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How Hema Ramaswamy Found Healing Through Traditional Indian Dance

Hema Ramaswamy, a young Indian-American woman with Down syndrome, performs her <em>arangetram</em>, the public presentation of <em>bharata natyam</em>, a classical South Indian dance form.
Hema Ramaswamy, a young Indian-American woman with Down syndrome, performs her <em>arangetram</em>, the public presentation of <em>bharata natyam</em>, a classical South Indian dance form.

Jewish girls become a bat mitzvah; 15 year-old Latinas celebrate with quinceañeras. But for generations of Indian-American girls, the rite of passage is performing a classical Indian dance before a crowd of hundreds. After years of preparation, Hema Ramaswamy of Middletown, N.J., is ready to unveil her arangetram.

An arangetram, which literally means "ascending the stage," is a major accomplishment that takes years of preparation. This moment, when a student of dance or music asserts her artistic independence, usually happens in the teen years. Ramaswamy is 23.

Ramaswamy, who has Down syndrome, originally began dancing for health reasons. "But then it became part of her, and she really loves and enjoys it, and it took her 13 years with a lot of challenges, midway, to complete this," explained her father, Ram. "And now today is a perfect day for her — her graduating in this art."

She was able to achieve this despite her diagnosis and despite two major surgeries for a dangerous leak of cerebrospinal fluid. Her father said dance has strengthened Ramaswamy's muscles and given her fine motor skills she simply didn't have before.

"I feel so happy in dancing," she beams, surrounded by a flurry of doting aunties while preparing for her performance.

Hema Ramaswamy performs her <em>arangetram,</em> the public presentation of <em>bharata natyam.</em>
/ Preston Merchant
Hema Ramaswamy performs her <em>arangetram,</em> the public presentation of <em>bharata natyam.</em>

Ramaswamy's arangetram is 2 1/2 hours long and consists of 10 different dances. One is about the god Krishna, who, as a baby, starts devouring mud. Dancers usually try to mimic baby Krishna, but Ramaswamy becomes him. She then pivots into the role of Krishna's angry mother, who discovers her filthy son and orders him to open his mouth. But instead of finding mud, she finds planets, stars, galaxies — an entire unknown cosmos lying within. This is the dance that brings the audience to tears.

"Thank you, everybody for coming and supporting me," Ramaswamy says to a cheering audience. "I'm feeling so happy. Please enjoy your rest of your evening."

Her father tells the crowd that Ramaswamy's arangetram was more than a dance graduation; it was the day she became, in the eyes of the world, a full individual.

Having achieved this goal, Ramaswamy says, she now plans to go to college.

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