Book Review | A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

A Time to Dance Review Paige's PagesTITLE: A Time to Dance
AUTHOR
: Padma Venkatraman
PUBLISHER
: Nancy Paulsen Books
RELEASE DATE
: May 1, 2014
GENRE
: Young Adult Fiction
PAGE COUNT
: 320


A Time to Dance is unlike any other book I’ve read.  Delivered in flowing verse, Venkatraman combines a lovingly detailed representation of disability with sumptuous insights to her own culture and religion.  The result is a story for all ages that celebrates the beauty in all things.  Its uplifting message has resonated with me long after reading, and impacted my perspectives on disability and religion.  

Set in present-day India, teenaged Veda dreams of becoming a successful Bharantanatyam dancer.  After the biggest performance of her career, Veda is in a horrific car accident that leaves her a below-knee amputee.  Devastated, she must relearn how to dance, and completely rebuild her relationship with her body and her religion.

“Pain under control?” they ask.

As a dancer, how carefully I mastered
the mechanics of my body –
learning to bear just enough pain
so I could wear it proudly, like a badge of honour.

I want to tell the nurses no scale can measure
the pain of my dreams
dancing
beyond reach – page 46

I instantly felt kinship with Veda.  She is a self-aware young woman who manages to still find wonderment in the universe while battling self-doubt.  She has a strong relationship with her grandmother (her Paati), and her best friend, Chandra.  The girls’ dialogue matches their age, and is universally relatable regardless of nationality.

Although Veda meets a romantic interest, I felt that Govinda’s primary impact on Veda is to inspire her during her self-discovery journey.  The romance definitely does not “save” or validate her, so her own inner strength and connection to religion remains central to her character arc.

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A Novel in Verse

A Time to Dance is divided into stanzas and formatted as free verse poetry.  This gives the writing rhythm and flow, mirroring the way Veda hears music in nature and feels it move through her body.  I love how this forced me to pay greater attention to the structure and flow of sentences and scenes.  Venkatraman’s choice to write in verse encourages us to tune in – tune in to music, tune in to loved ones, tune in to God’s presence.

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Not “Disabled” but “Differently Abled”

The representation of disability in A Time to Dance gave me insight into many challenges an amputee faces on a daily basis.  This made me mindful of obstacles that I would otherwise be blind to.

When designing her prosthesis, Veda’s doctor helps her to see herself as “differently abled” instead of “disabled” – reframing the language around disability to encompass an individual’s altered yet valid way of navigating life.  “Differently abled” is the perfect descriptor for Veda.  Losing her leg certainly creates challenges, but it doesn’t prevent her from living life to the fullest – in fact, being differently abled unlocks discoveries along the path to building new and more meaningful relationships with her body, her values, and her spirituality.

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Discovering God In Dance

A Time to Dance gives insight into Veda’s religion as she rebuilds her relationship with God through dance.   Because I personally don’t subscribe to organised religion, I usually struggle to empathise with other people’s religious convictions.  However, A Time to Dance allowed me to understand the potential joy of having a relationship with God.  Veda’s journey to discovering what her spirituality means to her personally is a religious experience I found truly beautiful.

The frequent references to Veda’s relationship to God in the past and the present gave me the opportunity to learn how her religion impacts her worldview positively – touching every aspect of her life, from the love she receives from her Paati, to the symbolism embedded in every step she dances.  Instead of being affronted by religious dogma, I witnessed how Veda’s God manifests in fleeting insights and moments of being in love with her world.  Regardless of your religious views, A Time to Dance is a liberating and peaceful representation of spirituality that opened me up to beliefs beyond my own.

A light drizzle wets the earth.  Raindrops
split sunlight into bands of separate colour.
White light – one containing myriad others –
I understand.
Water-one substance with many forms-I can feel.
God-one yet infinite in form-I can’t understand

“When I dance,” Govinda says,
“or when I’m in a beautiful place,
I feel I’m in the presence of something
large and good.
It doesn’t give me answers.  But I don’t need them.
For me that feeling
of wonder, of awe, of mystery,
of being in touch with something larger,
is as close as God comes – page 240

This book would be amazing to teach in high school.  I love how A Time to Dance represents a young woman finding strength and power in her body, and reframes notions of disability and religion.  This book is insightful, beautifully written, and unforgettable.

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