hangra, bharatnatyam and Bollywood are just a few of the South Asian dance styles that Western audiences have witnessed in the past few years. For most South Asian Americans, though, familiarity with these schools of dance (and many others) is simply second nature. Some take part in culture shows or dance at desi parties, while others like Mihira Patel and Nirathi Rao Kalavapudi, start training at young ages and continue pursuing this passion throughout their lives. What makes these two exceptional, though, is their commitment to increase awareness of India’s rich tradition of dance—a desire that led to the formation of the Rhythmaya School of Dance in the Washington, DC, area last year.

Our inspiration comes from our passion for dance and our South Asian heritage. For us, dancing has served as a mechanism for learning about and holding on to our heritage.

“Our inspiration comes from our passion for dance and our South Asian heritage,” Kalavapudi says. “Both have given us confidence and played a pivotal role in our positive development since a very young age. We wanted to spread that throughout the community in which we live, which consists of people of all backgrounds.”

Get Moving!

The Rhythmaya School of Dance’s fall 2006 session starts after Labor Day. It will consist of approximately 15 weekly classes for children and adults in three studios in Northern Virginia and two in Washington, DC. The 12-week session will incorporate performances at local community events and culminate in the organization’s third school-wide recital.

With many South Asian parents increasingly worrying about their children “losing touch” with desi culture, Rhythmaya School of Dance has been a great way to serve the needs of the desi community. In founding the dance company, Patel and Kalavapudi also wanted to ensure that future generations would be aware of their cultural roots.

“For us, dancing has served as a mechanism for learning about and holding on to our heritage,” says Patel. “Particularly in classical [which she began learning at age 5] and folk dances [which is prevalent in Gujarat, the state where her family is originally from] movement and expression are vehicles for telling stories based on religion, mythology, special events or even everyday occurrences. As we see more and more people like us starting families of their own, we sense a very strong desire to pass on Indian heritage to the next generation. At the same time, we recognize the fact that Indian American children have unique needs.”

Vision into Action

Patel and Kalavapudi met through a fortuitous turn of fate: They ended up on the same team, in the same cubicle, while working as marketing associates in 2003. They got to know each other, started talking about their interests and soon discovered their shared passion for dance.

We’d joke that one day, when all of our co-workers were at work, we were going to hold a dance-off in our cubes.

“We’d joke that one day, when all of our co-workers were at work, we were going to hold a dance-off in our cubes,” says Patel. “Eventually, the conversation turned to how great we each thought it would be to start our own dance classes. We already knew of a few kids interested and started teaching them informally.”

Instructor Mihira Patel teaches an intermediate class at Rhythmaya.
Co-founder Mihira Patel.

The Rhythmaya School of Dance soon consisted of two parts—a dance troupe and studio classes. Most of its classes cover the range of Indian folk, semi-classical, film (Bollywood) and fusion forms. This curriculum is designed to provide a foundation in the movement and expression that comprise the basis of Indian dancing, while providing broad exposure to traditional, regional and contemporary Indian dance styles and culture. The school also offers classes that focus specifically on bhangra and Bollywood styles. Since the styles have become exponentially more popular in the past few years, the founders believe the classes are an interactive way to teach people both about Indian dance and the culture it comes from.

But the children’s classes continue to be the most popular—especially Rhythmaya Tots, since few Indian dance schools will accept students as young as three or four. The duo has also recently launched Rhythmaya Boys, a class that uses male-specific choreography in Bollywood and bhangra styles, shattering the common stereotype that dancing is just for girls.

Taking it to the Stage

Rhythmaya isn’t just about teaching—it also a collaborative that provides experienced dancers with a creative outlet for expressing their talents and passion. Its members are a motley group: From the self-taught to the competitive dancer, from the classically trained to those who have worked as assistants to Bollywood choreographers. In auditioning dancers for the troupe, Patel and Kalavapudi emphasize inspiration, creativity, the ability to learn quickly, and a desire to maintain and evolve Indian dance traditions. In addition to its dozen core dancers, the Rhythmaya Dance Company also boasts a few collaborators who specialize in non-South Asian styles of dance. This year, the group performed at many high-profile events including the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Miss India DC pageant and the 2006 Dance DC festival organized by the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities.

Rhythmaya Dance Company
Mili Mittal performs in the dance troupe.

While the school has become quite popular with both desis and non-desis, starting the company was not an easy task, especially since both founders are relatively young South Asian women. Kalavapudi recently completed her graduate studies in Public Policy at George Mason University, while Patel is a management consultant at BearingPoint, Inc. Since Patel works long hours and Kalavapudi attended school in the evenings, they had to balance their schedule accordingly, focusing on group classes mostly during the weekends and private lessons during the week. Somehow, Kalavapudi also finds time to run workshops for local schools and non-profits.

“Luckily, we have had the full support of our family and friends as well as community members who were aware of our talent,” says Patel. “In terms of years of experience, we’re like amateurs compared with most of the Indian dance instructors in the DC area, yet several have gone out of their way to approach us at performances and introduce themselves, making us feel like we are understood and accepted as equal, albeit younger, counterparts. It’s simultaneously humbling and empowering.”

“We’re in our mid-20s, so South Asian clients can at times look at us as teenagers or kids,” adds Kalavapudi. “The majority has been encouraging, but we’ve also had a few people challenge our training and qualifications, which is probably the hardest thing for an artist to respond to. It’s a struggle, but we make an effort to provide information about our fees, class format, policies and instructor qualifications up front to minimize such questioning.”

It’s obvious that Patel and Kalavapudi’s hard work is making a difference. Clients overwhelmingly are positive about the school and its services, which reach out to the community in fun and innovative ways. Patel says the success is thanks to the duo’s mission: “To build and cater to the next generation of Indian dance practitioners and appreciators, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background.” n

Neha S. Singh recently moved to the Bible Belt for graduate school, where she is trying to adjust to the accents, abundance of fried food and $4 martinis. Email her at iamneha@gmail.com.
Published on September 1, 2006.
Photography: Photo of Mihira Patel by Gene Feldman. All other photos by Srinivas Regeti.

More Information

Rhythmaya School of Dance

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  1. March 24, 2007, 9:01 pm Pinky Shah

    i m pinky shah i m 28 yr old i want to join dancing class. can u pls send me detail & procedure to join dancing class

  2. July 13, 2007, 4:56 am Amit Chafe

    I am Amit the Operation Manager – Eventus Integrated Management Pvt Ltd, We are going to have a Event in the month of Sep and the theme is Indian Culture which would be showcased through indian folk dance. would like to discuss pls revert back on my email Id.

    Would like to give you my contact no post your mail.

    Thanks and Regards.

  3. April 24, 2008, 8:21 am Layla

    I’ve been searching for a reputable dance school and have come to the conclusion that the most priciest isn’t necessarily the best school for my daughter