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APATA Member Spotlight: Deepa Mani

Mar 2, 2023

Say hello to APATA Member Deepa Mani, Founder and Artistic Director of Chandralaya School of Dance in Victoria. We spoke with Deepa to discover a little bit more about her and how her students and their families explore their heritage through Indian Classical Dance

Tell us about your background Deepa.

I was born in Chennai, India and have been pursuing my art form since I was five and a half years old. I moved to the States for my higher education while continuing to grow in my art and diversified into contemporary arts as part of a dance company. I then met my partner and moved to Australia about 15 years ago. Now I am the founder and artistic director of the Chandralaya School of Dance.

What is Chandralaya School of Dance all about?

Chandralaya School of Dance is primarily a classical Indian and modern contemporary dance school. Our primary interest is to engage students both young and wise in pursuing Indian classical dance, particularly Bharatanatyam. [pronounced: Bur-rur-thur-nah-tym]

We offer other genres like bridging, which is between Bharatanatyam and contemporary, and contemporary. Apart from teaching these classes, we also run workshops and sessions for universities and schools to impart cultural diversity in that environment.

We also do artistic projects with other artists and other genres, and with organisations like Regional Arts Victoria and The Song Room to engage the students and help them to get a broader perspective of the culturally diverse land we are in.

Why are the Arts important in creating cultural connection?

From a cultural perspective and as a woman of colour, and mostly attracting people of colour and interracial families, I find our student families come to us to impart that cultural aspect in their children because they possibly didn’t have that chance and want to give that opportunity to their child.

Do you find the parents want to get involved and join a class when they see their child practice and perform?

Often when a family enrols their child, they are so engaged they come and ask if they can join in, and I say absolutely.

One of the things that women always feel is the commitment they have as a family person and having multiple hats to wear. Self-care and putting themselves first becomes the last thing on their mind.

But that’s an important aspect of learning anything new, putting yourself at the front, and if that’s giving you joy you should go for it.

Sometimes I have both mother and daughter learning in the same school which is so good for the child because they understand that their mum is learning as well.

It starts with the child and then it encourages the whole family, it’s very sweet.

Who are the mentors and teachers that inspired you on your journey as a performer and teacher?

All my teachers, four of them in this art form, have given me great inspiration. I look up to them and always will.

They have come from different backgrounds and acquired this art and elevated themselves to another level. Seeing their transformation inspired me to continue that journey and lineage.

I feel my Mum is always my inspiration. My Mum is no longer here, but she was the one who first enrolled me in dance. Although she’d had the chance to learn she couldn’t pursue it because she went into the medical field. Once she knew she was having a girl [me] she told my dad, ‘I’m going to put her in dance!’ For the first 6 months I had little interest, but little did she know that I would make it my profession. That is very empowering, she will always be my inspiration.

All those great teachers in my field have inspired me because I continue to see them, learn from them, and observe them. I do take special classes with them still, and I feel like the learning process has never stopped.

Yes, I’m a teacher. Yes, I’m an artistic director, but I’m constantly learning – even from my kids. My kids inspire me to think differently, because the way I’ve learnt the art form and the way I teach the art form is totally different.

Why are the Arts important, especially in creating cultural connection?

There are so many reasons to participate in this art form from a cultural connection standpoint. Primarily, it is a very visual and tangible representation of a culture’s beliefs and its values. It’s very easy to understand what happens in your household and you can connect some of those practices by learning the art form.

Art plays a big part as the voice, or channel to having some of those very challenging conversations and cuts through those cultural stereotypes that we face every day.

I think it’s a beautiful venue to understand where you come from and who you are. It’s the perfect tool to help you to be grounded as an individual, as a person with an identity. Once the children grow up, they’re no longer going to feel that sense of not being represented, or not being part of a group. They will absolutely know where they come from, and that is a powerful tool that is going to improve their well-being both physically and mentally when having those powerful conversations and challenging the norm.

A child who is also a person of colour shouldn’t feel different to others. They should be very proud of their heritage and where they come from. But how will they feel proud of it if we don’t give them the opportunity to help them understand that heritage?

Having something like dance to instigate that understanding is three times more powerful because you grasp so many different contexts and that will stay in your mind forever.

Students start to respect themselves and each other, and once they respect each other, you have beautiful friendships and relationships that can be formed and that is why I think art is so powerful.

What do you love about what you do?

I think the fact that I am just a little catalyst in transforming an individual’s life. I think that was my purpose, and I feel like I’m able to fulfil that purpose in so many ways, and in so many different lives.

Knowing that I’m giving 30-40 years of knowledge to individuals and passing that lineage to them, it makes me feel so privileged and that’s why I love what I do.

Top Tips for those contemplating a career in the arts and especially those thinking of teaching?

  1. Finish school and uni. Get a degree, so you always have a fall back plan. Surviving in the arts is not easy. Hopefully, the next generations will not find it as hard as we did, or currently do.
  2. If you want to go for teaching in the arts you have to be passionate about it, and if your gut says do it – Go for it! But to do that you’ve got to do a few things to put yourself in that position. Having the right skills and expertise is very important. You want a strong foundation in the art that you pursue. Whether it’s ballet, tap, jazz, Bharatanatyam or hip hop you want to have a strong foundation so you know what you’re doing to then take it forward.
  3. Start getting some teaching experience by going under a well-known teacher as a teaching assistant. That’s the best way to get experience and build a strong portfolio.
  4. Network! Feel free to network with other artists and try to collaborate as much as you can because that’s where the real deal is going forward. The art of collaboration, the power of collaboration can bring beautiful opportunities for everyone and make diversity stronger.

Find Deepa Mani at Chandralaya School of Dance




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