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'Dance yoga' comes to arts center

Kalabharathi Dance Company shares tradition of South India


Imagine watching a dance so wholesome and beautiful that it leaves you feeling a little closer to God.

This is the quality of dance that Sivagami Vanka, founder and director of the Kalabharathi School of Dance in Bethany, expects of her students. “Kala” translates to art and “bharathi” means school in Hindi.

“Every child in India learns to dance,” said Vanka, who herself is a disciple of renowned Indian dance gurus. She opened her school in 1981 to carry out the tradition and teach children as young as 6 the classical South Indian dance, Bharathanatyam.

Decked out in traditional, vibrant silk costumes and jewelry that marks the body’s acupuncture points, 40 Kalabharathi company dancers and two double-headed drum players (mridangists) will perform at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro Saturday afternoon.

In India, Vanka said, dance supposedly has mythological beginnings, handed down to humans by Lord Shiva, the God of Dance.

Classical Indian dance is based on something deeper than movement, said Vanka. Referred to as “dance yoga,” it is revered as an art form that aligns mind, body and spirit.

There are five classical dance forms in India each distinct to their own region and all detailed in a 2000-year-old Sanskrit text called the “Natya Shastra.”

Comparable to Aristotle’s “Poetics” and attributed to the yogi-like Sage Bharata, it is a complete literary work on drama, dance and music, and is argued to be the foundation of fine arts in India.

Portions of the text are required reading for students at Vanka’s dance school.

This is where students learn the many intricacies that make up Indian dance. Children learn how to express the eight principal “rasas” or emotional responses — love, pity, anger, disgust, heroism, awe, terror and comedy — through facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements.

The goal is for the dancers to connect to the audience non-verbally. “You lead the audience in a very happy state of mind and that happiness is brought out by the quality of the dance,” Vanka said.

Instrumental accompaniment

The dance is always accompanied by classical music, drums or the sitar.

It takes students about seven years to master the basics before they are ready for their first solo performance. The event is celebrated as a graduation, which reflects the child’s ability and discipline and parents’ commitment to the art.

Last year, Kalabharathi witnessed its first ever Indo-American graduate: a child with an Indian mother and an American father. “That’s a counting glory,” said Vanka. “These children are truly the pioneers because they are carrying the art form forward.”

With two branches in the Portland area, the Kalabharathi School of Dance enrolls about 60 students between the ages of 5 and 17. It’s recognized by many of the Indian cultural organizations in Portland as the premier school of dance with a high caliber of graduating students.

Company dancers perform in schools, at community events and international festivals as well as with other multicultural performance groups such as Portland Taiko and the Ten Tiny Dances event in Beaverton.

“The most important thing is for more people to see the inner beauty of the dance,” said Vanka, “and when dancers are trained well, that comes out automatically.

“If you can bring happiness and peace to this world for even one hour, then you’ve done your job.”




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