MANHATTAN—In a small but spacious room nestled on the second floor of a building on West 72nd Street, three girls between the ages of 9 and 12 years old dressed in red kurtis and black leggings observe their instructor meticulously. The instructor, 33-year-old Shachi Phene, demonstrates to them the intricacies of the Indian classical dance form Bharatnatyam in front of a large dance studio mirror. She shows them exactly which angle to stand on, how to maximize the effect of their footwork, and perhaps the most important of all—the facial expressions that go with each dance step.
While this might seem complex and obscure to some, Bharatnatyam is widely known in the South Asian community. An Indian classical dance form originating from the temples of Tamil Nadu in South India, its legacy carries on all over the world, including New York—where it has become a cultural tether, enabling those of Indian descent to stay connected to their roots.
Shachi Phene, a woman of Indian descent who grew up outside India, has been an Indian classical dancer since she was 8. She is the Founder and Director of Noor Dance Academy, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“That’s the beauty of the diasporic immigrant experience. Of course in some ways, we miss out on aspects of our culture, but in other ways—by living far away from our homeland, we are driven to learn more about it,” she said.
She attributes her increased connection to her culture to Bharatnatyam because at the core of it all, the dance form is rooted in storytelling—as Bharatnatyam involves enacting tales from Hindu mythology through its choreography and facial expressions.
“The stories and traditions that you learn through the dance are a huge part of its beauty,” she said.
Expanding the Circle
This form of dance that encompasses Indian history has proven to be intriguing to those coming from other cultures as well. Allison Hawke, 56, an Italian-American born and raised in Long Island, learned about Bharatnatyam a few years ago, after a half century of not being aware of it—but was quickly hooked.
“I’m a teacher, and I remember a Bollywood dance performing studio came to my school to perform, and I wanted to do it too,” she explained. “So I started with Bollywood dancing and was first introduced to Shachi in those classes. I then found out she was starting her own company, and I decided to continue learning from her.”
She knew very little about Indian classical dance, but her foray into Bharatnatyam from Bollywood was one fueled by curiosity and faith in Shachi, her instructor.
“It’s been such a wonderful education — not just in terms of dance, but also culturally, linguistically, melodically,”
She added that the Carnatic music system—a type of Indian classical music from Southern India—is so different from what she’s been used to and so fascinating.
Having the opportunity to connect with one’s cultural roots, or in Hawke’s case, diving into a whole new culture, is not uncommon in a city like New York, which is the fourth most racially diverse big city in the United States, according to US News and World Report.
Shachi talked about how the landscape of New York is tied together with various ethnicities—and that for students of South Asian descent, learning Bharatnatyam offers the joy of having something to showcase from their own culture.
“New York is full of different cultures. Learning Bharatnatyam has allowed my students of Indian descent to hold their own in this landscape. A lot of them talk about how they enjoy sharing their heritage and the Hindu mythological stories through their dance. It gives them a sense of pride,” she said.
According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, political scientist and the co-founder of AAPI Data, the number of Americans who consider their racial origin as Asian Indian in the United States grew by more than 50% to nearly 4.4 million people from 2010 to 2020.
According to the Asian American Federation, the Indian population in New York City was about 242,987 in 2015, with a 0.2% percent increase from 2010 to 2015.
With such a large growing Indian population in the city, there is an increased significance of cultural connection and awareness.
‘‘You feel like you belong’
Annika Mehta, 11, who was born in India and raised in the United States, started her Bharatnatyam journey with Shachi in New York when she was just 5 years old.
“It’s really fun learning Bharatnatyam in New York because it’s not only Indians who are learning it with you. People from other communities are learning about our culture as well and discovering it through dance,” said Mehta with a smile.
She also opened up about the diversity of the audience when they performed at Bharatnatyam shows.
“We’re not just performing for other Indians, we’re performing for people from all over the world. I don’t think that would be possible anywhere else but New York,” she added.
As a sixth grader, she recalls how Bharatnatyam allows her to exhibit a part of her culture. “I usually perform it at my school talent show too,” she said.
Despite it being popular in South Asian culture, Annika says that the Bharatnatyam community in New York is “close-knitted”, making it all the more welcoming.
“When we went for this Bharatnatyam show organized by someone outside our dance academy, Shachi knew so many people there, and we recognized a lot of them too. In New York, it’s a tightly-bonded community of like-minded people — and that’s what makes it special,” she said. “You feel like you belong.”