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Dancers connect to faith in movement.

Dancing is one of the ways people can connect to their faith, whatever that faith may be.

When Katya Viswanadhan, now 22, was 5 years old and living in San Diego, she would watch her mother teach others in their home a classical South Indian dance called Bharatanatyam, which depicts Hindu mythology.

Eventually, she wanted to join in the classes and dance for herself.

According to Viswanadhan, her family was more spiritual than religious, and she found herself feeling closer to her Hindu faith through dancing. She saw it as a way of expressing it.

"We used to pray on our own every day, but [we] didn't have too many idols or kumkum fa powder used for markings] around so when I started dancing, I felt a rush," Viswanadhan told NCR. "It made me more connected [to my faith] because I had to study the old texts with stories of gods/goddesses."

After her family moved to Thousand Oaks, Calif., when she was 6, Viswanadhan joined the Rangoli Dance Company outside of Los Angeles and she and her mother made the one-hour commute every weekend.

She studied Bharatanatyam for several years and played the roles of various Hindu gods, such as Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh and others, before performing her arangetram, or solo debut. This performance is to showcase that the student has "mastered a large chunk of a dancer's repertoire," Viswanadhan told NCR.

"Usually, a person is ready for their arangetram when the teacher deems them so, typically around 16," Viswanadhan said, though she performed hers when she was 11.

Viswanadhan recalls feeling closer to God during specific moments of the song and dance.

"At certain points, there is a part which is very emotional, usually depicting intense love for God or suffering or extreme joy," she said. "I used to feel a strong emotional connection to God then, sometimes to tears."

Since the age of 12, Michael Khadija Anderson of Los Angeles had performed and taken classes in ballet, modern dance and jazz. In 1993, she converted to Islam.

Though originally from Los Angeles, Anderson, 55, first learned of Islam through the Senegalese community when she was taking West African-Senegalese dance classes in Seattle.

"They had this very unique outlook on life and I knew it wasn't just from their culture and it turned out it was their religion," she said. "They were Muslim."

After a year of self-study, Anderson decided to convert and add Khadija, the name of the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, as a middle name. Her conversion made her re-examine her dance performances.

"As I became a little more of a stricter Muslim, I was uncomfortable performing because when you perform, there is an element of showing off," said Anderson. "I felt being a Muslim, we're supposed to cover, we're supposed to be modest, we're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves and so [performing] was the opposite."

Anderson stopped performing, but she didn't stop dancing. She continued taking and teaching dance classes.

When she went back to finish her undergraduate degree at Evergreen State College in Washington in 2004, she met a dance instructor who taught a non-traditional Japanese dance called butoh and she began taking classes.

"Most traditional dance ... is concerned with the way the body looks. The external look of the body is the most important thing," Anderson said. "When you dance butoh, you work with an image that you think about and the expression of that image comes out in whatever way it is. It's never about ... this beautiful look."

Anderson decided she could perform this kind of dance and still keep true to her Muslim faith.

"When you dance butoh, you're not worried about what you look like ... so I felt like, 'I can perform again,' " she said. "I had been a dancer for so long and that was missing."

Though butoh is not like the well-known Muslim whirling dervishes who express gratitude and reverence for Allah in movement, Anderson does feel she is in touch with her faith when she dances.

"As a spiritual being, being able to celebrate that ... in an artistic, creative way is a spiritual act," she said. "At the core, you're still drawing from what's innately inside you and in Islam, the innate being inside all of humans is ... good."

St. Ann Sr. Kateri Mitchell has participated in many Native American powwows and she says each event is "a gathering of all nations. ... It's not exclusive to any religion. It's open to all people." She is executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, a nonprofit Catholic organization, based in Great Falls, Mont., for evangelization among the indigenous of North America.

According to Mitchell, every powwow begins with a prayer offered by an elder or tribal leaders or even a leader of a religious denomination, such as priests or ministers. "There can be more than one prayer that is shared," she said.

Many different kinds of dances are offered. Some are particular to certain tribes, while others are dances for women or men only, and still others honor people for something they have achieved, Mitchell said.

"When you're dancing, your whole being is being energized and expressed," she said. "As a woman ... when your feet are dancing and close to the earth, you are honoring God's gift to us."

"[Dancing] helps me to better appreciate the fact that I am a woman and that the relationship to Mother Earth is very important." said Mitchell, 72.

When she celebrated her 50th jubilee as a sister in 2011 in Tucson. Ariz., she attended a powwow where a surprise dance was given in her honor. The University of Great Falls held a powwow in March and a dance was offered in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman canonized and Mitchell's namesake.

"The dances represent nature and who created nature, one God," she said. "God is called by many names ... a name that means something in certain tribal languages."

Another part of a powwow includes competitive dances for different age groups. According to Mitchell, the dances are not considered performances because the intent is to honor God and share the gifts that God has given to the people playing the drums, singing and dancing.

"In a powwow there's that sacredness to it and respect for creation, respect for God, respect for one another," she said. People who participate in these competitive dances have been learning and practicing from a very young age, sometimes 2 or 3 years old.

"These dancers give honor and respect and gratitude to God's creation," Mitchell said.

There is always a round dance at every powwow that represents the earth, the world, unity, oneness, and that all are brothers and sisters. Everyone is invited to dance in the way of their tribe. It will oftentimes conclude the powwow.

"Whenever there's a dance, there's a drumbeat and that ... represents our own heartbeat [that] is at one with the beat of the drum," Mitchell said.

It serves as a reminder to everyone that God is the Creator who gives the breath of life and gift of a heartbeat, something that unites all the participants with nature and creation.

"Every time we hear that drum, there's something that resonates ... with us and we are in tune with and in tune to the heartbeat that we have been gifted with from God." Mitchell said.

She added the powwow is a place where all the different tribes of Native American people can meet and unite through the sharing of their gifts from God with one another.

"It is a source of enrichment, it's a source of gratitude, knowing that we have so many different tribes and so many different cultures and traditions, different dances, different songs and at a powwow, all of this can become one," Mitchell said.

"We can appreciate one another's gifts and these gifts we are sharing with one another."

Caption: Michael Khadija Anderson dances butoh at a community event called "Butoh Meadow" in August 2012 in Silver Lake, Calif.

[Eloisa Perez-Lozano is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]
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Title Annotation:GLOBAL FAITH; Katya Viswanadhan, Michael Khadija Anderson and Kateri Mitchell
Author:Perez-Lozano, Eloisa
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 21, 2013
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