Dancing for Mother Earth

Indian couple have brought ancient dance style to Irvine for 31 years. Boys can apply — but not many do.

May 23, 2013|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Director Ramya Harishankar, top center, teaches Bharatanatyam, a traditional southern Indian dance style, to a class of girls, ages 5 and 6, at Ektaa Center in Irvine on Tuesday.
Director Ramya Harishankar, top center, teaches Bharatanatyam,… (KEVIN CHANG / Daily…)

Although the lights were dimmed and the studio soundless, a chair, front and center, bespoke a human presence. Taped to the wall, a sign declared that a set of ankle bells had recently gone missing.

Before long, the pitter-patter of pint-sized feet filled the room as did sollukatu — rhythmic syllables corresponding to the sounds produced by musical instruments. Ramya Harishankar demonstrated immaculate body posture, hand gestures and expressions while clad in traditional Indian attire.

Coming from Irvine, Newport Beach, Foothill Ranch and Corona, the girls, ages 5 to 8, began and ended the four-hour class with namaskaram, or obeisance to Mother Earth. With only about a year's training under their belts, they warmed up and then executed adavu drills — a combination of movements of the arms, legs and feet.

This was just another day in the beginner's class at Arpana Dance School, which Harishankar and her husband, Harish Murthy, founded in 1982.


Since then, she has conducted four- to five-hour classes six days a week and trained intermediate and advanced students. Her oldest student, who enrolled for the love of dancing and exercise, is over 60.


Childhood in India

At 56, the Irvine resident has had a love affair with Bharatanatyam for nearly 50 years — first as a student, then a performer and now a teacher.

Enchanted by its timeless beauty, Harishankar regards the ancient Indian dance form as a language and is constantly on the lookout for interpretations of contemporary themes.

"It's like planting a seed, and then you see sprouts coming up, and then you have a bud and a flower," she said of her role as a mentor. "I almost feel detached in a way because I can't believe that I helped that happen. It's as if I just saw this gawky little kid who couldn't even stand straight, and now she can express herself and move people to tears."

Harishankar grew up in Chennai, a city in Tamil Nadu heralded as the "cultural capital of south India," where creative and performance arts were part of daily life. Mulling over the experiences and awards Bharatanatyam has brought her way, Harishankar credits her mother for never letting her give up.

What resulted, though, was a short-lived onstage career because Harishankar and Murthy moved to Southern California in 1981.

"I felt the urge to explore other cultures and live in a diverse cultural environment," he said.

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