Dance is more than just movement for California State University, Northridge senior Tharini Shanmugarajah. For her, it’s an art form that communicates emotion, translates ideas, crosses cultural divides and creates community.
The kinesiology major’s passion for dance led her to CSUN and will take her next summer to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where she will join other dancers in a special performance of Indian classical dancing known as Bharatanatyam.
“The Kennedy Center performance next summer is part of a tour,” said Shanmugarajah. “It’s a stop along the way. We are traveling across the country, performing Indian classical dance and hopefully raising greater appreciation for Indian culture.”
Her journey will begin next month, when Shanmugarajah finishes the last of her classes at CSUN and flies to India for several months of rehearsal. She and other members of the internationally recognized Kalakshetra, one of India’s most revered cultural academies, will return to North America in the summer of 2014 for a three-month tour throughout the United States and Canada. So far, they have about 15 performances scheduled, including the Kennedy Center.
“Tharini’s talent as a dance artist is at a world-class level, and her dedication to learning about the human body and how best to train and teach others to perform has shaped her into one of the most disciplined and insightful students at CSUN,” said kinesiology professor Paula Thomson, who heads CSUN’s dance program. “She is a joy to create with and she is a joy to watch perform.”
Shanmugarajah, 25, of Northridge, credited Thomson with cementing her passion for dance and giving her the faith to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional dancer and someday opening a dance studio for people who love the art as much as she does.
“I started at CSUN in the fall of 2011, and Paula was basically the first person I met,” Shanmugarajah said. “Since that day, she has been my life saver, guiding me through enrollment, in classes and even in my decisions about dance. She has been an amazing teacher and mentor, as so many of my teachers at CSUN have been.”
Shanmugarajah started taking classical Indian dance lessons from her mother when she was four and started ballet lessons a year later. “Dance is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
She said she grew up “just down the street from CSUN,” and decided to check out the university’s dance program on a whim.
“I didn’t know that CSUN even had one, and then Paula talked to me about majoring in kinesiology,” Shanmugarajah said. “I am so glad that I did. I love kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. I have learned so much about things that as a dancer you don’t think about but can really affect how you dance. I’ve learned how to avoid injuries, to truly appreciate how the human body moves and, when I teach, how to guide my dancers so that they can avoid injury and use their bodies to their fullest.”
Shanmugarajah said she is taking those lessons with her to India and plans to share them with her fellow dancers in Sahrdaya, the formal name of the dance company she will be touring North America with next year. She said the tour’s performances will feature a unique mix of dance, dialogue and poetry, with the theme based on the 1998 movie “Sliding Doors,” in which a young woman’s love life and career both hinge, unknown to her, on whether or not she catches a train.
“The idea centers on the fact that the performers are all different people at a train station and what happens, or would not happen, when our individual paths cross,” Shanmugarajah said. “Some people are meant to cross paths, but have you ever wondered what would have happened if you had never met that person?
“The upcoming rehearsals and training in India have really got me thinking about the theme of our show,” she added. “I always think about the theme in terms of Paula. I don’t think what I have achieved in the past two years would have happened if I had not met her and come to CSUN.”
Once the tour is complete, Shanmugarajah said she hopes to return to the San Fernando Valley and open her own dance studio not far from the CSUN campus so that she can offer students and faculty a place to practice and share their art when university facilities are overbooked or when the passion for dance takes them beyond the classroom.
“It’s the one way I know how to give back to an institution and people who have given me so much,” she said.