The Language of Dance

Written by Putsata Reang; Photographed by Jason Quigley

I. NRITA. Pure dance, rhythmic movement; one of three distinct elements of a Bharatanatyam repertoire.

In the soul of Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, silence stirs. She moves to the music of a beating heart. Step. Gesture. Step. An arced palm flips towards earth; a leg lifts, toes tipped, pointed toward heaven. Gesture by gesture, a story unfolds.

Subashini is a master of Bharatanatyam, the traditional dance of her South Asian ancestors that originated in the Hindu temples of the Tamil Nadu region of India, in which emotion, melody, and rhythm combine with movement to summon the gods—and which Subashini has contemporized by dancing (at times) without music, by collaborating with dancers in other genres, and by allowing her body to extend particular moves as she explores the complexities and most urgent messages of the moment.

What feels pressing to Subashini lately are the ways in which American culture is being bruised by division, by book bans and gender rights fights and access to the arts. The world is wounding. And so, to watch Subashini move is to be taken back to the foundations of being. She believes art has the power to wick away pain, if only for moments—a gesture, a song—at a time.

“How can arts and culture play an important role in the healing of relationships?” Subashini often wonders. “How far can we take this experiment of communal humanity so that we can all flourish?”

To be sure, dance was never meant as a platform for political expression for Subashini, although she believes that to be an artist is to inherently be an advocate, which itself veers political. Instead, for Subashini, dance has always been a personal imperative and a public invitation into a certain bliss of being, attainable when the body bends in measured manners, opening the path to a particular grace.

“Dance is my oxygen,” Subashini says. “The discipline of the dancer allows me to go places that are both deep and expansive. I’m in a world of freedom that can only come through that language of movement.”

II. NRITYA. In Bharatanatyam, a solo dance with dramatic aspects.

But freedom carries a cost. When she was four years old, Subashini’s mother led her to her future by bringing her to Bhasker’s Dance Academy in Singapore, where Subashini was born and raised. When she was five years old, Subashini performed her first public dance.

Forty-five years later, she hasn’t stopped dancing, despite the ways in which her artistic pursuits disrupted a delicate family structure where dance was meant to help make girls marketable for marriage, to augment an education and a career, rather than be the career.

Subashini tried to conform. She studied genetics at the University of Rochester and considered becoming a scientist after graduating with degrees in biology and religion. She worked in public policy around pay equity and corporate accountability in Washington D.C. before moving to Portland in 2001, where she worked for Equal Exchange promoting fair trade coffee. Dance was always in the background.

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