combination of the two, sans sugar. "In fact, I add the pulp that remains to oats soaked in curd with some seasoning, and the mixture makes some yummy dosas," she shares, adding, "Food for me is a very sensory experience. So, whatever I eat has to look and taste good."
On the day of performance
Much like Deboo, Ratnam’s diet on the day she goes on the stage is a largely liquid one. Apart from a serving of unpolished rice at around 11 am, she sips on watery lassi and a protein drink made of almond milk or organic whey and chia seeds. "During performance, I take sips of warm water stirred with Himalayan salt, to replenish the electrolytes lost," she says. For Indian classical dancers, the stomping of feet can get painful by the end of a performance. "Rubbing ice on your soles and even the back of your neck is very helpful," she says. On a flight, she prefers to skip all solid food as it helps her overcome jet lag faster.
The final word
"A female dancer goes through a lot. Motherhood and menopause are physically demanding milestones, and being a mother or a daughter-in-law brings expectations with it. Besides, pursuing a career in dance is still about battling prejudices, so it takes a psychological toll, especially when you are also fulfilling other responsibilities," she says, pointing to the fact that it’s important to have one’s moments and not feel martyred. "I have had to become gentler with my body. It’s not about competing, but optimising," she says. "Fitness is different from fatness and thinness; it is a long-term commitment."
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