Young dancers in colorful costume tap their bare feet across the ground along with the deep boom of the drums in celebration of Bharatanatyam, a south Indian classical dance that is bringing history into the spotlight.
Since 2007, Rachita Nambiar has been running Rasika School of Dance, where she brings to life the rich culture in which she was raised. Thanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Nambiar and her students soon will bring a unique production to the region to help share a form of dance that is gaining popularity.
“I never thought when I started teaching that it would turn into what it is today,” Nambiar said. “I’m very proud of what it’s become.”
“Chakram, the Wheel of Emotions” will feature some of the 70 children and adult students who attend the dance school. The production is set for Aug. 22 at a venue yet to be determined.
The show follows the classic dance tradition found in Nambiar’s native home in south India. It follows the 10 emotions found in the human race, including pride, happiness, fear, anger and wonder. For those who grew up in India or with a family heritage rooted in India, the tale of Chakram is one passed down through the generations.
It follows a king from his birth, touching on the many gods and goddesses of Indian culture and showing that, despite the range of emotions that humans possess, we can all find peace, Nambiar said.
As the first Asian dance school in the Harrisburg area to receive the Project Stream grant, Nambiar is excited to see something so dear to her gain such recognition, she said. Even with a master’s degree in biochemistry, she has chosen the instruction of Bharatanatyam as her profession.
“It’s really my passion,” she said. “I started with two students when I first opened the school.”
While it’s been nearly 15 years since Nambiar was in south India, where she grew up until she married and moved to the United States, she’s looking forward to the chance to revisit in December, where she’ll learn more about the dance and bring it back to her students.
“The unique thing about this form of dance is that it uses so much expression to tell the stories of the gods and goddesses of India,” Nambiar said. “So much of it is tied into the prayers and scriptures that are important in our culture.”
Anoushka Nambiar, the 12-year-old daughter of the seasoned teacher, has been following her mother in the traditional dances since she was about 4. Today, with a year left before she’ll graduate from the program, she’s helping teach younger students.
“I love how it’s been around for thousands of years, and I get to learn it now,” Anoushka said. “A lot of my American friends love watching it, so I feel like I can share something special with them.”
Nambiar has been teaching her students how to incorporate Bharatanatyam by taking American folk tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” and telling the story through the dance.
Because students already know the characters and understand the story, they find it very easy to express different emotions, Nambiar said.
Anoushka said she used to get nervous performing in front of other people, but she has gained a new confidence in practicing the dance. She considers herself pretty athletic and said the dances taught her stamina.
“A lot of it comes with practice,” she said. “With the expressions, I had to learn to practice in front of the mirror to know I was getting it right. It’s tough for me to do simple emotions, like anger. Some are more natural than others.”
Ratna Ramaraju, 14, has been taking lessons for about seven years. As a young child, she discovered an interest in it and begged her mom to enroll her in a class.
“It’s so much more than dance,” she said. “Growing up here, I didn’t have the chance to learn about the gods and goddesses represented in Indian culture. It’s nice because it takes that and mixes it with American culture to create beautiful dances.”
While the lessons can be difficult at first, Ratna said, students who learn to enjoy themselves will find it’s a fun experience.
For Nambiar, spreading the joy of dance is one of her greatest missions. She often goes to Hershey Medical Center to participate in a program called “Center Stage,” where dances are performed as part of therapy for patients.
“I love being in the children’s ward because you see them come out of their rooms when nothing else seemed to make them feel better,” Nambiar said. “I think I have the best profession because my passion is my profession. It’s not just a dance form. It’s a way to improve life.”
Rasika School of Dance holds classes in several locations in the Harrisburg area. For more information, visit www.rasikadance.com, call 717-418-5212 or visit their Facebook page: Rasika School of Dance.