It seems that for Shipra Mehrotra, a life in dance was always in the making. She began her training in Odissi, one of India's eight classical dance forms, at an early age. In addition to learning Odissi at Washington D.C.'s Nrityalaya School of Classical Indian Dance, she studied ballet for ten years and modern for four. It was as an undergraduate at Northwestern University that she decided to pursue dance as a full-time career.
After college she traveled to Orissa, India to further her knowledge of Odissi at the renowned Orissa Dance Academy. And like all professional dancers, her training hasn't stopped. "I consider myself a life-long student of Odissi, always in the pursuit of excellence," says Shipra. "And so I return every other year to Orissa Dance Academy for additional training."
Odissi is a rigorous form of dance that requires much physical discipline and mental exertion. "Odissi is actually a form of yoga, where both the body and mind have to work together to achieve a desired outcome," she explains. "Simultaneously coordinating footwork, torso movement, hand gestures, eye and neck movement, and facial expressions in rhythm with music is physically challenging, and requires daily training and repetition to build muscle memory."
Anyone who's seen classical Indian dance is aware of the inherent beauty and elegance of its vocabulary, which is almost musical in its precise technicality. But not all classical Indian dance is the same. Each of the eight forms originates in a different geographic region of the Indian subcontinent, and as a result, each dance embodies the specific cultural signatures of its place of origin. For example, there's a clear distinction between Odissi and Bharatanatyam. "Odissi, which originates from the state of Orissa, is aesthetically unique from other styles because of its stylized use of the torso, which creates sinuous undulations of the body and sculpture-esque, asymmetrical poses," Shipra explains. "I always like to say if Bharatanatyam is characterized by sharp lines and angles, Odissi is about soft curves and circles."
Shipra's love of her art form can best be expressed in the relationship the dance forms of India have with its people. Dance is a reflection of its people's values and ideals. "Artists, like scientists, must study and observe the world around them in order to articulate truths, whether they be objective or subjective. In the end, the expression of these truths, whether in science or art, helps us to understand ourselves and each other better."
What she does: Shipra is the artistic director of Avantica Academy of Odissi Dance where she trains the next generation of Odissi dance artists.
Why she likes it: For Shipra, Odissi dance allows her to understand the many dualities of life; the ancient art form not only preserves mythological traditions, but embodies concepts and ideals that are timeless. "Physically, the dance form simultaneously demands extreme strength and fluidity; movement and stillness; symmetry and asymmetry. Mentally, it requires courage while challenging the dancer to remain vulnerable so that he or she may connect with the audience." What inspires her: Its emotion that fuels her dance and her teaching work. "[In Odissi] at the source of every movement is a bhava, or emotional sentiment that connects the dancer with the audience, regardless of differences in ethnicity, language, and gender. It's this experience of oneness that continually inspires me to share Odissi with others."
If not this, then what: Like most dancers who have devoted their lives to their craft, Shipra finds it hard to imagine her life without dance. But if she had to choose another calling, it would be music. "I love to sing, and for me music has the same transformative power as dance to take you on a journey without ever having to leave your seat."
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If not here, then where: "Well, they say home is where the heart is and my heart is my family. So I could live and be anywhere as long as my husband is with me and my parents and siblings are nearby."
What's next: Shipra is currently choreographing for a new documentary about the celebrated Tamil poet, Tiruloka Sitaram. "The choreography is based on one of his poems, and his granddaughter, who lives in Houston and is a student of Avantica, will perform the piece in the film. In addition to working on the choreography, I am excited about collaborating with literary scholars, music composers, and the film's director."
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