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Computer Science Major Becomes Indian Dance Expert


Now to a conversation with a different beat.


MARTIN: This week Washington, D.C. is hosting the Fall Festival of Indian Arts featuring Indian dance music and poetry.


MARTIN: The festival is brought to the area each year by Dakshina, a dance company that blends classical Indian with modern and collaborative Latin and American artists. But it might surprise you to know just who is behind this move to bring Indian art to Washington.

Daniel Phoenix Singh has a degree in computer science. He works in IT during the day. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family in southern India and had never seen a live Indian dance performance until he went to college in the U.S.

To talk about his journey into dance and his work to bring Indian classical and modern performance to the U.S., Daniel Phoenix Singh joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL PHOENIX SINGH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what does Dakshina, the name of your dance company, mean?

SINGH: Dakshina has multiple meanings like most things in Asian culture. So one of the meanings that I'm kind of drawn to - Dakshina means offering and I felt like I had some wonderful teachers who gave me the gift of dance and I wanted to find a way to give that back, and so that's one of the meanings associated with Dakshina. And it also means from the South. And the dance form that we practice, Bharata Natyam, is from the South of India so it has both those meanings for me.

MARTIN: I'd like to play a short clip from one of the performers involved in the festival. This is Alif Laila on sitar, a classical Indian string instrumental. A lot of people will have heard the sitar, thankfully. Here it is.


MARTIN: Now in addition to just being a lovely performance, like yourself, Ms. Laila has an interesting back-story. She's performing an instrument that has traditionally been performed by men. And I wanted to ask if those kind of interesting back-stories are part of what you're trying to accomplish with the festival or is that just a happy accident?

SINGH: No. I think when we curate artists for our festivals we try to find people who have a new perspective on things. And whether it's personal or it's social or cultural, I'm particularly interested in people who help us look at things that we might have gotten familiar to and kind of dulled our senses and have us take a new look at it. And Alif is a wonderful musician and - but she's also an accomplished watercolor painter, and so that was her degree to start with and then later on she got into music and got into sitar playing.


SINGH: And for us, when I hear that, it's - the music is beautiful, like you said, but it's also a cultural trigger. It takes me to a place in time. It's kind of like smell and you know immediately where you're in your mind there's a memory associated with those sounds. And the music also in India or the South Asian subcontinent, the ragas are associated with mornings and afternoons and evenings, and seasons of the year and so everything has something built into it that you might not be able to articulate but it triggers something in you in a visceral way.

MARTIN: But it's going to trigger something depending on what your experience is with it.

SINGH: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I'm wondering is that trigger mainly directed towards South Asians who might have an experience and that you are kind of - that you are in a way challenging or for people who've never experienced it before?

SINGH: I think it does both. I think the people who have specific cultural memories will probably go there first and then maybe use that as a pathway to get into different places. And for people who don't have that specific place to go to I think the music is large enough that it has some universality in it and so people find their own access points. It might just be beautiful to start with but then it might put them in a trancelike place, it might calm them, it might excite them, so it gives multiple entry points for people.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Daniel Phoenix Singh. He's the founder of the Dakshina Company which is staging the Fall Festival of Indian Arts in Washington, D.C. this week.

So how did you find your way to dance?

SINGH: It was a lucky accident for me. I grew up in Chennai, India. Bollywood or the Tamil films were my access to artistic outlets and I saw a male actor, Kamal Haasan, perform in "Salangai Oli" and that was the first time that I was like oh, men can dance and men can dance classical Indian dance? So it was kind of the first time I was awake to that idea. But growing up in India, we were from a lower middle-class family and parents were struggling to get us into a private school, education was the focus, arts were the luxury that you kind of can't afford, and so I never had a chance to study dance. So I came to the U.S., started working here and then I was like okay, now I can finally pay for my classes and so I kind of started looking around for teachers for the classical Indian dance portion of it.

Meanwhile, I had enrolled in the computer science program. And then I had to do a physical education requirement, and it was like the last year of my computer science degree. I took a ballet class of a really beloved teacher, Pamela Matthews. And she was one of those rare teachers who could talk to me in terms I understood dance. She was talking to me about physics, and she found a way to connect dance and those words to me and it opened up a whole new world.

MARTIN: Your story is such a story is such an American story on the one hand because on the one hand you're bracing this classical traditional art form which you discovered in the United States that is part of a religious tradition that is not yours, but what you have embraced. And then as a man, you know, and embracing which is something that, you know, many people have trouble with men and dance, even as beautiful and skilled as they are, and as essential as men are to dance maybe people still have trouble embracing that.

And so I'd like to ask, do you now feel fully reconciled, you know, through your art, all your identities?

SINGH: Yeah. I think dance is the place where everything comes together for me. And people often ask me what are you doing? Why can't you just make up your mind and do one thing? Can't you just pick classical Indian dance? Can't you just pick modern dance? Or why do you have to try fusion? And I kind of grappled with that for a while. And it was one of my mentors Uttara Coorlawala, who was herself a modern dance and a Bharata Natyam dancer. She said to me you're choreographing your identity, which is not one checkbox or another checkbox. You've found a voice that takes all the checkboxes and you found a way to make it work for you. And so then she kind of gave me this language into what I was doing, kind of in an intuitive way.

And so I think yes, it is something truly American in that sense, you know, but it's also kind of a parallel to what the arts are in India. It's a composite nature. Arts are never just dance and never just music. You have to learn music. You have to learn acting. You have to learn poetry. And you have to know all those things and that's when you become a complete dancer. You can't just be a dancer. You have to know all these other things that undergird and support and build dance.

And that's also one of the reasons why we present our festival in a composite way. We don't just present dance because I feel like that's just showing one side of the coin and we have to show everything else that supports and builds dance.

MARTIN: I'm just sort of struggling with the whole question of how sexual identity factors into this, because on the one hand, I know it's important you. On the other hand, some might consider it gratuitous and extraneous to your art. So I'm kind of leaving it up to you to ask is that also part of...

SINGH: Yeah, it was important for me. You know, I was in the U.S., I was coming out, I was an immigrant, I was a person of color and words can sometimes get confusing and labels can be confining for me. Movement gave me the space to move through all these different things and these things are shifting for me. You know, I'm not where I was 10 years ago and I'm not where I'm going to be 10 years from now, so what better medium to work with it than with movement? Movement is fluid. It allows you to go back to different things at different points in life and revisit them if you want or move away from them. And for me being an openly gay man is important. The more people who are out there and willing to have a face in the public forum it's important. And so I tried to be cognizant of that and answer any questions people have about that.

MARTIN: Well, finally, the last question I have is really about the art itself - that if one had no exposure to Indian classical dance and somebody were to say well, I don't know about that. What am I, you know, can I appreciate it? Can I enjoy it? How would I understand it? I don't come from this cultural background at all. What would you say?

SINGH: I would say come into it with an open mind and see whatever you like. You know, it might just be the rhythm. It might just be the footwork or it might just be the eye movements. Find what speaks to you and then let that be the guide into the next thing and to the next thing. And just like anything else it's multilayered and several layers and you peel it away like an onion. This is another metaphor one of my dance teachers gave me. You start out being like an onion and in the process of becoming an artist is peeling one layer off at a time until you're completely bare.

MARTIN: Daniel Phoenix Singh is the director of Dakshina Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company. It's based in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. Daniel Phoenix Singh, thank you so much for joining us.

SINGH: And thank you for having me.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.