Indian Dance Instructor Steps Into 35th Year Teaching In Phoenix

By Annika Cline
Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 5:34pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Asha Gopal (left) gestures as Divya Mohanraj dances.
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Bharatanatyam dancers must memorize many hand gestures that have different meanings.

Shortly after learning to walk, Asha Gopal learned to dance. She grew up immersed in an ancient style of dance in her home country of India. Then she became the first to teach it in Phoenix. It’s grown here, and Gopal is celebrating 35 years of teaching in the Valley.

“Bharatanatyam is a dance form,” Gopal said. “It’s one of the classical dance forms of India, which dates back to 3,000 years old.”

For most of that time, Bharatanatyam was a ritual in Hindu temples in southern India.

“Basically we have a lot of footwork, hand gestures like sign language, and we tell stories about gods and goddesses of the Hindu mythology,” she said.

For the past three and a half decades, Asha Gopal has taught this dance in different studios, even her own living room.

Sunday’s rehearsal was at a dance studio in Central Phoenix. Girls in their mid to late teens practiced a dance they’ll perform in a big show next month to honor Gopal. 

A handful of moms watched their daughters through the glass. The girls’ feet struck the ground like a match on a box, their hands were placed in such precise positions that every beat of the dance could be its own picture.

“Like rain, we show how the rain is, the tree with the flowers,” Gopal said, gesturing. “Everything is depicted according to the song.” 

In the next room over, a group of little ones is just starting to learn these complicated movements.

“This is probably our fourth class ever,” said Nisha Talanki, an assistant teacher.

“So we’re going over the basics of practicing their rights and lefts and keeping track of which is which,” she said. “And it’s pretty hard for 5 and 6 year olds to do, to make their body listen to their mind.” 

She knows because that’s the age she started.

“I have to say, I was a much worse student than all my girls are,” Talanki laughed.

But now she dances in the school’s most complex productions. And that’s the pattern: girls start very young, dance for about 10 years, then they graduate through a ceremony that includes two hours of dancing. 

“I think I treasure that,” said Gopal. “Because I’ve seen some of my girls, you know, they came to me when they were five years, they’ve grown up, they’ve done their graduation. Now they’re married and with kids. It’s amazing.”

Gopal is at the point where she’s starting to teach some of her former students’ kids. Her very first graduate has gone on to teach Bharatanatyam in Austin. And last month, Gopal’s 200th student graduated.

“It’s an honor in itself to think that she’s graduated 200 students, and that I get to be the 200th,” said 15-year-old Divya Mohanraj.

She will keep dancing, even though she officially graduated. She said this is her connection to her culture.

“That’s the way that I get to learn about Hinduism, about religion, about the Indian culture in general,” Mohanraj said. “So over time I got to appreciate how dance has helped me do that and I feel like I’ve grown more as a part of the Indian community.”

Her mom, Usha, agreed and said it’s brought Divya together with other children walking the same line between American and Indian culture.

“And they don’t feel quite as isolated. It’s not unusual for the kids to go dance all day and then go off to a pool party or you know, go to the mall,” she said.

During a break, the girls chat excitedly. When the music starts, they smile, take their places, and recall the poses once more that have been passed down to them from many, many generations ago.

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