The Bhakti Dance Seva ensemble, a traditional Bharat-Natyam dance troupe based in Florida and consisting entirely of American second generation devotee girls, is doing its first tour of Poland this summer to appreciative crowds.
Pritha, Nadia, Kalindi, Jahnavi, Sita, Mohini, Kumari, and their dance teacher and choreographer Anapayini Dasi were invited by Festival of India Poland leader Indradyumna Swami to feature on the bill of his long-running tour—it’s been going since 1989—when he saw one of their performances in their hometown of Alachua.
The girls, who have just hit their twenties, studied there under Anapayini at her Bhakti Kalalayam Dance Academy for many years.
Arriving in Poland on June 28th, they’ve been visiting a different tourist town along the Baltic Sea Coast every three days, and performing twice a night to crowds of enthusiastic vacationers.
They’re part of the stunning show delivered by “the Polish tour,” as it’s often nicknamed. Tents set up at outside locations offer cooking and yoga classes, astrology, a restaurant, questions and answers on the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, book stalls, face painting and henna.
Large audiences turn up to catch the Festival of India Poland Variety Show
Meanwhile, the four-and-a-half-hour variety performance every night—held on a professional outdoor events stage from 5:30pm to 10:00pm—features a whirlwind barrage of entertainment. There’s dramas, puppet shows, martial arts, music, philosophy, and even professional folk dancers from India.
But Anapayini’s troupe still have a very special place in the Festival.
“Although he already has these amazing professional dancers from India, Indradyumna Swami explained that he invited us because he really wanted to show the Polish public that we can also wholeheartedly embrace Indian culture, and can be authentic students and practioners of its philosophy and art forms,” Anapayini says. “And if we can do it, so can they.”
Of course, that’s not the only reason why the Bhakti Seva Dance ensemble are much sought-after performers. They are seasoned professionals themselves, who have worked together for over a decade. Although their personalities are all very different, their group dynamic is smooth as a well-oiled machine—both because of the powerful bond they have developed over so many years of serving together, and because of their humility.
The Bhakti Dance Seva ensemble’s strong bond makes for a smooth group dynamic
“I noticed the other day how we never have any issues with any of the girls wanting to be the center of attention, or wanting the best part—which are common problems with performers,” Anapayini says. “They all have such a humble way of looking at their dance.”
This group dynamic comes across to audiences, who are impressed no matter what the style of the particular performance. For their theater shows in the US, the Bhakti Dance Seva ensemble usually depicts stories of Krishna and His associates and tackles deeper themes.
For the larger, several-hundred-strong crowds at Festival of India Poland, however, they mainly deliver dances that are noteable for their speed, liveliness and aesthetic beauty. Only some, such as Jaya Jaya Jagannath—which portrays Lord Chaitanya as having the same identity as Jagannath, Krishna and Rama—touch on the spiritual tradition behind them.
Still, people are deeply moved.
“Even if it’s raining, they will stay and watch,” Anapayini says. “And when the performance is over, they whoop, clap and rush up to take endless photographs with us. Even though I don’t speak their language, their love is evident. There are lots of smiles, and little kids come up and give me hugs after the dance, or even sit on my lap! I find people here more open-minded and more friendly than in the US.”
Enthralled children watch the show
People are affected by the performance on different levels. Some simply appreciate the entertainment or the artistic merit, while others get the sense that the girls are putting not just the usual hard work into their dancing, but are offering their very hearts and souls in devotion. Still others—if there’s no language barrier—are intrigued by this and ask questions about its Krishna conscious themes and origins.
“Everyone is attracted by the beauty of Bharat Natyam, because it comes from Krishna, who is all attractive,” says Anapayini. She explains that thousands of years ago, Bharat Natyam was originally a form of worship in the temple, and that now she and her troupe are bringing the temple to the stage.
“We are called Bhakti Dance Seva because we feel it’s our seva, or service, to dance and in so doing draw people closer to Krishna,” she says.
Serving Krishna with dance
The seven girls on tour with Anapayini have been studying this traditional South Indian form of dance since they were eight or nine, while Anapayini herself started even younger.
“My mother studied Karnatak, the South Indian classical music that Bharat-Natyam is danced to, and so I was exposed to it from infancy,” she says. “I fell in love with it immediately, and began learning it in Gurukula in 1982 at the age of five. When I was fourteen, I decided this was what I wanted to do with my life. My family moved to South India, and I found a teacher and took classes twice a day, six months out of the year for seven or eight years.”
In 1999 at age twenty-one, Anapayini did her Arangetram, essentially her graduation from dance studies. A two-hour debut performance showcasing what she had learned, it qualified her to perform professionally as well as to teach.
And sure enough, as soon as she moved to the ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida that very year, she began teaching Bharat-Natyam lessons at the temple there. The classes were an instant hit, and while some girls came and went, the students that now make up the Bhakti Dance Seva ensemble joined then and remained to this day.
In 2004, Anapayini and her students converted a 400 square-foot barn on her father-in-law’s land into a dance studio, complete with lights, mirrors and a sound system, using only ticket sales and donations from their performances.
“Bhakti-Kalaksetra, the Performing Arts Auditorium at the ISKCON temple in Juhu, Mumbai which my father opened with Srila Prabhupada’s blessings, was always an inspiration to me,” Anapayini says. “So I named my school the Bhakti-Kalalayam Dance Academy after it. It means ‘the refuge of devotional arts.’”
Many young girls take refuge at Anapayini’s devotional arts school
Today, Anapayini has around fifty students, ranging from four years old to adult. The children put on an annual performance to showcase what they’ve learned throughout the year, while the more experienced students put on an annual professional ticketed show or fundraiser. They also perform on the US Krishna Culture Youth bus tour, at various venues around Florida, and for major festivals at the Alachua ISKCON temple.
“Bharat-Natyam was a huge positive influence for me growing up, keeping me out of trouble in my teenage years and boosting my self-confidence,” says Anapayini. “And I see that it’s the same for my students. It gives them exercise and makes them feel beautiful; the discipline and dedication required gives them great confidence in themselves; and they like the spiritual connection to Krishna and to ISKCON that it gives them, the feeling of having something practical to offer as a woman. Some feel it’s their career, while others see it as their service to Srila Prabhupada and are pursuing other professional careers in college. I strongly support both approaches.”
Bharat Natyam provides physical exercise, as well as a strong spiritual connection
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that the Bhakti-Kalalayam Dance Academy gives to girls is the family environment it creates. It’s like a support group, where the girls are able to serve together and be there for each other in their personal lives too. Meanwhile they all look up to Anapayini, who is there for them in difficult times, and whom they call “Ani akka,” or “big sister Ani.”
“I really enjoyed the relationship that I had with my ashram girlfriends growing up in Gurukula,” she says. “And so I really wanted to be able to facilitate that again for another group of girls. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Anapayini and the Bhakti Dance Seva ensemble will be touring Poland, performing six days a week for ten weeks, until August 27th. Then it’s back to the US, where they will continue to work on maintaining and expanding their school.
“Right now we’re trying to turn it into a non-profit organization, so that we can apply for grants to add more study courses, and to finance more teachers from India,” Anapayini says. “Eventually, I would love to move into a bigger facility—we outgrew our studio the moment we bought it!—and to facilitate groups of dancers performing at ISKCON festivals wherever they’re needed. I see well-trained devotee Bharat-Natyam artists who consider dance as their service, using it to spread Krishna consciousness all over the world!”
Ready to serve: Anapayini’s sister Kumari transforms into a Bharat Natyam dancer
For more information, please visit Bhaktidance.com