Ranee Ramaswamy is a master teacher and performer of Bharatanatyam, the southern Indian dance form. She founded Ragamala Dance Company in 1992 and currently serves as co-artistic director, choreographer, and principal dancer along with her creative partner and daughter Aparna Ramaswamy. Before sitting down as a panelist for the Zócalo/Soraya event, “How Do Homelands Cross Borders?,” presented in conjunction with a performance of Ragamala Dance Company’s Fires of Varanasi, she stopped by our green room to share why she loves Minnesota, her favorite heirloom, and performing at the Kennedy Center.
You’ve traveled all around the world to dance. Where was your favorite place to perform?
There were so many lovely moments in different places, but this year the Kennedy Center had us do Fires of Varanasi outside over 21 feet of water. It was a magical night, with the moon up there, and people sitting all around us. Usually the ceiling ends, but here, the sky went up. It was just gorgeous. After not having performed for a year and a half, we were blessed to do that performance.
Do you have a favorite family heirloom?
It’s a beautiful lamp that is a bronze elephant on which stands a woman with a little lamp in her hand, which was given as a dowry to my mother's mother when she got married at 10 years old. And she has her name written on it. My grandmother is someone that I really look up to. [The lamp] sits in my foyer, and every time I look at it, I remember her.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Never give up. Work, work, work, work and keep working at anything you want to do, and it'll happen the way you want it. So, if you start something, don't end it without finishing it. I have lived that way my whole life in the United States. I know a lot of people who get very discouraged because things are not easy at all times for everybody. But giving up is so easy.
Do you remember your first creative act?
Yes, in India we do floor drawings every morning before the sunrise. Women do it, and they teach their children. So when I was 5 years old, we were at my grandmother's house, and my mother was pregnant with my brother, and she taught me to do those floor drawings with chalk on my grandmother's kitchen floor, which is black stone. It starts with dots, and then you connect it. There are thousands of designs that people memorize, and then they do it every day in front of the main entrance to welcome the goddess of prosperity. When I teach it to kids, I tell them: This is the first design that my mother taught me.
What is the hardest aspect of Bharatanatyam?
Expression. Even this afternoon, when I was driving in the bus to come here, Aparna [Ranee’s daughter and the co-director of Ragamala Dance Company] and I were talking about how to make it real, the expressive aspect of Bharatanatyam. Because you are an actress. You're emoting to music. But you're not just miming, you're actually communicating with whoever you're talking to. What are you showing the audience? What are you seeing? What you see, then they see. You look, and they look. You feel, and they feel.
You’ve lived in Minnesota since immigrating to the U.S. in 1978. What makes it such a special place?
I think Minnesota is a very welcoming place. I immigrated when I was 26 years old and brought an art form that nobody knew. The amount of art that exists in Minnesota—the artists are very good artists who have worked for a long time. And each one of them have brought so much of their culture and art forms to make Minnesota a rich art scene. Being on panels and in other places, you naturally compare with what you have back in your hometown, and I think Minnesota is rich with arts.