April 3, 2019
The early Saturday wintry sunlight drifts into the Shiva Tala Institute in Edison, New Jersey, where it glints off gold-tinted trophies crowding the top of a shelved divider that separates the lobby and the wooden dance floor. Wearing a green, gold, and red tunic dress, 32-year-old founder and director Gayathri Higashide walks barefoot around her advanced Bharatanatyam class of 12 high school girls — dressed in yellow-orange “practice” saris — as they dance.
The rhythm of drums and voices chant through the speaker system, as the girls’ flexed feet hit the ground in intricate patterns — sometimes the balls of their feet, sometimes heels, sometimes one and then the other. The story of Lord Shiva plays out on their bodies, an ancient sign language, as they dance in the sequence of mudras, their facial expressions taut and exaggerated. “One who is worshipped by the rishis of tadavana and the Demons and Gods alike,” the male voice in the soundtrack sings. “I bow to him who adorns the anklets...” Every move — from a squat to the flick of an eye — is another detail in a grander narrative, translated into movement. Bharatanatyam requires quickness and precision, leaving dancers no room for error.
Bharatanatyam was always important to Higashide, but she never imagined the dance form would become such a major part of her life, much less that she would become a teacher, running her own school with over 120 students. When she was living in India, her parents enrolled her in Bharatanatyam classes at age 4, but she dreaded going. For young Higashide, a boisterous tomboy who spent her time climbing on rooftops to throw hot water onto grumpy old neighbors, the discipline and patience required by Bharatanatyam — a two-millennia-old religious Indian classical dance — was a seemingly ill fit.
But when Higashide moved to the United States in the mid-1990s, the 7-year-old girl found herself in the quiet suburbs of New Jersey, where she didn’t have to attend her dance classes, and was hard-pressed to find a teacher. That marked a turning point: she realized how much she missed the classes. Her mother, amazed that her daughter had asked for dance lessons for the first time in her life, looked high and low for a teacher. It was difficult. Classical Indian dance schools like the Shiva Tala Institute didn’t exist in New Jersey 20 years ago.