Shiva's association with dance and art is well known. He is also known as the
Lord of Dance (Nataraja). Many statues of him are available in this form. In the
religious texts he is also described as the one who performs a particular type of
dance called tandava, whenever he is disturbed or angry (tandavamurthi) or when
the time for the end of the world comes. When he is in a peaceful mode, he said
to perform more pleasant dance known as Lasya, displaying his feminine side. Both
the dance forms denote the creative and destructive aspects of our creation and
Siva being the Lord of all, according the Saivism, He performs actions according
to the needs of the occasion.
The dance form of Nataraja is known as ananda tandava or the dance of bliss. He
is usually shown as performing it under an arch of flame, which signifies his symbolic
association with Agni the fire God and the act of destruction. A cobra uncoils from
his lower right forearm, and the crescent moon and a skull are on his crest.
The upper right hand holds a small, hourglass shaped drum (called ḍamaru in Sanskrit).
It is held with a specific hand gesture (mudra) called ḍamaru-hasta . The drum symbolizes
sound, which in turn stands for life and creation. The upper left hand contains
Agni or fire, which signifies destruction. Thus both the right and left hands show
the opposing aspects of life, namely creation and destruction, under the control
of one Master, namely Shiva. The lower right hand is held in abhaya mudra,
suggesting divine assurance of protection from both evil and ignorance to those
who follow the righteousness of dharma. The lower left hand points towards the raised
foot which signifies upliftment and liberation. The Lord of the Dance places his
left feet upon a dwarf who is described in the scriptures as the demon Apasmara,
who symbolizes ignorance or ego (anava). The right leg is lifted in the air, suggestive
of the particular form of dance in which the Lord is engaged, which is known as
tandava. The surrounding flames represent the manifest Universe. Also, the circle
of fire/flames symbolizes the cycle of transmigration/suffering the ego goes through(endless
births and rebirths, before attaining salvation). The snake swirling around his
waist is kundalini, the Shakti or divine force thought to reside within everything.
The stoic face of Shiva represents his neutrality, thus being in balance.
Although the dance of Nataraja is popularly associated with destruction, it is actually
the dance life, creation and destruction. It is symbolizes movement or dynamism
(chaitanya) which is inherent in all living forms and through whcih life expresses
itself in various forms. It also stands for divine activity which is responsible
for everything that happens in the manifest worlds. God being the Lord of the universe,
manifests the worlds according to His will, enjoys His creation while it lasts and
then destroys them in the end. The fact that Shiva places his feet upon ignorance,
denotes the fact that the dance is not a destructive act in the real sense of the
word, but an act of liberation. God liberates souls by destroying their ignorance.
He also sets them free from the cycle of births and deaths at the end of each timecycle,
whcih lasts for millenniums.
Source: Some information in this article is adapted with necessary changes from
an article on Nataraja from Wikipedia.org