How Diversity Empowers All of Us

by Anjali Yedavalli

The crowd gradually grows silent and the lights fade out. Then, the music swells again, and we run onstage dancing to A.R. Rahmen’s “Jai Ho,” and grip each other’s hands as we take a prideful bow. Another performance draws to a close.

I have been trained in Bharatanatyam for over a decade. It is a style of Indian classical dance that integrates intense facial expressions and sharp geometric movements to tell cultural stories. Bharatanatyam is best characterized by acute head and eye movements, intense stage makeup (including dark, thick eyeline), and colorful costume pieces. These costume pieces include a fan that elegantly spreads when the dancer sits in Aramandi (half-sitting pose), in which the knees are bent to ninety-degree angles and the back is aligned perpendicular to the ground.

Bharatnatyam dance academies have flourished in Peoria as the years have gone by, mostly a result of the ever-increasing South Asian population. Central Illinois has welcomed these diverse art forms into the community. As such, my Bharatanatyam school, Mythili Dance Academy, was enthusiastic to collaborate with other local dance troupes, including ballet schools, Middle Eastern dancers, and Chinese folk dancers to put on a series of multicultural theater productions.

The first show I danced in, Shakuntala: The Forgotten Ring (2014), was one of the first times I was exposed to Bharatanatyam in a professional setting. I remember watching in awe as the lead Bharatnatyam dancer remained steady in the half-sitting pose, her hand movements sharp and picturesque as if they were traced along a ruler. I had the opportunity to perfect my own Aramandi and hand movements in the next show, In the Shadow of the Swan (2016), especially after the cast was invited to perform a show in Dallas, Texas, by a local cultural organization. The fledgling dancer within me experienced great joy as I witnessed our diverse group of dancers board a plane—all of us waiting to tell a story to a city that had yet to see anything like it. It soon became clear that whether it was Peoria or Dallas, what audiences seemed to appreciate most about the shows was the way it widened their lens: a vibrant peek into various sectors of our diverse world.

Some of the most important takeaways from these experiences occurred during the time leading up to the performances. Just like the audience members, our dancers also had an opportunity to grow and learn. During rehearsals, each group of dancers would watch each other with great admiration. The ballet dancers would applaud the Bharatanatyam dancers’ traditional pieces, the Bharatanatyam dancers would ogle at the perfection of the Chinese folk dancers, and we would all stare in awe as the Middle Eastern dancers executed their choreography with finesse. There was an intimate sense of respect for each other as well as a sense of pride for our respective identities.

We can all find strength in embracing diversity and self-expression. Exposing ourselves to different ways of life, exploring various cultures, and even exploring our own identity is the greatest ways to learn about the world around us—whether we are onstage sharing the experience or sitting in the audience learning from it. For me, this means that I will never stop loving my style of dance, but I will also never stop admiring all other dance styles. For you, I hope it means that you actively seek out the experiences that allow you to see all these parts of the world pan out on a single stage—and the best part is, you don’t have to go very far to do it.

Learn more about Bharatanatyam and Mythili Dance Academy at mythilidance.com.

About Anjali Yedavalli

Anjali Yedavalli is a senior at Dunlap High School. Aside from taking academically rigorous classes, Anjali is involved in Speech Team (IHSA State qualifier in 2020), Student Council, UNICEF Club, the school plays, Jazz Choir, and is the Madrigal Queen of Dunlap’s Madrigal choir. Anjali’s main goal in the community is spreading passion for both academics and creativity. She has organized and led multiple public speaking workshops for middle school students and volunteered her time at North South Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding underprivileged children in India. In addition, she has joined and contributed to the Dunlap Young Musicians, a student-created music group that performs at senior homes on the holidays. She is also active in her Sunday School (Chinmaya Mission) and has helped write promotional songs and plays to help fundraise for the school. Last but not least, Anjali is a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer of Mythili Dance Academy and has contributed to shows that have raised over $500k for a variety of charities.