In 2000, Sammamish had no Indian dance schools.
23 years later, the city now supports at least four schools — Bhargavi Bharata Natyalaya, Dance Tantra, Bollysteps, and Sameeksha Performing Arts. The former two teach Indian classical dance form, while the latter two teach a modern Bollywood style.
The popularity of Indian dance has mirrored the growing diversity of Sammamish. The city’s Asian population grew significantly in the last two decades, from 8% in 2000 to 36% in 2020, according to the U.S. Census. With many new residents immigrating from India, interest in art and culture from the subcontinent has only increased.
That demand led Sandhya KandadaiRajagopal, 43, to found Bhargavi Bharata Natyalaya in 2011.
“With the support of my friends and family, I started off with just a couple of students in my own house, trying to take classes. Eventually it grew into a big organization,” KandadaiRajagopal said.
Her roster has peaked at 108 students. It usually takes about seven to eight years of learning and practicing this dance form for a student to be considered a graduate at all levels. Graduation is celebrated with Arangetram, their debut on-stage performance. Seven of her students have already graduated from her dance school.
Inspired by her mother, KandadaiRajagopal had always felt a special connection to Indian classical dance, specifically the form known as Bharata Natyam.
Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest classical dance forms, having originated from Tamil Nadu in the second century. It is known for its emphasis on a fixed upper torso, bent knees, and unique footwork. Once performed in Hindu temples, it became more popular in the 20th century outside of religious settings.
Neetha Tuluri, 43, owner of Bollysteps, teaches another form of Indian dance — Bollywood.
Unlike classical dance, Bollywood dancing is commonly performed in Indian cinema. Some aspects of Bollywood dance are derived from classical dance, but certain techniques are unique. The dance is more likely paired with Indian pop music.
“[Bollysteps] started out when a few of my friends watched me perform at a local dance. They immediately wanted me to teach their kids and choreograph their performances and… I remember my first thought was, sure, it’d be a nice playdate for my child,” Tuluri said.
Her first few lessons started out in her own garage. When these lessons grew to over 30 students, Tuluri opened an official dance school. She now teaches over 200 students.
For Tuluri, the biggest motivator for having her own dance school was creative freedom.
“10 to 15 years back, before Bollysteps, I would take my [students] to perform at events organized by other dance groups. But we would have to abide by their limitations, their choice of music, their rules. I wanted to present my students with no barriers of language or style or culture,” Tuluri said.
She hopes to transfer this feeling of freedom and love for dance onto her students.
Misha Singh, 14, has been dancing with Bollysteps for around six years.
“I’ve always loved dancing… so my mom signed me up for dance lessons at Bollysteps… I joined classes with them and I’ve been dancing ever since,” Singh said.
KandadaiRajagopal believes the strong demand for dance schools may be unique to Sammamish.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had also opened a satellite school in Bothell. But demand there was not as high.
“In the Sammamish community, I noticed that there was more interest in this art form. I think it might be because the Indian population here is bigger than in [Bothell],” KandadaiRajagopal said.
She was forced to shut her Bothell school down during the pandemic.
Tuluri believes that Bollywood dance is a way for people of all ages to connect to Indian culture. It is also a great way to reduce stress through dance.
“I can see that for most of my students, dancing is their me-time. They come into the class, they immerse themselves in this music, and let go of their problems,” Tuluri said.
“For me, dancing has always helped to open up my mind, body, and soul connection… Indian classical dance doesn’t just teach an art form, but also the heritage, culture, and stories that shape who we are today,” KandadaiRajagopal said.