When Renu Kumar, owner of Modern Indian Dance Academy, was a little girl in the small city of Muzaffarnagar in northern India, she liked to dance. Okay, she really loved to dance. She still does.
“My passion for dance has always been a part of me,” says Kumar in her Indian lilt as we sit in her living room, photos of her, her children and students in brightly colored dance costumes adorning the tables. She wears a beautiful ghagra choli (a traditional Indian blouse and skirt) in a radiant shade of ochre and a perfectly placed bindi.
“I think I got my love of dance from my mother,” she continues, her gold bracelets jingling. “My dad told me that when they got married, even though it is customary for the bride and groom to only dance one dance in India, she just kept going on and on and on. So yes, I think I got that from her.”
Kumar started taking lessons at age 4, training in classical Indian dance, specifically Kathak, which is a form of dance that incorporates stories through movement, facial expressions and hand gestures. She worked with a dance guru who helped her perfect the moves, and went on to perform at schools, ceremonies and other events throughout her childhood.
“Our love of art and dance was always encouraged at home,” says Kumar, whose father was a self-made man who performed his own little sideshow in his youth to help support his family, a motorcycle act that eventually turned into a full-fledged circus and his career.
“He didn’t want us to have to struggle like he did, so he pushed us in our studies and our art,” Kumar recalls. “He died in an accident when I was young, so I learned that life has its ups and downs, and I put all of that into my dancing.”
There would be other events that spurred her creativity.
When Kumar was 21, her mother sat her down and told her she was to be married in one week; in her next breath she told her she would be moving to the United States. “That was how it was done in India then,” she says with a wave of her hand. “Two months later I was married, living in a new country where I couldn’t speak the language, and had a husband I didn’t know and who didn’t like me dancing; it was tough.”
In a world far away from familiarity, she kept right on dancing. She turned professional when she settled in Austin, Texas, the first stop in her United States journey. The couple moved to Plymouth in 2000 and soon added three beautiful children Vipasha, Akash and Avi. It was through them that she began to share her love of dance with others. “I was training my children to dance, and their friends would want to learn, and then more would want to learn, and that went on for years, so finally I thought, ‘I should do this.’”
So in 2003 Kumar started her dance school in the basement of her home. She installed a large dance floor, hung walls of mirrors and put up pictures, and, thankfully, her husband warmed to the idea of her dancing.
Now Kumar teaches a plethora of classes at three different locations, including the traditional Indian dance she learned when she was young, but she’s also added the Bollywood classes—similar to the dances done in the movie Slumdog Millionaire—that are a combination of Kathak, Bharatanatyam, folk, hip-hop, ballroom and jazz. Her year-round multi-level classes have multiple sessions, so students can join any time. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? MORE SPECIFICS? WHAT IS MULTIPLE SESSIONS?
“We have classes for all ages, starting at 4 years old and for every level of experience,” Kumar says. “It’s a great way to have fun while you’re exercising, and it also helps confidence. ” To date, she has taught more than 800 students since the first student stepped on the dance floor and poured their emotions out through movement.
Maria Sanchez, who has been diagnosed with cancer twice and has lymphodema in her right arm and right hand, has taken Kumar’s classes for over a year and has never looked back; she’s also performed with several of Kumar’s other students at the Festival of Nations, the Dragon Festival and other events. “They’re not just dance classes,” Sanchez says. “They’re cultural dance classes.” Kumar explains the different types of music and dance, and where they originate from; it’s great to have a representation of India here in Minnesota, and it is a wonderful way to bridge the gap between the two cultures.”
In order to bridge another gap between those who have and those who have not, every year for the past several, Kumar has put her passion to work for charity in what she calls Bollywood dance dramas. She writes, choreographs, designs the costumes and creates the set (with the help of many volunteers), and instructs her students on, as Kumar puts it, “a way to show that art has so much power.” The shows take place at the Hopkins High School Theater.
Because she was trained in the art of Khatak, these dramas tell stories. Each has an over-arching theme based on the charity that will be the benefactor that particular year. For example, a few years ago, a dear friend of Kumar’s had a daughter who was diagnosed with cancer; the child also happened to be a student. So, Kumar selected the Children’s Hospital for Cancer Research as the charity that year, and created a play called The Celebration of Life.
Then there was the Chandani (which means moonlight), in which a young girl played the role of a blind child; the charity was one that helped children with vision problems called Unite for Sight. “I love the feeling of creating something, of helping others create something,” Kumar says. “The feeling I get when I see my students performing makes me feel wonderful.”
The little girl who spent hours twirling around her home in northern India has grown to be a spinning, artistic, helpful, loving, caring woman. She adores art. She has been the recipient of many awards for her performances, was an honorary judge for Vibha of Minnesota and received a trophy from the Hindu Society for her numerous contributions to cultural art. She has taught Hindu classes and yoga, and cried when a young female dancer, whom she did not know, fell on a nationally televised talent show. “I was right there with her,” she says. “I was so proud of her when she got up.”
She returns to India every year and back to the area that sparked her creative spirit.
And she has brought the love of dance and shared the importance of the artform to many. “I want both children and adults to get exposure to life, to emotions and to different people,” she says. “I want them to learn that we are all human beings and that everyone has pain and everyone has joy. So it is so much more than just dance.”