Young Audiences’ roster of artists continues to grow to encompass new artists, ensembles, and art forms, from slam poets to improvisers to Capoeira masters.
We’ll be regularly posting interviews with our artists, giving them a chance to share more about themselves and their experiences bringing their Young Audiences programs to schools. We recently sat down with Lakshmi Swaminathan of NRITYA.
How did you first hear about Young Audiences? What made you decide to become a roster artist?
During the 1990s, I lived in New York City where I was working as a dance teacher for Young Indian Culture Group. During that time, I connected with another New York City dance organization called Battery Dance Company when I was introduced to the executive director Jonathan Hollander. He invited me to his studio to attend a workshop where I met another classical Indian dancer, Janaki Patrik, who was a roster artist with the New York chapter of Young Audiences.
Janaki asked if I would be interested in becoming a Young Audiences artist and of course I said absolutely! So I joined her group, Caravan, an Indian dance ensemble. Later on in life, I moved to Maryland and took a few years to be a stay-at-home mom with my daughter. When I decided to get back into dance, I checked to see if the Maryland chapter of Young Audiences had showcased any Indian dancers or artists before. I shot an email to the former executive director asking if Young Audiences would be interested in having me as a new roster artist. Immediately following a positive response from the executive director, I completed a 45-minute assembly audition and that was it! I have been a member of Young Audiences/Arts for Learning Maryland since 2002.
What has been the most memorable part of the programs you have brought to students with Young Audiences? Do you have a favorite memory from a program?
So many! What NRITYA does is so different that I have seen evidence of it affecting children in so many positive ways. We have gone to many different parts of Maryland, including some very rural towns where experiences have stood out to me.
In these specific instances, I realized that some of the children seemed to be confused by the idea of what an “Indian” person is. I have received questions like: “Do you wear feathers in your hat?” or “Are you a queen?” It has been those types of questions that made me realize that these children have no clue what my heritage is. Upon first impression, they often identify me as a Native American rather than Indian. Through our programs, I have to first introduce them to the country of India and explain the difference. By allowing them to see an authentic Indian dance performance, we are giving them a glimpse into a different world and culture. They begin to experience something that is outside of their own comfort zone. It truly broadens their perspective.
How does your art form help connect students to what they are learning in school?
From the curriculum perspective, it helps students develop in social sciences. They spend time investigating the living history behind the cultures that they are learning about. Dance opens them up to the idea of freedom of expression. My dances tell stories. I usually do fables which have a very Western background. The fact that I am using the Indian dance form to tell a Western story forces children to realize that the medium of dance is not limiting. If you are able to successfully tell a Western English story through Indian dance moves, you can do almost anything! You can be creative and explore that creativity while having fun.
Through one of my dance residencies, “Indian Immersion,” the children actually get to wear authentically-made Indian clothes and immerse themselves further into the Indian culture. The kids love it! After one residency a teacher came up to me to say: “There is a boy in my class who would usually never participate or want to be involved in classroom activities. I was amazed to walk in and see him there dancing with you!” To watch kids just get up, start moving, and enjoy it is touching.
How do the lessons and skills you teach students about or through your art form apply to their everyday life outside of the classroom?
I think it broadens their perspective to a greater world outside of their own. I tell the children that India is a place very much like America. I have had kids ask if my studio would allow dancers to come in who are not of Indian descent. I tell them that you don’t have to be Indian to perform Indian dance!
After my program, children become culturally aware. They begin to notice differences between themselves and other people. They notice differences between the food we eat, our outfits, communication, and how we express stories and emotions through dance. Yet at the same time, they realize that dance is dance. It’s a medium of expressing oneself. It is a medium of using your body to tell a story no matter what culture you come from.
When we bring Indian dance to students, we give them an opportunity to step outside of their schools, and see beyond their immediate neighborhoods. This is a way of letting them know that it is all right to be different. It’s all right to be creative. It’s all right to embrace art. There is a world outside of academics that allows children to grow.