As a freshman in college, I joined a Bollywood dance team for exercise purposes more than anything else. I had no idea we'd go on to produce a powerful show about navigating sexuality and cultural identity. For many parents in the audience, the show was their first exposure to queerness that wasn't white and strictly on TV; for others, the show was something they still tell us, years later, helped them come out to their families.
The production we put on, and the reach it had, was only possible through Desi Dance Network, a national nonprofit dedicated to driving young South Asian Americans' incredible artistic talent and creative energy towards challenging mainstream representations of our identity. DDN is a platform for the innovative but often unseen ways South Asian Americans are producing identity-based performing arts.
Dance and music aren't alien to the young South Asian American community. For most of us, Saturday mornings were not for cartoons, but for piling into the car with ghungroos, sheet music, and our immigrant parents, for whom these lessons were part of an emotional quest to keep us in touch with our heritage.
At the same time, we've always been 'fusion' children, going to classical lessons while also doing what our parents deemed 'American' things. We navigated these categories seamlessly, consuming both South Asian and American culture ' but separately. Always separately.
I loved the classical Indian dance I trained in for years. But the intricate hand gestures and expressions my guru taught me told historic and mythological tales far removed from the life I'd grown into.
I was a young, queer, South Asian American girl constantly negotiating my identity in the smallest of ways: laughing along when aunties teased me about finding a groom, loving the arts while being warned off them as a serious pursuit, and dancing every weekend to stories that were not mine.
DDN showed me that dance is what the dancers, with the full complexity of their identities, make of it. You can see the classical Indian dance I trained in when our protagonist comes out to his mom. The Hindi lyrics tell of a boy softly confiding: 'Maa, I am afraid of the dark. But you know that, don't you Maa? You know everything.' To perform the classical dance I love alongside contemporary moves, to both Hindi and English music, to tell the story of someone like me, and then to see how it resonated with audiences ' it has forever changed my understanding of the power of the arts.
I give my time and energy to DDN because it builds spaces for those of us who live in the in-between. We are South Asians, fiercely proud of our heritage; we are Americans, many of us born and raised here; and above all, we are South Asian Americans, harboring this unique blend of creative energies and abilities, with very few avenues to develop them.
DDN gives us those avenues for narrative-changing performances. Its civic engagement efforts involve older generations in political/artistic movements, and it legitimizes artistic ventures for youth seeking to seriously pursue them. I give to DDN because as an organization, it is changing the landscape of South Asian American identity.
Review from #MyGivingStory