IU MBA student finds balance through passion for classical Indian dance

When Indiana University Kelley School of Business MBA student Namrata Rao was growing up in India, she did not spend her time pining after the newest electronics and games like her peers. Even though Rao went on to study computer science, she spent her childhood obsessed over dance costumes and new choreographies.

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Namrata Rao performs during "Euphoria," an event celebrating the cultural richness of IU's MBA program.  Photo by Nick Ebertz, the Kelley School of Business

Rao has spent the past 18 years practicing the dance form Bharatanatyam, one of the oldest Indian classical dance forms. Her mother, who had always loved the art form but never had the opportunity to pursue it, encouraged Rao to begin taking lessons.

"I think my mom thought dance would be a fun hobby for me," Rao said. "Little did she know that a hobby would become my passion and something I could not let go of."

Beginning when she was 8 years old, Rao took dance exams every year for seven years, the process required to master Bharatanatyam. She passed the tradition on, teaching in her dance studio during her final years as an undergraduate studying computer science and engineering and then as a software engineer at Microsoft in India.

As a current Kelley student, she's brought Bharatanatyam to Bloomington. Rao performed during Dil Se Diwali, a celebration hosted by the IU Indian Student Association in October to honor the Hindu holiday known as the "festival of lights." She danced during IU Arts and Humanities Council's celebration of Holi Fest, a March holiday celebrating the arrival of spring, in coordination with the council's semesterlong Global Arts and Humanities Festival "India Remixed." Most recently, Rao shared her talents during "Euphoria," an event celebrating the cultural richness of the Kelley MBA program.

I feel incomplete when I don't dance.

Namrata Rao

Living in Bloomington has provided the perfect environment to learn about American culture while still engaging in Indian traditions that are important to Rao. She said she's been surprised by the reactions of spectators at her performances, who seem fascinated with the ornate makeup, jewelry and clothing she wears as well as the athletic control needed for the dance form, which requires performers to execute most moves from a primary, squatting position. 

Being able to share the tradition of Bharatanatyam with those who have never experienced it is one reason Rao stays dedicated to the art form, even with a hectic MBA schedule.

"Indian classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam are a dying art in India," Rao said. "There aren't a lot of younger generations interested in picking it up, because dance is not seen as a viable career option. So it's important to me to preserve the tradition."

She also uses dance as a medium for commentary on social issues. For example, the dance she performed during "Euphoria" shared a story of empowered women. The story was about a demon who was given a prophecy that no man could kill him. Because he assumed that no woman would be strong enough to kill him, the gods created a strong woman to teach him a lesson.

In addition to spreading culture and addressing social issues, Rao said dance helps keep her mind sharp, gives her an outlet for expression, fosters creativity and provides the confidence boost she needs to succeed in her studies and as a professional.

"I feel incomplete when I don't dance," she said. "If I am not either looking forward to a dance performance or dancing, something feels like its missing in my life. It is ingrained in me. It's how I find spirituality and peace."