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Lynchburg, Virginia, is not the easiest place to be different—especially for a Hindu family from south India. But this largely white, conservative city is where Chitra Subramanian’s family came to call home. Her father found engineering work in Lynchburg and the family immigrated from West Bengal in the 1980s, when Subramanian was three. Her classmates couldn’t pronounce her name; teachers called her family’s religion sinful. “It just definitely felt very barren, very isolating, and just very different,” Subramanian tells City Paper.
Some years later, the Subramanians moved to Pittsburgh and soon were enfolded into the area’s close-knit south Indian community. The family joined the Hindu temple, Subramanian and her sister signed up for dance classes, and a community of “aunties and uncles” encircled them all.
Today, Subramanian has a family of her own and lives in Brookland. She launched the dance collective chitra.MOVES in 2018, and is pioneering her own style of dance combining Indian classical movement with hip-hop. But she never forgot those early memories moving from Lynchburg to Pittsburgh, from otherness to belonging. It’s the animating theme of her upcoming work, TEMPLE, which will be performed at Dance Place—and, really, her artist’s story.
For the Subramanians, classical Indian dance was a connection to home, a grounding in their family values—and is a common activity for Indian girls. “The very first thing my parents did was sign me up for dance classes. It was non-negotiable,” Subramanian says.
Classical Indian dance is tied to religion and spirituality. Each Indian state has its own classical style; Subramanian studied bharatanatyam, which originated in Tamil Nadu. One of the country’s oldest classical forms, bharatanatyam can be traced back to the Hindu temple dances. Students learn to keep the torso mostly still—“it hardly looks like you’re breathing,” Subramanian says—and their legs bent, their feet active. The story unfolds primarily in the arms and, specifically, the hands. Dancers shape them into mudras, gestures that have symbolic meaning: the forest, a resting place, the kind, romance. The alapadma mudra, for instance, depicts a blooming lotus and represents creation, romance, and wisdom. Though highly structured, bharatanatyam is also highly expressive, telling a story, often of Hindu gods and goddesses. Dancers become their characters. “You literally are Krishna’s mother,” Subramanian explains.
Subramanian stopped intensive classical training in college, but still performed in the occasional student showcase and sampled classes in new, different styles. Meanwhile, another love was growing. This was the late ’90s, when hip-hop and neo-soul rage were flourishing. Subramanian would go out dancing with friends—her first taste of dance outside the classical structures she’d trained in.
After graduating from Allegheny College, she moved to Columbia Heights. Dance again became her life’s organizing principle, but this time, it wasn’t the classical structures of bharatanatyam. “[I] just really got very addicted to all things hip-hop in D.C.,” says Subramanian.
To outsiders, Washington is a straitlaced city that revolves around politics and shuts down well before midnight. But, especially in the early 2000s, the hip-hop scene thrived. A grad student and later nonprofit director by day, Subramanian danced as much as she could, at house parties and the Blue Room and Chief Ike’s Mambo Room. “The music was so phenomenal that it just kept attracting people every week,” she recalls. Local R&B artist Raheem DeVaughn (who’s also profiled in this year’s Spring Arts Guide) was a favorite, along with Debórah Bond’s indie soul, and Priest da Nomad’s hometown hip-hop. These people became her community; they invited each other to house parties and showed up for each other’s shows and DJ sets.
There was that golden thread again: having somewhere to belong is transformative, and the inverse—being invisible—can be devastating. Subramanian explores the complexity of themes in TEMPLE, a 75-minute work choreographed for her chitra.MOVES. “I just wanted to bring that story and … how dance, the idea of a close space, can be such a powerful institution and mechanism that brings all kinds of people together to learn about one another,” she says. “That kind of stays with you forever.”
chitra.MOVES’ TEMPLE runs March 18 at 7 p.m. and March 19 at 4 p.m. at Dance Place. danceplace.org. $10–$25.