Classic Indian dance uses 'body, mind, spirit'

An anklet decorated with bells jingles as Priyanka Jayanti, a dancer with the Laurel-based Jayamangala School of Dance, stamps her bare feet.

The jingling grows louder as Jayanti, 20, quickly leaps toward her fellow dancers, sweeping her arms into the air and extending her fingers toward the ceiling.


Jayanti is rehearsing "Prayer to the Sun God," one of the dances she and nine other Jayamangala dancers will perform Saturday at the Atlas Intersections Festival, an annual arts festival in Washington, D.C., with more than 100 performing groups.

"It has to be powerful and graceful at the same time," Jayanti says of the performance.

It also has to tell a story.

Performers from the Jayamangala School of Dance, founded by Laurel resident Shobha Subramanian, are trained in bharatanatyam, a classic Indian art form using rhythmic footwork, facial expressions and intricate hand gestures to tell stories of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Jayamangala dancers have traveled across the nation and around the world, entertaining audiences with a dance style that originated in ancient South India temples.

"It's very structured," says Subramanian, who is also the school's dance director. "You're using your body, your mind, your spirit."

During bharatanatyam, bare feet beat the ground in complex rhythms, while the legs are often bent in a low-squat. Hand gestures are also an important part of the choreography.

"It's almost like sign language," Subramanian says. "Each gesture has a particular meaning."


Gestures can denote everything from the sun, a garden and bees, to more menacing tsunami-like waves.

Other key components of the dance include colorful costumes and eclectic music, with instruments ranging from the flute to the vina, a stringed instrument of India.

During a recent rehearsal, dancers each wore a different colored sari draped across their body. Gold belts, earrings and bracelets accompanied the saris, and each dancer wore her hair in a bun. The anklets with bells, known as Ghungroos, are also part of the performance.

Subramanian began learning bharatanatyam as a 5-year-old child in India. For years, she studied the dance and its history. When she moved to the United States in 1991 with her husband, P.K. Subramanian, she wanted a way to share her passion for bharatanatyam — and her culture.

So she founded Jayamangala School of Dance.

"It started off very small," she says. "Just a few young students."


But with the help and support of her family, the school quickly grew. Today, Jayamangala School of Dance has almost 50 students, ages 5 and up. Classes are held at Stars Studio on Route 1 in North Laurel. Subramanian also holds rehearsals for upcoming performances at her home.

Many of the dancers who started with the school in the 1990s are still there today, including Meera Raja, 25, of Boyds. Each week, Raja spends hours rehearsing with the school's most experienced performers.

"We have a good time," Raja says. "I've known many of these girls since they were 5 or 6 years old. It's just a family."

"There's a connection between the girls," adds Subramanian. "It's almost like a sisterhood."

Long-time dancers like Raja and Jayanti say they also appreciate the cultural aspect of the dance.

"It's just so beautiful," Subramanian says. "It's something we have to take effort to preserve."

Last March, Subramanian and several of Jayamangala's top dancers traveled to Zambia in southern Africa to perform "Navgathi — New Directions," a series of dances that illustrate traditional and modern bharatanatyam.

On Saturday, the group will perform the same program at the Atlas Intersections Festival.

Subramanian says she was thrilled when festival organizers selected Jayamangala as one of its performers.

"We are excited," she says. "The girls have worked very hard to put together this performance."

Subramanian's students are equally as excited and hoping to introduce the world of bharatanatyam to a new audience.

"It would be fun to get people there who don't know about us," Raja says.

Jayamangala School of Dance will perform "Navgathi — New Directions" Saturday, Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. in the Atlas Performing Arts Center's Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St. N.E., Washington, D.C. General tickets cost $22, student and senior tickets cost $16.50. At 1 p.m., the school will host "Unlocking Indian Dance," a 40-minute educational session explaining the history, gestures and forms of bharatanatyam. The session is free for ticket holders. For more information, go to intersectionsdc.com or jayamangaladance.org.