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From Mumbai to Forsyth County: The rise of Indian dance studios
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Students at Samyuktam Dance Academy pose for a portrait. The studio teaches Bharatanatyam, a dance form from India that combines many technical elements to depict a story, much like a musical, that is centered on ancient Indian mythology. (Photo by Diya Mohan for the Forsyth County News)

By Diya Mohan

For the Forsyth County News

Right now, the Indian-American community of Forsyth County is flourishing. Studios filled with young American children are expanding their knowledge of Indian culture to bounds they never knew existed — a momentous shift that many mothers of the community have pioneered.

India is home to 1.3 billion people, 29 states and 22 official languages. With the amount of diversity the country has to offer, there are several forms of traditional performance art that each unique region has produced over the span of thousands of years. Most notably, India is the home to eight distinct forms of classical dance, all of which are deeply rooted in generational practice and religion.

In past years, there has been a growing concern that first-generation Indian-Americans are losing touch with their roots because of exposure to Western performing arts and little to no knowledge of the arts of India.

With Forsyth County’s growing Indian community, there has been a rise in the number of dance schools that have opened, specializing in the forms of Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Bollywood. In turn, eager young students have quickly filled up many of these studios.

In fact, many of the dance “studios” of Forsyth County are simply the unfinished basements of classically-trained mothers who are looking to keep Indian dance culture alive. Others are buildings with the space to execute the glitz and glamor of contemporary Bollywood dancing.

Indian-American residents of Forsyth County have used their reverence for the classical Indian arts to create a tightly-woven network that continually furthers their sense of community.

Bharatanatyam

While dubbing it the “Ballet of South Asia” would be an oversimplification of the dance form, the sophistication of Bharatanatyam is widely recognized and praised across India, hence why hundreds of Forsyth County’s classically trained residents practice this particular dance form.

Characterized by meticulous footwork, riveting expressions and an extensively developed form of sign language, this dance form combines many elements to depict a story, much like a musical that is centered on ancient Indian mythology.

Preetha Sayeekrishna, former basement dance teacher, is one of the many Forsyth County mothers who took it upon herself to impart the knowledge of classical dance to the children of Forsyth County by opening Samyuktam Dance Academy in 2006.

“Learning Indian classical dance connects children with their roots in India,” Sayeekrishna said. “They get to know the culture and the mythological aspect, which helps them grow as people.”

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Students at Samyuktam Dance Academy stretch before starting class. (Photo by Diya Mohan for the Forsyth County News)

For the past 13 years, Sayeekrishna has taught the skills needed to perform Bharatanatyam to children as young as 5 and as old as 24.

This past summer, Sayeekrishna was able to organize Samyuktam Dance Academy’s first-ever arangetram, which translates to “climbing the stage.” While this is traditionally the dancer’s grand debut on stage, in recent years, it has come to mark the end of elementary dance training (which lasts anywhere from five to 13 years). In this time span, dancers have many opportunities to showcase their performance skills on different stages. She will be hosting her third recital, which she organizes every four years.

Sayeekrishna strives to broaden the community of dancers by encouraging young children to attend cultural events in which classical dance is performed.

“When I started, there was not a lot of awareness of Indian art and culture,” Sayeekrishna said, “but there has been a lot of growth in interest since the Indian population in Forsyth County has grown so much. A lot more parents want to put their kids in some form of Indian art. There is a lot of growth, a lot of potential, and a lot of kids are more interested now.”

Sayeekrishna also encourages young dancers to join dance teams at their universities after they graduate from her instruction. Georgia Tech’s Pulse and University of Georgia’s Asura are both competitive collegiate teams that perform all over the country.

She recommends her students visit her guru, or even Kalakshetra in India, a school entirely dedicated to Indian arts, mainly Bharatanatyam.

“I always tell my students to continue dancing, and also to take advantage of the many dance opportunities in college,” Sayeekrishna said. “That way, they are in touch with the dance and get more experiences to cultivate and improve upon.”

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Students at Nritya Natya Kala Bharti dance studio practice kathak, an Indian dance form characterized by intense footwork and beautiful facial expressions. (Photo by Diya Mohan)

Kathak                         

Theorized to have inspired the Spanish dance style of flamenco, Kathak employs a similar use of intense footwork and beautiful facial expressions. While this dance form uses many of the extensive hand gestures that Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi use, the movements of the style are generally more graceful. In short, Kathak has its own unique mode of storytelling — which happens to be the very word that Kathak translates to.

Though fewer Forsyth County residents are from the part of India from which this dance form originated, Nritya Natya Kala Bharti (NNKB) has been an established school of Kathak since 1991, based in Atlanta before it switched locations to Norcross and finally opened a second studio in Forsyth County.

Shreemati Kumud Savla, director and guru to the dancers, teaches alongside her daughter Samta Savla. Both are experienced and accomplished artists, having performed their dance form in a wide range of countries for several cultural events. Savla’s husband also teaches traditional Carnatic music at NNKB, so the entire family is involved in spreading Indian performance arts throughout Forsyth County.

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Students at Nritya Natya Kala Bharti dance studio practice kathak, an Indian dance form characterized by intense footwork and beautiful facial expressions. (Photo by Diya Mohan)

Savla’s daily classes consist of a warm-up to get feet moving, intensive footwork technique and rhythmic practice, dance theory and a rehearsal of an actual dance piece.

“The movement isn’t the only part to Kathak that matters,” Savla explains to her students. “You need to know the history and theory of the dance form also.”

During the theory portion of class, every student in the studio recites the names of each hand gesture with excitement and ease, filling the room with a vibrant energy that Savla expresses back.

What sets NNKB apart from other dance schools in the area is their enthusiasm to teach the Indian performing arts regardless of age. NNKB provides a Visharad, equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, to serious students of Kathak through Gandharva Mahavidyalaya University in Pune, India.

Bollywood

The largest film industry in the world also happens to have a massive dance culture behind it. Originally from the city of Mumbai, Bollywood’s colorful energy and dramatics through musical-esque films set the industry apart from many others.

With variations of hip hop, jazz and traditional Indian dance, the style of Bollywood is a fusion of dances not just from India but from all around the world.  

Although the dance style was originally created to fulfill the Broadway-musical aesthetic the film industry is based upon, today it is widely recognized as a dance form of its own.

Forsyth County now has several Bollywood dance schools competing neck to neck in the many cultural competitions and events hosted across Georgia.

Among them is Prem Dance Studio, which opened in Duluth in 2017. The studio has had tremendous success, especially with the opening of their Cumming location on Buford Highway in March 2017.

Their choreographers have worked with several big-name Bollywood celebrities, but their expertise doesn’t stop with Bollywood dancing — they offer instruction in the contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop and fusion styles.

The Forsyth County studio is led by choreographer Amit Pawar, whose personal motto is to “train with brains and perform with heart.”

Anvi Peddi, a junior at Denmark High School, has been a student at the dance school for three years. She was able to represent Forsyth County on Dance USA Dance, a multicultural dance talent TV show earlier this year.

“Competing lets us meet lots of amazing people from across the country and experience so many unique dance forms,” Peddi said. “It’s honestly a great show of creativity.”

To Peddi, being able to compete on such a huge platform dismantles all of the preconceived notions about Bollywood dancing being flashy without requiring any skill.

“I’m proud to be able to see my culture flourishing in America through Bollywood dance,” Peddi said. “It gives people another perspective on the diversity of arts here in America.”