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From India to Rutgers, a Classic Dance Form Perseveres

After four hours of dancers’ adjusting formations, correcting hand gestures and coordinating facial expressions, Wednesday night’s late practice extended into Thursday morning.

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With bells adorning their ankles, the young women, who are part of a dance team at Rutgers University, sat in cozy chairs or on the floor of Tilden Hall, discussing a competition on Saturday. “If we win, we get to host next year,” Harini Bupathi, 20, a junior and a captain of the dance team, said. “Our goal is to host.”

The competition the team members were busily preparing for is a far cry from the dance shows that have become hits on television or even those often held among colleges.

Instead, Ms. Bupathi’s team specializes in Indian classical dance, which stretches back centuries and which a growing number of younger Indians are trying to promote in the United States.

Underscoring the popularity of the dance form, Natya, as the Rutgers team is called, will compete against teams from seven other colleges, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Duke, at the University of Pittsburgh.

Indian classical dance is a form of dance “that has its roots in Hinduism, Hindu mythology, and that has been alive for more than 5,000 years,” said Dimple Shah, 20, a junior and the other captain of the Rutgers team.

There are seven major forms of Indian classical dance: Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam and Kathakali. All consist of steps, hand gestures and facial expressions that are sometimes combined to tell a story. Two of the Natya members specialize in Kathak, a dance from northern India, while the others specialize in Bharatnatyam, from southern India.

Although “classical dance originated in temples as a form of worship,” Aparna Shankar, a sophomore, said, it became the dominant dance of the Indian film industry during the early years of Bollywood. Some of the most famous actresses in Bollywood were also gifted dancers.

“So many times, people forget that Indian classical dance was started way before Bollywood,” Ms. Bupathi said. “But now it has modernized to a different definition of Bollywood and we forget that Indian classical dance has kind of set up that foundation.”

Many colleges have Indian dance groups that fuse Bollywood and classical dance, but teams focused on classical dance are sprouting on campuses, said Shobhitha Ravi, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who was the captain of the school’s team when it won last year’s Indian classical dance competition.

For some of the Rutgers students, the chance to perform Indian classical dance in an organized fashion with others who share their passion was a big reason they chose to attend the university.

Ms. Bupathi, who is the first in her family born in the United States, represents a younger generation of dancers who are supported by parents who never had such opportunities. “I think it’s one of the reasons that this generation, younger generations, actually know a lot about their culture,” she said. “Growing up in America, you’re not exposed to that as much, and through dance I’ve learned so much that I haven’t been able to if I had grown up in India.”

After moving from Iselin, N.J., to Edison, N.J., Ms. Bupathi met a dance teacher who lived down the block, and began lessons in Indian classical dance when she was 8.

About seven years later, she performed her Arangetram, or dance graduation, a several-hour performance that is usually set to live music, in Bharatnatyam.

“Arangetram literally means ascending the stage,” Ms. Bupathi said. “I want to say it’s a graduation of dance, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean the end of your dance. It’s a chance to showcase what you’ve been learning.”

“Instead of a sweet 16,” she added, “this was my kind of present.”

Being a leader of the Rutgers team, Ms. Bupathi said, has given her a chance to show that “we still exist, you know this is still a continuing culture, you know, a continuing dance form and that’s not going to stop anytime soon.”