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South Asian dance is a connecting force in Oklahoma City

Participants dance at the "Dancing in the Gardens: Bollywood" event in the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City.
Anusha Fathepure
Participants dance at the "Dancing in the Gardens: Bollywood" event in the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City.

The dancers strike their feet against the studio floor rhythmically. Their arms snap into place, and their fingers rapidly move into different mudras, finger and hand gestures. Bollywood music floats through the air as the dancers seamlessly switch from bharatnatyam to bhangra to kathak.

Nearly 9,000 miles from South Asia, these dance styles may seem unexpected in the heart of Oklahoma, but for many, they represent home.

For Ria Shah, a first-generation Indian American, dance is a way she can connect with her Desi heritage.

“Dance has been a really important part of my family and in the way I've grown up and learned to appreciate my culture,” Shah said.

Shah is an elite dancer at Nritya Arpan, an Edmond-based dance school that teaches contemporary and classical styles. Her mother, Nishita Shah, is the founder and artistic director.

“I would contribute a lot of my cultural connection through dance, and I feel so grateful to have even been able to do this through dance,” Shah said. “I know a lot of people aren't able to have that privilege.”

Shah graduated from Nritya Arpan in 2021 after completing her arangetram performance after over a decade of training in bharatnatyam, a form of Indian classical dance. An arangetram is a solo debut that signifies a dancer’s completion of formal training.

Shah is now a company dancer, performing professionally for Nritya Arpan.

Despite graduating, Shah has carried her love of dance into the other parts of her life. Shah is a sophomore at Rice University in Houston. At Rice, she is part of two dance groups: Rice Rasikas, an Indian classical team, and Rice Rangilas, an Indian folk team.

For Shah now, dance is an artistic expression and an educational opportunity.

“Performing in general in Oklahoma is really unique,” Shah said. “Because most of the time you're performing in front of people who really have no idea what South Asian dance or South Asian culture is, so you get to see the real-time reaction of their faces as they’re processing what you’re doing because it’s so foreign to them, right?”

Shah said there’s something special about introducing new cultures to those who were otherwise unaware.

“I just love seeing their faces and diversifying their perspectives, which I feel is important, especially in Oklahoma, which has traditionally been a very like, white, dominant state,” Shah said.

Connecting across cultures

Dancing in the Gardens is a summer series hosted by the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City. Onlookers can learn free dance lessons from experienced performers from a variety of cultures. In partnership with the India Association of Oklahoma, Dancing in the Garden: Bollywood featured several South Asian dance schools and dancers who taught demos.

Angela Oommen, president of the India Association of Oklahoma, said she was first inspired to pursue the partnership five years ago when she saw a salsa event at the botanical gardens. The association wrote to the Myriad Gardens, and that one email changed everything, she said.

“We've been having this event for the last couple of years now, and just to hear culturally diverse music in the middle of Oklahoma City is just really nice,” Oommen said.

Oommen said uplifting South Asian voices is important, especially for the next generation.

“Representation is very important. I have two little kids, and I think it's very important for them to grow up feeling that it's all normal. It's basically normalizing all cultures, getting everyone together, enjoying and having fun,” Oommen said.

Oommen said the reception is always very positive, and many people are eager to learn.

“Everyone's eagerly looking forward to this event, and it's a diverse group of people who come for the event too,” Oommen said.

Shah and her sister, Rishika, taught a Bollywood dance routine at the Dancing in the Gardens event.

Ria and Rishika Shah, instruct a Bollywood dance routine.
Anusha Fathepure / KOSU
Ria and Rishika Shah instruct a Bollywood dance routine to the song "What Jhumka?"

The event also drew people from outside South Asian cultures. Participants of all ages and backgrounds crowded in front of the stage as the sisters demonstrated the movements and steps.

David Ghantous, a participant at the event, said he has always loved dancing.

“I'm half Colombian, half Lebanese, and both cultures are huge on dancing, and I grew up doing a lot of ballroom dancing, but I've never had the opportunity to do this,” Ghantous said.

When Ghantous heard Dancing in the Gardens would be showcasing South Asian styles of dance, he was eager to learn.

“It's such a neat way to connect your body with expression,” Ghantous said. “The way that dancing brings people together, I think it's one of the most beautiful things.”

At the event, Teena Varghese, a choreographer and instructor, demonstrated bhangra, a high-energy dance style originating in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

“Dance is a universal thing for everyone,” Varghese said. “Especially for Indian culture, dance is such a vibrant and important part of our culture, so I think it really brings people together.”

Varghese said dance allows her to show the vibrancy and color of her Indian heritage.

“Not only do we get to share and educate others about our culture, but we also get to have fun,” she said.

“A community within a community”

Andrea Shah — no relation to Nishita or Ria — said she’s also found community and camaraderie through dance. Many of the girls Shah grew up dancing with at Nritya Arpan are now spread across the country attending university, but they all still support one another.

“Performances are something I hold very dear to me because it's the whole getting ready with people around me, in the same costumes, figuring out how to navigate these old jewelry pieces that younger kids like us might not know, but our moms would know. Our moms would be helping each other, getting us ready,” Shah said.

Nishita Shah said she feels a lot of enthusiasm from the dancers and their families.

“Their family members are also very supportive, and they're always there,” Nishita said. “It is great to see the entire family is taking interest in coming forward to help.”

Nishita Shah said you are part of a kind of family when you’re dancing.

“There's a community within a community that I absolutely love,” Nishita Shah said.

For Oommen, seeing everyone in the gardens dancing is a beautiful representation of what dancing means for Desi culture.

“Dance is just in our blood. I grew up learning dance.” Oommen said. “It's just one thing that connects everyone together. You don't really need to know each other. You can just play the music, and everyone can dance together.”

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Anusha Fathepure is a summer intern at KOSU as part of the Inasmuch Foundation's Community Fellowship Class.
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