Iowa City dancers celebrate their Indian heritage with a traditional performance

Three members of the Sampradaya dance troupe share what it was like to perform a classical South Indian dance that they’ve trained 11 years for. The performance lasted three hours and included dance interpretations of stories about the Hindu god Krishna.



Jenna Post, Arts Editor

For members of the Sampradaya Dance Troupe, Bharatanatyam is far more than just a dance.

Three Iowa City West High students, Krisha Kapoor, Himani Laroia, and Mohana Sunkara, performed the traditional dance on at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts on Aug. 21. The girls trained for 11 years.

Bharatanatyam is a classical South Indian art form that combines dance, music, and acting to retell stories from the Hindu faith. The troupe’s performance lasted three hours and was themed around Krishna, the god of compassion and love.

The girls, who are now in their mid-teens, have trained since kindergarten. Saturday was their first time performing the dance.

“I think it’s more than just a dance form,” Laroia said in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “You’re doing math in your head when you’re counting the beats, you’re putting on a show for people, and you’re working every single part of your body that you can imagine. You’re also incorporating everything you’ve ever learned, which for us was 11 years ago. It takes guts, it takes hard work, and it takes strength.”

The trio planned to hold the event last year but it was postponed by COVID-19.

“When I tell people I’ve done dance for 11 years, people are like ‘Oh, that must be so hard, that’s the majority of your lifetime,’ but that was actually the easiest part,” Laroia said. “When you have a routine, you can nail it.”

The hardest part, Laroia said, was breaking away from the troupe’s guru, Smitha Khullar, because of the pandemic. To the girls, Khullar is known as “Smitha Auntie.”

After a year of Zoom rehearsals, the performers said they were thrilled to be able to return to the stage.

The three-hour performance included both group and solo numbers. The girls wore saris in colors of their choice. They danced adorned with temple jewelry, bells, and alta dye.

Kapoor said she was excited to express her individuality with her color choices.

“I remember our first time ever wearing the costumes,” Kapoor said. “We performed at the Cedar Rapids temple, and I was so happy that day. Putting on the costume adds a whole new level, and I felt that during this performance too.”

Kapoor said, wearing the costume made her feel closer to her roots. She also felt a connection to her culture while enacting stories about Krishna, she said.

“Hearing those stories reaches you at some level, but embodying all those stories makes a difference,” she said. “I feel so much closer to my culture, especially being here in such a white state. It’s really a powerful thing.”

Sunkara said she felt similarly, and that she takes pride in being part of the fourth generation of Bharatanatyam dancers.

“Dance is one of the biggest ties I have to my culture,” Sunkara said. “When you’re performing that character, I think it gives you a whole different level of understanding and appreciation. I learned to love my culture even more than I did before.”

The girls’ teacher, Khullar, has been teaching Bharatanatyam in Iowa for 14 years and has been a dancer herself since she was 5 years old. She learned from her mother, who was a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.

Khullar said when she moved to Iowa, her goal was to spread passion for the art form, which is why she felt so proud watching the girls who had practically become her family doing just that.

Additionally, she said she was moved by how supportive people in Iowa were of their performance and the art form itself.

“I absolutely love Iowa for its diversity and acceptance of this art form, and how appreciative and open the people here are,” Khullar said. “The culture here encourages us to share our art even more.”

After three hours of focus, it’s no surprise how tired the girls were following the performance, but that didn’t spoil its reward.

“The performance was exhausting, but it was also one of the most memorable things I’ve done in my whole life,” Laroia said.