Six-year-old Meghna Shankar of Gurnee started learning Bharat Natyam, an ancient Indian classical dance, this year because she wanted to connect with her culture.
"The dancing is cool because I can do all of these expressions with my body and face, like show a flag waving, a lady looking in a mirror, wind, water or fire," she says.
To help demystify Bharat Natyam and other Indian dance forms, Natya Dance Theatre is hosting "Dance India: Choreographing Traditions." The festival, which takes place Sept. 7-10, features performances and workshops, many of which are free.
The theater invites families to the festival's performances and young dancers to the workshops so they can appreciate others for their differences and experience another culture.
"I often felt prejudice growing up in Oak Brook and Lombard because I was different," says Krithika Rajagopalan, Natya Dance Theatre's assistant artistic director. "And I know I was not alone."
The performers and workshop leaders are all from India or have Indian backgrounds. Rajagopalan insists, however, that you don't need to understand Indian languages to enjoy the performances.
"Indian dance and especially Bharat Natyam are about a good story that children enjoy, relate to and understand," she says.
The original purpose of Bharat Natyam was to educate the public about Hindu scriptures through intricate footwork and vivid facial expressions. Natya's repertoire, however, departs from the traditional to include a piece on Chicago's seasons, the book of Genesis and Aesop's fables.
"Bharat Natyam dance also depicts good values like 'don't lie' and 'don't cheat,' " Rajagopalan explains.
By inviting Chicago dancers to the Dance India workshops, Rajagopalan hopes that young artists will gain more knowledge about the alluring eye, head and hand gestures so connected to the art form.
"You give meaning to the words and express what you are feeling with your hands and face and most of your body," says 11-year-old dancer Swaeta Sekharan of Green Oaks.
For a full schedule of festival events contact Natya Dance Theatre at (312) 212-1240 or visit www.natya.com.