Indian dance troupe teach science and math with classical dance


Lavanya Rajagopalan is a scientist and a dancer. His passions may seem like an unlikely match, but Rajagopalan’s penchant for educating others has produced significant gains, securing state funding for a creative combination of the two.

Rajagopalan has a doctorate in biochemistry and is the founder of Silambam Houston, a dance organization with studios in Houston and Pearland. During the pandemic, she merged these interests to create a series of five videos (with five more in the works) that teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics to elementary school students using classical Indian dance.

Each video teaches a STEM concept and an Indian classical dance technique or concept. The first set includes germination, gravity, water cycle, factors, and metamorphosis. Each is linked to Texas Specific Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

A vignette from Silambam’s Dancing Into STEM series shows the germination process during Bharatanatyam movements.

Courtesy of Silambam

Written and choreographed by Rajagopalan, the videos were released this fall and sent to middle school districts. Their completion and practical use is a long-term achievement for Rajagopalan, whose multi-year journey through science and dance has converged to produce this innovative result.

Rajagopalan came to the United States 20 years ago to earn his doctorate in biochemistry. She had danced all her youth in India and she missed living in the United States, so she decided to start teaching Indian classical dance.

In 2002, Rajagopalan founded Silambam Houston. The organization continued to grow as it conducted doctoral and postdoctoral work. Finally, as she began to have children, Rajagopalan said that she felt that she had to choose between dancing and scientific research. She moved away from the latter and focused on building Silambam.

Silambam Houston currently teaches about 150 students, according to his site.

Silambam Houston currently teaches about 150 students, according to his site.

Amitava Sarkar

“Something had to give way,” Rajagopalan said. “I started to freelance as a science writer and put more energy into Silambam.”

Then Rajagopalan started volunteering for her children’s school, where she started a STEM club before school.

“I’m a scientist and wanted them to know everything that turns me on about science,” Rajagopalan said. “To me, I felt like there wasn’t enough enthusiasm for STEM in our elementary school system.

Rajagopalan and a parent from the school who worked at NASA started the club, expecting 10 to 20 people to show up. On the first day, they found 120 students waiting to enter.

A performance by Silambam Houston.

A performance by Silambam Houston.

Amitava Sarkar

“It was very rewarding and a bit shocking,” Rajagopalan said. “We built this club so that by the time my kids left elementary school we had 20 parent volunteers and were offering several different six-week modules. “

The modules included topics such as “Nimble Neurons”, “Mad Chemistry” and “Eco Adventures”.

When Rajagopalan’s youngest child finished elementary school, she withdrew from the club and started working on two STEM modules that she planned to teach live, this time using dance. One used rhythm and tenses to talk about numbers and math concepts. The other was called “Science Story”. She was done when COVID hit.

Now stuck at home, Rajagopalan had plenty of time to think about what she wanted to do. Silambam Houston had previously done programming in schools with a workshop called “Dance Across India”. It had given her a good idea of ​​what it was like to teach in classrooms using ballet dancing.

Lavanya Rajagopalan founded Silambam Houston in 2002.

Lavanya Rajagopalan founded Silambam Houston in 2002.

Amitava Sarkar

It was then that the idea for Dancing into STEM came to him. She started scripting the videos in 2020, then turned to the Texas Arts Commission to ask if they would help fund it. They were so excited about the project that they gave her all the money she asked for.

“Now we had the money and my dancers were bored because we didn’t have performances. So I scripted them and that’s how it happened, ”Rajagopalan said. “I just had a lot of free time and a weird-thinking brain. Those two things are second nature to me. I’m a scientist and I’m a dancer. I don’t think I had consciously thought about it, but deep down. my mind was still there – how do I put these things together? “

Some videos came together quickly, others took a little longer. For example, the mailman video teaches an abstract concept and typically no student learns at the start of elementary school.

A vignette from Silambam's Dancing Into STEM series illustrates the water cycle during the movements of Bharatanatyam.

A vignette from Silambam’s Dancing Into STEM series illustrates the water cycle during the movements of Bharatanatyam.

Courtesy of Silambam

“I felt there were things we could do to make it somewhat understandable,” Rajagopalan said. “You have this girl on the left doing three turns with four steps and this one on the right using four turns and three steps. It is the same number of beats.

Rajagopalan said she would stay awake at 3 a.m. thinking of ways to match the unique gestures and facial expressions of Indian classical dance with the concepts of germination or metamorphosis. She said a lot of the concepts were easy to say through dance because dance has the vocabulary to do so with its movements, gestures and facial expressions.

“There is so much richness in the vocabulary of classical Indian dance,” she said.

Available free online at Silambam Houston website, Rajagopalan hopes teachers will use the videos in class and provide feedback. Silambam also offers it live.

“It makes them move. It makes their blood shed, ”Rajagopalan said. “When you move, you can’t really be bored. You have to make a commitment. You have to think it over. This is how everything should be taught, with dance and music.

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