BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - For decades, Sheila Rubin has been bringing the graceful, colorful and structured art of Indian dance alive in Birmingham.
She founded Natyananda Dance of India 40 years ago,teaching classical Bharata Natyam dance style of Southern India?, after falling in love with the art while living in India as a teenager with her family.
"We went to India for my Mom to do research for her dissertation, and I started studying Indian dance there. I didn't know anything about Indian dance, I had done ballet for 10 years, and I loved ballet, but when I started studying Indian dance I said "this is it, this is why I was born," Sheila exclaims excitedly.
Her mother returned to Birmingham, and Sheila eventually decided to join her too. At the time Indian Dance, and culture, was not something that was always embraced.
"There wasn't a very big Indian community and most of the Indians wanted to blend, they wanted to be cheerleaders or prom queens. God forbid they should be seen in Indian dress. It wasn't cool to be Indian in those days, in the 70s. things have changed a lot since things. Indian is very cool these days," Sheila explains.
Natyananda Dance was the first Indian Dance company in Birmingham. Now it's thriving, with dancers from all backgrounds and all ages. Some as young as 5, others in their 50s.
"I have adults that grew up in India and never got a chance to study there, that come here and say now I can learn, great!" says Sheila with a smile.
Sheila uses innovative performance techniques to present this ancient dance form in a way that is accessible to everyone, whether they are familiar with Asian art and culture, or not. Her love of the dance shines through with everything she does. From her pride in her students, to her grace and elation on stage herself, to the intricate costumes she's sewn.
"I am still doing it and I still love it more every single day. And I learn more every day," says Sheila.
There is a lot to learn. The dances largely tell a story, through the movements and song, but are very structured. There are 52 hand positions alone, and they each mean something.
"The facial expressions are very, very structured also," explains Sheila. "There are 11 positions of your eyes, 7 positions of your neck, positions of eyebrows and lips. When you should show your teeth or not show your teeth. It's all very structured and you have to learn all these positions. But it's really like learning a language. Because we don't think about grammar when we are talking once you learn the language and grammar of the facial expressions it comes naturally."
Now her dance group is preparing for a 40th anniversary performance. Made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, it's a multi-cultural and multi-media event August 17th that will celebrate diversity while exploring the basic human experiences we all inevitably share: birth and death.
"Being the daughter of an anthropologist and sociologist I think of the world as my background. I just want to share what is universal for all people everywhere. There is nothing more universal than birth and death. There was an Indian saint that said "when I was born everyone laughed, but I cried. Let me live so that when I die, everyone will cry but I will laugh," says Rubin.
Rubin beat death as a young mother in India. She was just 24 years old, with a 6 month old son, when she contracted Malaria. Now she hopes the dance will help others see it's not to be feared.
"We are afraid of talking about death a lot. Having a near death experience myself, I am not afraid of it all. I am looking forward to it."
August 18th performances will take place in the Dorothy Jemison Day Theater at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Natyananda's own dancers, including founder Rubin, will take the stage alongside guest several guest artists including Venkatakrishnan Mahalingam; Deborah Mauldin of Bearing Light Butoh; Robert Perry, Chickasaw Elder; Belinda George Peoples, singer, actress, and humanitarian; and Stan Nelson, tenor.