Deepti Mukund Navile

Growing up in a family that loved music, Deepti was encouraged to start dance classes at age 6 by her mother, who had not been allowed to learn dance herself. She learned the basics of Bharatanatyam in Calcutta and Cochin, before steeping herself in dance in Bangalore, learning the Mysore style of the dance under Guru Lalitha Srinivasan. She would occasionally skip college classes, with her father’s blessings, in order to perform. “Dance was my passion,” she recalled.

Deepti performed all over India, from the tiniest village to the capital, New Delhi, to living out of a suitcase for a 30-day tour of Rajasthan, winning a string of accolades along the way. She became a certified artist on Doordarshan, the government-run TV channel and also won the first prize for dancing in 1990 in the prestigious south central zone competition of five Indian states, the same year that she performed her Rangapravesha or debut performance.

In 1992, she moved to the US, performing as well as teaching dance, before settling down in Maryland and starting her dance school, Natyabhoomi, in Potomac in 1994. Over the years, Natyabhoomi has carved out a name for itself, with its dancers performing at venues like the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and being invited back to events like the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The students have performed live on national television and been featured in a number of newspapers.

The beauty of teaching dance is seeing a student get on the stage for their Rangapravesha, after years of rigorous training. “It fills me with so much pride and emotion,” said Deepti, who has successfully groomed 15 girls for their solo dance debut, with five more waiting in the wings. She is also active in the dance community, serving in 2012-2014 as the chairperson and currently (2017-2019) the programs director of the Indian Dance Educators Association (IDEA), which works to promote Indian dance and collaborations.

“It is not just an art form,” she said of dance. “It is a way of life.” She noted that dance teaches the girls discipline and grace, goal setting and teamwork, and it gives them tremendous confidence on the public stage.

With a bubbly and warm nurturing style, Deepti accentuates the positive in her students and convinces them they can always do better in dance. “It is not enough to look good on stage,” she tells her students. “You have to perform well, do the movements and convey the right emotions”.

And she relishes the fact that her students are her ambassadors, spreading the art form in their colleges and continuing to perform, often returning to dance at her events.

“I hope I make some difference to them, beyond teaching them ‘thaiya-thaiya,’” she said. “When they go out and acknowledge the importance of dance in their lives, I am touched.”