Chicago has long been known for its great mix of ethnic cultures, which includes not only European groups, but many cultures from the Middle East and Asia. In recent decades, immigrants from India have flocked to Chicago, adding even more color to the Midwestern city's rich cultural life. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Chicago, one local dance troupe is helping young Indian-American women to maintain their heritage and identity.
The performances of the Natya Dance Company involve fluid movements of the body, intricate foot work and precise hand gestures, all of which convey meaning. There are also vivid facial expressions used in the dances of the art form called Barata Natyam.
These dances can be enjoyed for just the beauty of their movement, but they also tell stories and recount myths from ancient India. That is a large part of the appeal for dancer Priya Nelson. "I first got into Indian dancing for the cultural education and then, as you grow and learn more, you start loving the movement," she explained. "I think all of us love dancing in general. This specific art form is so complex and there is so much you can do with it. There are expressional pieces and pure dance pieces. So there is a lot of complexity and it takes years and years to learn."
For dancer Mitha Rau, this dance also has a spiritual aspect. "I think we are all very grateful to learn this art form. It is such a spiritual art form that I think it provides not just room to grow as a dancer, but as a person," said Ms. Rau. "We have all enjoyed being with each other and growing up together and also being able to share in this really complex art form that introduces a lot of philosophy and Indian culture. That was really good."
Like the other young women of the Natya dance company, Mitha Rau began dancing as a little girl. She says this experience has helped her forge strong ties to the culture of her parents, while at the same time growing up as a typical American teenager in Chicago.
"My mom pursued dance for a few years in her life, but I think I was really the first one to pursue it for such a sustained period of time, 15 years," said Ms. Rau. "I think she saw it as a way to know our culture and, even though we are so far away from the motherland, to still have an idea of what it is like to be in India and know the culture."
Mitha's mother, Prema Rau, says maintaining such cultural ties was a prime motive for her and other Chicago-area Indian parents who enrolled their daughters in the Natya Dance classes. "They were like five years old when we started them with the dance," she said. "The parents are very proud that they have come to this level and now they are performing nationally and, some of them, even internationally. It is a great thing and to learn the culture away from the homeland and the traditions and even the religious aspects. They know a lot more about the religion than maybe most of the Indian kids do here or even in India."
Prema Rau credits the teacher who started the school in Chicago for allowing her daughter and friends to experience this art form. "It was started by the teacher, Hema Rajagopalan," said Mrs. Rau. "She started the school in 1975. It has grown now. I think she started with four or five students in the basement of her home. Now she has over 200 students and they have studios in Oakbrook and in downtown Chicago, where they give lessons.
Do they have connections with other Indian dance groups around the United States? "They have lots of connections with a lot of other dance companies and dance groups all over the country," said Mrs. Rau, adding that Chicago's is on of the biggest. "In Chicago, this was the first dance company for the Barata Natyam style of dance, and it is one of the best known and it has the most students."
India is a country of diverse cultures and languages, and the dance of Barata Natyam represents only one part of India's ethnic traditions. Still, for young people of Indian ethnicity growing up in the United States, it offers a bridge back to India's complex cultural landscape.
"Actually, Barata Natyam originates in south India and many of its pieces are written in south Indian languages like Tamil and Telugu," explain dancer Anjal Chande. "But people who learn it are from all sorts of origins. I am definitely not south Indian, but it is an Indian art form and I am Indian, so I can connect. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and can still learn it. Dance is universal, so everyone can connect."
Another thing that helps the young women of Chicago's Natya Dance Company connect with their cultural heritage is the relative ease of traveling to India to visit relatives. Mitha Rau says frequent trips to India have helped her maintain her Indian identity. "I think it is very important to have family connections, and it is nice to be able to go back and have an idea of some of the places we represent in some of our dramas, like the temples," she said. "It is always nice to go back."
The 20 dancers who form the professional touring company of the Natya Dance Company appear frequently in the Chicago area and perform throughout the United States in festivals and concerts as well.