My Escape into Classical Indian Dance: How I learned to make the most of it through YoungArts

Tuesday Oct 11th, 2016

Blog > My Escape into Classical Indian Dance: How I learned to make the most of it through YoungArts

By Preethi Ramaprasad

It has been ten years since I got off an airplane, beckoned by the stunning palm trees at the Miami airport, as my fellow YoungArts colleagues flooded out wearing matching t-shirts with bright eyes.  I still remember my friend, a musician scholarship recipient, who looked at my huge suitcase (which he didn’t understand was filled with classical Indian dance wear), and said “We’re only here for a week, you know.”  By the end of the week, he knew, too! 
The YoungArts retreat was the perfect way for all of us to share new experiences and learn about other arts.  I was a 2006 winner in World Dance for Classical Indian Dance.  Since I was 6 years old, I have traveled to India during my breaks from school to learn a dance form called “Bharatanatyam” from my guru in Chennai, which is in the Southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent.  I always viewed my trips to India as an escape completely devoted to the arts.  Bharatanatyam is an ancient form of dance.  With colorful, rich costumes and jewelry, it is believed to have been danced by the celestial beings in Hinduism, passed down through tradition to dancers today. It was once part of temple rituals to have dancers perform in these sprawling architectural wonders across India.  Today, Bharatanatyam remains one of the most versatile of the classical Indian dance forms.  It combines beautiful musicality, rhythmic movements, fantastic physical feats, poignant emotions, and theatrics in one fine art.  The themes that contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers explore today vary from mythological contexts, to themes of love, to completely abstract ideas. 

After years of training abroad, I found my time in Miami was an escape from reality as well. The best performers in many fields became our master teachers.  We saw performances and exhibitions of extraordinarily young talented artists who were from around the country.  I remember watching my friends perform Korean drum, Native American jingle, Irish step, contemporary, and ballet dancing and comparing my sense of grace, rhythm and emotiveness to all of these performances. From Irish step and ballet, I learned how much farther I wanted to go to strengthen my limbs.  From contemporary dance I learned that emotiveness could be physical, not just in one’s face.  From African dance, I learned about how instinctive rhythm could be if I allowed it to be.  From the Jazz musicians, I learned about how to better approach improvisation in my own art. 

The YoungArts format has changed considerably as far as I know in the last decade.  But I think one major thing that has remained the same has been the immense exchange of support that all the artists lend each other; with numerous showcases (dance parties!) and discussions with artists young and experienced. In our final discussion, Mikhail Baryshnikov joined us.  We spoke about where we saw ourselves in ten years.  It was a turning point in my life, to see my peers aspiring to Juilliard and beyond.  Many classical Indian dancers learn but often don’t pursue the arts as a career.  My perspective on dance changed that day and I have never looked back. 
This experience at YoungArts set the stage to enhance my artistry in the long run but melding Bharatanatyam with other art forms that I love.  It is what led me to follow Bill T. Jones in college, to “lament” with Martha Graham, and to understand why I love the music of Ms. Lauryn Hill as much as I do.  I believe all of these contribute to my dance.  We live in an age where understanding other cultures and arts is vital to our growth.  Ten years later, I realize how much my ancient dance form is forever evolving and current.