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updated: 8/14/2012 8:24 AM

Indian dance grows roots in Peoria

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  • Rama Suresh, artistic director and founder of Mythili Dance Academy, goes over some of the intricate moves of classical Indian dance with her pupils during a recent session at Jazzercise in Peoria.

      Rama Suresh, artistic director and founder of Mythili Dance Academy, goes over some of the intricate moves of classical Indian dance with her pupils during a recent session at Jazzercise in Peoria.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

PEORIA -- It's an art form whose origins go back more than 1,000 years ago and roughly 8,200 miles away.

But it's continuing right here in central Illinois, where the ancient art of Bharathanatyam - the classical dance of southern India - is being passed down to a new generation of dancers.

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It's a long way in more than one sense from the arts-rich Indian city of Chennai - famous for Bharathanatyam and the site as well of an annual two-month long arts festival each December and January - to Jazzercise on University Street.

But that's where Rama Suresh, artistic director and founder of Mythili Dance Academy, teaches three to four classes a week to 18 students ranging from small children to adults. She also offers instruction at her home.

The high art of Bharathanatyam is colorful, intricate and eye-catching. It is also, says its practitioners, good exercise.

But in India, dance is more than dance: Like all of the arts, it's a form of worship. Bharathanatyam, which originated in the ancient temples of India, incorporates the great sacred stories of the gods and goddesses of Hinduism into a combination of specified movements, hand gestures, facial expressions and rhythmic footwork.

Suresh calls the art form "meditation in motion."

"It gave me a huge sense of purpose," said Suresh, who grew up in India and has studied the dance since she was a small child. "It gave me focus. I guess it didn't give me time to get into a whole lot of trouble - I guess that's what my parents wanted. I improved my concentration skills. It allowed me to be more spiritual than I would have ever been. Honestly, at the end of it all, I feel honored to have learned this art form from a guru as we call them - a teacher."

Actually, Suresh learned from two gurus: Thanjai M. Vasudevan Piillai and Thanjai A. Hemnath, two of India's leading practitioners of the art form. Beginning her studies at the age of 5, Suresh was ready to make her debut performance - known as "arangetram," which means, literally "ascending the stage" - at the age of 9.

"I used to have classes five days a week - not one day a week like these kids do," Suresh said, indicating her current students.

A difficult, almost three hour solo performance to live music, the arangetram is a dancer's opportunity to demonstrate her command both of pure dance and expressive dance that tells stories drawn from Hindu lore.

"The arangetram is a real tribute to the student and the teacher," Suresh said. "The student is going to be judged on how well the teacher has taught. The teacher is going to be judged on how well the student was taught. And the student is going to be judged on how well she innovates what has been taught to her - not just do what the teacher teaches, but actually doing more than what she has learned. It tells the world that now she's ready to be a professional classical dancer who can go out and perform. But that doesn't mean that's the end of it."

That's because once a dancer has acquired the foundations of the dance, she is meant to build on them with more study.

Suresh has performed in several countries and has received government grants from India's Sangeet Natak Akademi, inaugurated in 1953 and dedicated to preserving that nation's cultural traditions. The grants enabled Suresh to tour India.

While living in Peoria, Suresh has received master artist grants from the Illinois Arts Council and has been active as a teacher. When she isn't teaching dance, she works for CGN, a business performance consulting firm.

Women often perform the dance, but Bharathanatyam is by no means confined to women; men can learn the dance, too, Suresh said. Non-Indians can study the dance as well, although it remains popular with Indians as a way of preserving their heritage.

"It keeps me rooted to my culture," said Puja Mittal, 15, who has traveled to India many times. "It's a very beautiful dance form and not a lot of people get to do something like this. It reminds you of why you're an Indian. It reminds you of where you're from. A lot of Bharathanatyam are stories. You learn a lot of Indian mythology through this."

"I've been going to India for a very long time," said Kripa Guha, 15. "My grandmother, she's very into the arts, Indian arts, and carnatic music and dance. She's been getting me involved in these things for a very long time. When I look back, I really appreciate that she did it. Because I was really young, and I probably wouldn't have made those decisions for myself."

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