Chanting rhythmically as she drummed a stick called a thattukazhi against a wooden block, Kausi Subramaniam led 11 young girls through adavus, the basic steps of the classic form of Indian dance bharatanatyam at her Kalalaya Indian Performing Arts studio.
The San Antonio Express-News reports if she saw something she didn't like, she corrected them. "Keep your arms up." Or, "Don't cover your face." Or, "Thumbs bent." Subramanim's studio, is located in a nondescript office building near the airport.
The girls, most dressed in kurtis, the long, colorful upper garments that allow freedom of movement, were warming up for their weekly lesson in an ancient art form that, for many of their parents, represents an unbreakable connection to their culture and history.
Often lost in San Antonio's minority-majority designation is the growing Indian population here, a group deeply invested in preserving and passing along to a new generation of American-born children aspects of Indian culture -- and traditional dance for girls is a big part of that.
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There are at least five studios in the city that teach it and students can choose to learn bharathanatyam, which comes from southern India, kathak from the north and even Bollywood dance, which has been described as the hip-hop of India. Subramaniam alone teaches 150 students at her studio.
"Dancing is a way people from the Indian diaspora keep their traditions alive, their heritage alive," said Suhail Arastu, director of advancement for Musical Bridges Around the World and manager of San Antonio's Sister City Relations with Chennai, India. "This is important, especially for parents born in India whose children were born here."
As San Antonio's tech and medical industries continue to grow, the city has attracted a growing number of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the Indian population grew an average of 15.9 percent annually, to 8,733 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Indians have the highest rate of growth increase of any ethnic group in the city, besides Hispanics. If that growth continues through the current decade, the projected population in 2020 would be more than 33,000.
And with this growing population comes a growing interest in the Indian culture. San Antonio, for example, is said to hold the largest city-sanctioned Diwali celebration in the nation, drawing more than 15,000 people to Hemisfair each November for the annual Festival of Lights that symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
In most Indian families, Subramaniam said, young girls (boy dancers are rare) are expected to take dance lessons for at least a few years.
"We get calls from parents of children who are 1, 1 1/2 years old," she said with a smile. "I tell them to wait a few more years, until the child is at least 4."
As Subramaniam led the pre-teen girls through several dances they'd recently performed in a recital, their mothers sat against one wall, watching closely. Many of them likely took dance lessons when they were this age.
One mom, Dr. Poornima Mensinkai, said she wants her daughter Anvi, 10, to learn to dance to connect her to her roots.
"I feel it's the easiest way of teaching our core values and culture to our kids who are raised away from their homeland," said Mensinkai, 41, assistant professor at UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry. "It helps us grow more disciplined physically and spiritually strong."
Ten-year-old Durga Anjali Mondi, one of the students in Subramaniam's class, said she enjoys taking lessons.
"It's really fun because you get to express the stories from India and show them to other people," she said. "It's also fun to dance all together with everyone else."
As a girl growing up in India, money and other issues prevented Revathi Nethi from taking dance lessons. So the software engineer was adamant that her two daughters, Nithya, 10, and Tanvi, 6, learn the art form.
"I moved to the U.S. when I was about 25, so the cultural change was dramatic," she said. "But I want my daughters to have the best of both cultural worlds, so it was important that they take dance lessons so they can learn about the gods and warriors and other legends of India. It makes me so happy that when I see them dancing. I feel like I'm dancing."
Indian dance has gone through something of a revolution over the past two decades, according to Rajam Ramamurthy, a pediatrician and co-founder of the Arathi School of Indian Dance, with new innovations shaking things up.
"It's a much more vibrant art form, with the coming of so-called Bollywood dancing, based on the folk or street dances and made popular by the nation's thriving film industry," she said.
Some studios, such as Subramaniam's Kalalaya school, teach dances that tell non-Hindu stories to attract a more diverse student body.
"We'll tell Christian stories through Indian dance," she said.
Indian dance is also popular because it can be a lifetime activity. While ballet, tap, even hip-hop dancer often drop the activity once they reach commitment-heavy high school age or go away to college, Indian dancers often continue into adulthood.
"As they get older, they rely more on the storytelling aspect of the dance and pull back on the physical force," Subramaniam said. "That way many women can dance into their 60s and 70s." Mensinkai, for example, continues taking lessons at Kaveri Natya Yoga, even at 41.
Sophie Salingaros is perhaps the biggest recent success story to come out of San Antonio. Now 22, she is studying chemistry and is a pre-med student at Columbia University in New York. Yet she also dances professionally and will soon depart on a 10-performance spring tour called "Vivartana."
Salingaros, who studied ballet before switching to Indian dance at age 8, said she was attracted to the physicality and creativity of it.
"It's so tied to storytelling," she said. "You can portray intense emotions and such complex feelings with your facial expressions and your hand and arm movements. It's like acting."
As these first-generation dancers grow up, the question arises whether it will be as important to them that their children learn the art as it has been for their parents.
"I think they will still want that," Ramamurthy said. "They're being exposed to this culture and I hope they'll see it as something they want to continue when they become parents."