by Padma Chebrolu, Ohio

Aug 2001

The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, USA is the arts magnet school in the district. Children learn both academics and art forms in this school in grades fourth through twelfth. Children need to go through an audition process to gain admission into the school. Many famous artists and Fine Arts teachers were trained here. This school is located in one of the poor neighborhoods of downtown Cincinnati.

Like any school in a poor neighborhood, this school needs more funding for repairs and upkeep. Teachers need better equipment and facilities to provide quality teaching. Nevertheless, it is the most wonderful place to teach and learn any art form.

Sheila Cohen is the head of the dance department. She is barely five feet tall and very slender, but you can tell she is in charge as soon as you see her. She has big green eyes, an elegant body and an expressive face. It is hard to say how old she is - she could be forty, fifty or more. I do know she has grandchildren, but her youthful look and highly trained ballerina body hides her age. Her department teaches ballet, jazz and modern dance styles.

I met Sheila many years ago. She came to greet me after a performance and introduced herself to me. We exchanged phone numbers and she invited me to conduct a master class in her school. I went to the class, wearing a dark green sari with gold border. I decorated my hair with flowers and jewelry. When I walked into the class, the students were shocked to see me. These were eleven-year-old dance majors who had probably never seen anybody from India, much less a dancer in her full attire. Sheila introduced me to the kids as a Hindu dancer. She mentioned that she learned Bharata Natyam and Kathak in New York when she was a teenager. These kids had a hard time pronouncing my name as Mrs. Chebrolu. So I requested that they address me as, Mrs. C.

As the class began, Sheila joined the students to learn the dance from me. Sheila and the kids were magnificent. They executed each posture and step with precision. The geometry of their bodies had clean lines and the rhythm was accurate to the highest degree. I have only seen this level of skill and focus in some of the senior classes back in India. These kids did not care so much for the history and theory behind the dance. It was too foreign to them and they were too young to grasp our ancient concepts. They would rather learn the technique. As the day progressed, I did master classes for the older students. All the children I met that day discovered the existence of stylized hand gestures, eye and neck movements. This was the most thrilling aspect of the workshop to them. Older students asked many questions about facial expressions. They realized that not only the body, but also the face can be utilized very effectively to convey the mood.

The next time I met Sheila at a Choreographers Concert. She brought me a gift wrapped in a plastic bag. This bag had her ankle bells and notebooks from her teenage years when she was learning classical dances of India. She told me that she thought her bells and books would be in good hands now. Unfortunately, none of her children showed interest in dance, so she is passing her Indian treasures on to me. In those days, there were no custom-made ankle bells being sold in New York. Her teacher asked every student to buy some leather and brass bells so the students could stitch them up themselves. The unique thing about these bells is that they are male and female bells. Each ankle bell has its own unique sound. I was very touched by Sheila's gesture. Since then, I wear these bells only for very special performances.
Sheila's Bells

Over the years, I taught several classes at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. We formed a group of eight girls who took special classes from me after the school was over. This was above and beyond their schoolwork and regular dance performances. As the days went by, the kids performed at many places around the city. We had a few saris made for the children. One of the local TV stations invited these kids to perform during their morning news session. They performed Ganapati Kavtvam (Salutation to Lord Ganesha). The local Zoo invited them to perform at the birthday party celebration for the Asian elephant, Ganesh. When these kids performed in groups, each movement was refined and elegant. I never have to worry about their dancing skills. The only things I have to worry about are related to transportation and such due to the poverty in the family. Sometimes when I could not leave the office early enough to go and teach, I would feel extremely guilty.
Students Performing

These children possess a significant level of dedication and interest toward Indian dance. Indian dance challenged them; learning it made them stand apart from their peers. They practiced the dance during their breaks and lunchtime. They helped each other out to memorize the sequences. Even though I explained to them the meaning of the song, it was very hard for them to focus on this. They usually based their learning on the rhythms.

I was unable to go and teach these children for the past few months. It takes me about an hour to reach the school and I have to be at the school by four o'clock. It was getting almost impossible for me to get out of the office in time due to a heavy workload and increased responsibility. To add to the frustration, Sheila announced her retirement recently. She and her husband are moving to New York to be close to their children. The name of the new dance department will be announced in the fall.

The kids at the School for Creative and Performing Arts taught me many humble and valuable lessons. They showed me that dance is universal. When there is an open mind to the art form, there are no cultural boundaries. To learn dance, you first need discipline and focus. People notice when you exhibit excellence. For any teacher, it is definitely a more rewarding experience to teach students of this caliber.

Padma Chebrolu is the artistic director of the Ohio based Cultural Centre of India.