She teaches the beauty of Indian classical dance

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She teaches the beauty of Indian classical dance

When describing Bharatha Natyam -- the most popular classical dance form of South India -- the first word that comes to mind is beauty. The vibrant colors of the costumes, as well as the glow and detail of the dancers' makeup shining on the stage, complete the setting of this unique dance form. The dancers perform with a certain indescribable elegance as they captivate the audience with their complex movements.

Bharatha Natyam originated from ancient Hindu temples. The beauty and grandeur of this art is demonstrated by the dancer using repetitive metrical and intricate footwork (Nritta), facial expressions to translate music (Abhinaya) and vivid hand gestures (Mudras). This portrayal of music in visual form facilitates sharing rhythm, melody, mood and movement with the audience, ultimately seeking union with God.

Jaya Mani of Slippery Rock, a master of this art form as well as a teacher, performs all aspects of this dance.

She started her training when she was 8, and at 11, she had her first formal performance, called Arangetram, which represents the graduation of one's Bharatha Natyam dance career. Mrs. Mani started to teach dance when she was a senior in high school. At the time her dance teacher had traveled to Bombay to learn different styles of dance; hence she was left without an instructor. Her father suggested teaching two of her neighbors, which quickly spread to teaching numerous girls. Mrs. Mani furthered her interest in teaching after completing college.

After moving to the United States in the early 1980s, she taught Bharatha Natyam in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio. She's been conducting classes for more than 30 years at the S.V. Temple in Penn Hills. Her classes are open to children 5 and older.

Mrs. Mani also has performed in a number of stage presentations, including solos and group performances throughout the United States, India and other countries.

In recognition of her contribution to teaching and spreading the rich cultural heritage of India through dance, she was given the title Pride of India in 1994 by then Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy in conjunction with the Indian American Federation. Mrs. Mani has been instrumental in creating the Dance in India Program for the Department of Dance at Slippery Rock University, where she is an adjunct faculty member.

Today hundreds of girls of the Indian heritage are enriching their knowledge of the Hindu culture through this form of dance. "Dance is not only a form of art, but it also facilitates a learning of Hindu culture, mythology, as well as the history of dance. Dance also enables the kids to socialize with others who come from the same background and culture," Mrs. Mani said.

Over the years she has greatly improved her style of teaching and also incorporated technology.

"Since classes are only weekly, kids are now able to videotape what they have learned, which assists them in practicing," Mrs. Mani said.

Mrs. Mani noted that the style of dance has noticeably changed through the generations. Choreography has become more innovative and steps more varied. Steps are now combined from other styles of Indian classical dance, such as Kuchipodi and Odissi, to create a greater intricacy in movement.

Not all of her students are of Indian descent. "Teaching dance to people from other cultures allows them to be better informed of the Hindu culture and India's geography. In addition, they learn about the complete history of Bharatha Natyam.

Mrs. Mani has noticed a difference in American vs. Indian students. All of the American girls she teaches are dance majors; therefore, they have more discipline when it comes to practice and memorization of the steps. Mrs. Mani also has found that American girls are more coordinated in group performances. However, she said the Indian girls learn Bharatha Natyam in a more natural and graceful manner because it is their main culture.

This year, Mrs. Mani will have her 100th student complete an Arangetram.

"The best part about knowing that I am graduating my 100th student is that I'm getting really old," Mrs. Mani joked. "But in all honesty, I can't believe I have spent that many years teaching. I feel happy and proud to be teaching for this long, and I am glad to have my husband and family's encouragement."


Anandhini Narayanan, 15, is a 10th grader at Fox Chapel Area High School. She has been a student of Bharatha Natyam for 10 years. This essay was written during this fall's Allegheny Intermediate Unit gifted and talented journalistic writing and reporting apprenticeship taught by professor Helen Fallon at Point Park University.


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