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Ranee Ramaswamy: A life in dance

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Last Friday, the McKnight Foundation announced that Ragamala Dance Theater's founder, co-artistic director, and choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy had been chosen as the 2011 McKnight Distinguished Artist. The $50,000 award is given each year to an artist who, over the course of their career, has made significant contributions to the quality of Minnesota's cultural life.   [jump]

Although she began dancing at the age of seven, Ramaswamy didn't start performing professionally until the age of 30, when she moved to Minnesota.

She was born in South India. While growing up it was expected that she learn the traditional dances of her culture, but it was not something that she was encouraged to pursue as a career. Her training wasn't performance-oriented. "People didn't think girls should perform onstage," Ramaswamy says. "It was understood that it was something that I learned because I loved it. It was okay to do it until a certain age, and then let it go."
It was different in those days, Ramaswamy recalls. "There was no 'me.' Things were planned, and you just did it. There is no independence in India -- you are what your family is -- you don't have decision making abilities."

Still, she remembers being happy. When she was 17 she quit dancing and went to college, and soon got married and had her first child.  

When she was 26, she moved to the United States with her then-husband and two daughters. Her ex-husband was an engineer, and had an opportunity to come to the U.S. for work. "We planned to go back in five years," Ramaswamy remembers. "For a long time it was hard for me. Being here was difficult."  

Ramaswamy performing when she was 12

Ramaswamy performing when she was 12

But coming to America gave Ramaswamy another chance at having a career in dance. In 1978, she was asked to give a performance at Coffman Union that triggered everything. She remembered how much she loved dancing, and found that people loved watching her perform.  

The performance led to other engagements, and Ramaswamy began to dance and teach in the community.  

In the 1980s, Ramaswamy was on the board of directors with an organization that helped bring a famous Indian performer Alarnel Valli to the Twin Cities. "She is an unbelievably amazing dancer," Ramaswamy says. "At 12 she was world famous. She has a unique style that nobody else has. She uses a traditional vocabulary and puts a sign on it that nobody else can do." 

Ramaswamy, along with her 8-year-old daughter Aparna, took a workshop with Valli. Afterwards the teacher invited Aparna to come and study with her in India. 

"Aparna was like a computer and remembered everything," Ramaswamy says of her daughter. "She picked up everything that Valli taught us. Valli found that Aparna had ability -- a master can see that. She said, 'Bring her to India, and I will teach her.'"

She agreed, but wanted to learn from Valli as well. So they both went, along with Ramaswamy's youngest daughter, Ashwini. They stayed for four months. "I relearned everything," recalls Ramaswamy, who became a classmate of her daughter. "I tried to erase what I learned before."  
It turned out that Valli had grown up not very far from Ramaswamy, although they had never met as her parents weren't dance-goers. However, since Ramaswamy made the decision to make dancing her career, her parents have been supportive.

"There is a time and place for everything," says Ramaswamy. "This is the time and place for me in Minnesota. Everything came together beautifully. My mom is my number one fan."  

Ashwini also began taking lessons when she turned five, but Ramaswamy says her youngest daughter didn't have the discipline to continue. "It was hot. She quit." However, when Ragamala was formed in 1991, Ashwini began dancing with the company, and this year she has received funding to travel to India to study with Valli.

Ramaswamy and Aparna returned year after year to study with Valli, four months at a time. Ramaswamy took that vocabulary and wanted to make it understandable and accessible to a Minnesota audience -- not just an Indian American audience. She's worked in schools, in the community, and through collaborations has pushed the form.  

In 1992, Ramaswamy and Aparna founded Ragamala Dance. Since its inception, the company has received critical accolades and popularity both in the Twin Cities and nationwide. In March, it was one of two U.S.-based companies invited to perform in the Kennedy Center's Maximum Indian Festival, which happened on Ramaswamy's 59th birthday. "That was the most amazing thing that has happened," she says. 

Currently, Ramaswamy is working on Ragamala's next project, Sacred Earth, which will be the first performance at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts. The piece uses a ritualistic form of visual art from southern India created with rice flower, and another visual art form from a tribal group in northern India called Warli, which is a type of mural initially made with cow dung that is then painted over with rice paste. Ramaswami says the piece is very spiritual, like much of the work Ragamala performs. After performing at the Cowles, they will tour the piece to 22 cities in 2011 and 2012. 

As for the McKnight Award, she says it took her by complete surprise, especially since so many in the U.S. are still unfamiliar with the style of dance that she performs. But she says she's very excited. "It means a lot to me," she says.