Some call her a trailblazer, a pioneer. Others call her a teacher, guru and friend. For Hema Sharma, her own identity is clear — she’s a lover of dance and culture.
Sharma is the founder of Nritya School of Indian Dance and Music in Overland Park. Nritya, which simply means “dance,” is celebrating 30 years of business in Kansas City on July 30. It was the first school of traditional Indian dance in Kansas City. That’s a point Sharma takes great pride in.
“It’s great to see some of the younger generation picking up the dance,” Sharma said. “The tradition cannot end with me. Someone has to lead the path.”
Sharma’s love affair with dance began at an early age while she was growing up in India. Her mother enrolled Sharma and her two sisters in a wide variety of art classes — arts and crafts, music, dance, etc. But dance stole her heart at age 8 and she’s been committed to the art form ever since.
She started her first dance school in India at the age of 18 and traveled around the country to perform. When Sharma was in her early 20s, her parents began seeking a husband for her (arranged marriages were still tradition in India).
While Sharma will tell you that she was not ready to get married, and resisted the idea, that all changed when she heard her suitor was in the United States. In 1975, at the age of 23, she moved to the U.S.
By 1985, Sharma was a U.S. citizen living in Newton, Kan., with a young daughter and a 5-year-old niece who had not yet been exposed to traditional Indian dance. Her sister-in-law implored Sharma to begin teaching again for the girls’ sake.
Sharma began classes in nearby Wichita, Kan., for a few students. When she moved to Overland Park in 1987, she began Nritya here and continued teaching in Wichita.
From 1995 to about 2012, Sharma spread Indian dance and culture near and far, teaching monthly weekend classes in Wichita, Topeka, Ames, Ia., and wherever else she was invited in addition to her Kansas City classes.
“I spread the arts all over,” Sharma mused. “My husband was cooperative and I only had one daughter.”
While Sharma points to her daughter as the initiation of her dance school in Kansas, it’s her thirst for knowledge and desire to share culture that spurs her on.
“Ethnic enrichment is the best thing — when we are sharing from my culture to your culture, your culture to my culture,” Sharma says. “Every culture has good and bad and I try to take the good from every culture.”
In addition to teaching dance classes through Nritya, Sharma stays active in the community.
For the past 20 years, she’s volunteered in schools and served on the Mayor’s Ethnic Enrichment Commission. She’s currently doing a library program with an Art in the Loop grant and she’s a Kansas City Young Audiences Teaching Artist at Shoal Creek Elementary.
She and her students perform at events and festivals around the city such as Fringe Festival, Ethnic Enrichment Festival and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Passport to India festival.
Sharma began working with The Nelson in 1997, when she was invited to help with a festival celebrating the independence of India and Pakistan. Collaborations have continued throughout the years, including Sharma’s integral involvement in helping organize the museum’s “Passport to India” event, which celebrated its fifth year of sharing Indian culture with Kansas City in April.
Kim Masteller, curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at The Nelson, praises Sharma for her commitment to keeping traditional Indian dance alive.
“It’s an incredible art form that survives only through the practice, otherwise it would die,” Masteller said. “The contemporary practice of dance is the greatest way that Indian culture and religion are shared.”
Masteller says that Sharma’s love for culture and community make her a great asset to The Nelson.
It’s the same attribute that makes her a great teacher, according to her students.
“She’s passionate,” says 15-year-old Anushka Ganesh, an incoming sophomore at Blue Valley High School who has been dancing since she was 8 years old.
“She is also very patient and helpful,” added 18-year-old Ashwini Ganesh, a 2017 Blue Valley graduate who is bound for Ohio State University, where she will minor in dance.
Both sisters and Sharma describe Indian dance as structured storytelling with dance. It’s an art form that both allows the dancers to stay in touch with Indian culture and share that culture with others.
“Dance keeps me in touch with my heritage, mythology and Hindu culture,” Ashwini says. “Dance helps me with our religion, it paints a picture for me.”
Both Ashwini and Anushka will be graduating from the Nritya dance school this year, although Anushka plans to stay on and work with younger students. The graduation and anniversary celebration will be held July 30 at Avila University (see right for details).
The sisters represent Sharma’s 34th and 35th graduates, an accomplishment that culminates in a solo performance of nine different dances to live music. It’s a task Sharma describes as mentally and physically challenging.
Sharma says her goal with the hundreds of students from different backgrounds who have attended her classes over the years is to share knowledge.
“I plant some seed in them that someday will grow up to trees,” she said. “And maybe someday they will plant a seed in someone else.”
She doesn’t plan to stop planting any time soon. In fact, this fall she is partnering with friend Dr. Latha Venkatesh to start a new venture called Happy Brains Academy, featuring classes to promote healthy brains in ages 4 – 5 through health and creativity.
While the cultural makeup of Kansas City has changed a lot since Sharma first came here, growing from 50 – 60 Indian families in the Metro to an estimated 7,000, she says there is still much we can all learn from each other.
For Sharma, the work of sharing culture never ends.
“I will continue to my last day,” Sharma said.