Dance that rings true

Ellicott City woman teaches young girls about their Indian culture and heritage

December 23, 2007|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,Special to the Sun

When Anjali DasSarma's grandmother gave her ankle bells from India, the 8-year-old wanted to know how to dance with them. Her mother, Priya DasSarma of Ellicott City, followed Anjali's lead, switching her from ballet lessons to a class in Indian classical dance.

At a recent class, DasSarma watched her daughter dance in a traditional yellow and blue Punjabi costume. She said the class "has been an experience for me also" because DasSarma did not study Indian dance as a child.

The DasSarmas are one of many Howard County families using dance to teach their children about their Indian heritage. By word of mouth, they find dance teacher Chitra Kumar, who has been teaching Indian folk dance and an ancient form of dance called Kathak for nearly 30 years.

Children "learn, as they're learning the dance, about our culture," Kumar said. "Since they are born here, many of them do not know a lot about the culture" of India. She gives lessons for children and adults at her Ellicott City home, charging about $15 for each hourlong class.

Kathak is a classical dance from northern India and is still widely performed there. The name comes from the Sanskrit word "katha," which means story or storyteller.

In addition to Kathak, Kumar teaches students folk dances from several regions in northern India. Shirin Kapur of Clarksville said, "I like the fact that she mixes classical with a little bit of light dancing," such as folk songs and popular tunes from Indian movies. Her daughter, Resham, has been studying with Kumar for two years.

Beginners learn only leg and foot movements in this disciplined dance form. "First six months, very strongly I work on the feet because there can be no dance unless you learn how to use your feet correctly," Kumar said.

Next, she works solely on hand positions. After these two elements are coordinated, Kumar introduces head movements. Last, dancers learn how to use their eyes. "The eyes speak a lot," and help tell the story of the dance, Kumar said.

Kumar, who is originally from Jaipur, India, learned to dance as a child. "It really appealed to me. It was a beautiful experience learning to dance," she said. But Kumar does more than teach dancing. She also explains the meaning of the songs that students perform, which helps dancers' facial expressions and teaches them Hindu stories and folk tales.

"It helps me learn more [of] the language," said Shriya Dalsania, 11, who attends Patuxent Valley Middle School. She has been studying with Kumar for nearly three years.

When 7-year-old Shreya Thakur was a baby, she would dance along with actors in the popular Indian films her family watched. Her mother Shruti, of Ellicott City, signed Shreya up for Kumar's classes about two years ago.

"I thought if I teach her Indian classical ... dancing, it teaches all of the mudras -- the hand and the feet movements" of traditional dance. "Once you know these, it becomes very easy to do any other dance," Shruti Thakur said.

Deepti Qasba of Glenelg is originally from India but has lived in the United States for more than 20 years. Her daughter, Easha, 8, studies with Kumar.

"I wanted her to learn an Indian classical dance," Qasba said. "... I wanted her to have a touch with the Indian culture -- the music, the dance, the clothes -- and I thought if I had her in dance, it would put her in tune with all of that."

When Kumar deems them ready, her students perform at local Indian functions and Hindu festivals. One of these is the Dewali Mela festival in Montgomery County, which draws several thousand people each fall. Kumar has also taken groups to dance competitions.

Students perform in traditional Indian costumes. Kumar orders many of these from India, though some are made in the United States. "Some of the real authentic ones, it's hard to get even the fabric here," Kumar said. The costumes can differ in style and embroidery, depending on which region of India they are from.

Dancers wear ankle bells like Anjali DasSarma's, which jingle as they stamp their bare feet. The brass bells are strung on a braided rope or attached to a leather strap, which is tied around the leg. The bells are significant because "the children learn to get the rhythm sense" when they hear their feet move, Kumar said.

Adult dancers can wear up to 100 bells on each leg. "As you get better, you do more," Kumar said, pointing out that dancers must build stamina, like an athlete. Indian classical dance "is very highly rewarding in terms of health benefits, since it tones the muscles and provides a low-impact exercise," Kumar said.

Kumar said that learning dances from India "gives [children] a great exposure to be around your own culture, learn about your language, learn about the costumes, learn about the great dance and music that our culture has to offer."

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