Every week in the basement of her home in Columbia, Smrita Dorairajan teaches a dance lesson to her apprentice, Charunetha Murugesan.
The dance is called Bharatanatyam. Dating back 3,000 years, it’s one of the oldest classical Indian dance forms. It originated in ancient Hindu temples, where women called Devadasis would practice the dance to dedicate themselves to god. The dance made its way from the temple to the stage, and Dorairajan says many women in India learn the dance today.
It’s a classical artform comparable to ballet, and it’s multifaceted, Dorairajan said. There’s intricate footwork, rhythms or beats and the Abhinaya, or expressions used during the dance.
Dorairajan started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of 5 from her mother, who is also a classical Bharatanatyam dancer, while living Chennai, India. Murugesan also started learning when she was 5 years old. Now, she’s 14 and a freshman at Rock Bridge High School. She said dancing helps her get away from the daily stresses of life.
“All the stress I'm feeling at school and everything in my life just sort of goes away when I'm dancing,” Murugesan said. “It's like an outlet for me.”
Dorairajan and Murugeson are supported by the Missouri Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. It’s one of the oldest folk arts apprenticeship programs in the United States. It supports master artists and their apprentices with the goal of teaching and promoting traditional arts in Missouri. Every year, the program supports eight duos for six to eight months.
The program isn’t limited to artists born and raised in Missouri. Lisa Higgins, program director of the Missouri Folk Arts program, said she thinks immigrant cultures from around the world enrich the cultural landscape of Missouri.
“To me, they’re all Missourian. They’re all Missouri traditions,” Higgins said. “I think of it as a sort cultural fabric, and it’s woven with a lot of different threads and colors and that sort of thing and it makes it much more interesting.”
The goal of the mentorship is to eventually give Murugesan the skills and expertise to teach the dance, and carry on this tradition in Missouri.
Folk arts specialist Deb Bailey said the apprentices often have already have intermediate experience in the art.
One challenge young students face, Dorairajan said, is keeping up a regular dance routine alongside everyday life. Murugeson, for example, says she tries to practice once a week on her own, but as a high school student, there’s a lot going on. Murugeson said she has extracurriculars and clubs outside of being a high school student and also plays the viola.
Dorairajan said Bharatanatyam hasn’t had much exposure in Columbia, but they are working on that through performances.
“I have American students and they have been like performing and really enjoying this,” Dorairajan said. “So, I think it's a question of familiarity when people know it's out there, then they are interested.”
Learning the dance’s intricacies takes time. Dorairajan says it takes five to 10 years just to reach a level of beginning expertise in the dance. But even after learning from an early age and performing for a little more than a decade, she says it’s like a drop in a big ocean. There’s always more to learn.
“My mom still learns from her teacher and her teacher who's like 82 years old is still like finding new things about this art form,” Dorairajan said. “So it has no limit. Basically you can just keep on acquiring new skills.”