Searching for new in the old: Intercollegiate dance circuit edition

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Around the middle of last spring, I remember landing in Atlanta for my very first intercollegiate dance competition, not knowing at all what to expect. To be honest, I was prepared to be unimpressed, and wasn’t too excited. Indian classical dance is not necessarily the most sought-after dance form for audiences in the U.S. after all. As a freshman, being a part of the dance community at UC Berkeley and simultaneously not being a part of it — purely owing to the traditionality in the form of dance that my team does — had jaded me.

The weekend of the competition was exhausting, and involved plenty of rehearsal and very little sleep. Before we knew it, my teammates and I were dolled up and at the performance venue, nervous and excited. The first team to perform was announced, the dancers stepped onto stage and everything that followed lingered right behind my eyes for a while before I could actually comprehend it.

It seems as if we’re perpetually searching for a community of like-minded individuals, people to help us navigate the complexity of college life or merely people taking the same classes as we are. Some of us are actively looking to build a community for ourselves and some of us accidentally run into it without realizing just how much we needed it. That day, I knew I had experienced the latter.

I have always known that there is little I find as empowering as being around creative people. I stood there, in an auditorium at the Georgia Tech campus, bells on my feet and flowers in my hair. I was surrounded by individuals who were not only intensely creative, but who were also just as passionate about the art form that I have known and loved all my life: Indian classical dance.

There I was, watching groups of college students step onstage and through exquisite technique and breathtaking presentation, use their movements to tell stories that they believed were important. These were teams that had put in the same amount of sweat, tears and (occasionally) blood into the choreography and rehearsal as my own team. These teams understood the value in using an ancient dance form to tell contemporary stories. I hadn’t felt that inspired in a long time.

When I tell people that I do Indian classical dance, I receive a variety of responses, most of them not as positive as perhaps, “I do hip-hop” would receive. I don’t blame them. The form of dance I do, Bharatanatyam, is one of the oldest dance forms from India, but the fact that it is still significantly popular within and outside the country has to mean something. It is technically stunning and requires dedication, perseverance and honest passion — just as so many other dance forms do.

Yet, having traveled to multiple cities around the country for competitions, I was startled to see there were clearly campuses whose Indian and non-Indian communities were actually aware and appreciative of dance forms as diverse as that of Bharatanatyam. In particular, the campuses that annually host competitions dedicated to Indian classical dance forms receive support and funding for these events every year, while our dance team, much like many other arts groups on campus, is still struggling to receive enough funding from the ASUC to sustain ourselves on a rigorous competition circuit.

Indian classical dance was the very first art form I encountered at the age of four. Ever since then, it has been the one constant in my life. I questioned its relevance multiple times, especially during middle school when most of my peers began veering toward Bollywood. Even when I was inspired by seeing Kent and Lauren’s choreography to “Collide” by Howie Day on season 7 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Bharatanatyam never let me quit. I realize now that I could never bear the thought of abandoning something that had been so familiar to me all my life, and sticking with it allowed me to appreciate it in the way that I do today.

India has always presented an abundance of art, but many of the country’s art forms have struggled to sustain themselves through centuries of colonization and cultural dominance. So many dancers I have met back home in India as well as through the collegiate dance circuit in the U.S. are evidently striving to modernize this ancient dance form as much as they can while still maintaining the traditionality that lies in its core. It is a struggle we didn’t fully comprehend before we began participating in it.

I have an immense amount of respect for Bharatanatyam dancers across the world for their ceaseless attempts to keep this form of dance alive and known. I hope the artists of UC Berkeley can someday be overwhelmed with the same sentiment that I was when I participated in my very first college dance competition — the sentiment that I will encounter for as long as I am part of this community — and be inspired to use their art to tell stories that celebrate the old while embracing the new.

Contact Anoushka Agrawal at [email protected].