Classical Indian dancer Ranee Ramaswamy adept both onstage and in the kitchen
Ramaswamy, who will perform Thursday in Westbrook, teaches a cooking class in conjunction with her company's tour.
Peggy Grodinsky, Portland Press Herald
April 12, 2017
Classical Indian dancer Ranee Ramaswamy and her Minnesota-based Ragamala Dance Company will perform in Westbrook on Thursday. The 25-year-old company has performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Bali Arts Festival in Indonesia, to name just a very few of its venues. The New York Times has praised the company for demonstrating “how Indian forms can provide some of the most transcendent experiences that dance has to offer.” And a video excerpt of “Sacred Earth,” the dance to be performed in Maine, on the website of Maine sponsor Portland Ovations, is transfixing.
So we’re a little embarrassed to admit that what really caught our eye here in the food section is the Indian vegetarian cooking class that Ramaswamy will teach this evening in Portland (the class, at O’Maine Studios, is sold out). Offhand, we couldn’t recall hearing of another famous dancer teaching a cooking class in conjunction with a tour. Curious, we called up Ramaswamy to ask about it. She didn’t remember how this particular class got on the schedule, but told us that she’s often taught cooking in conjunction with dance, and that every year she cooks for hundreds for an annual fundraiser for her company.
Ranee Ramaswamy will be dancing and teaching a cooking class on her visit to Portland. “I am not a chef,” says Ramaswamy. Experience, she adds, is what makes a good cook.
We also learned that she began dancing Bharatanatyam, a genre of Indian classical dance, as a girl in India, moved to the States as a young adult with her then-husband and eventually co-founded the dance company here with her daughter. Ramaswamy mentioned that her sacred name is Annapoorna, who is the Indian goddess of food (“In India, everything is given a form. Food is imagined as a beautiful woman”); that she thinks Americans need to tone it down with our current craze for turmeric (“We use a pinch of turmeric. If you use a tablespoon of turmeric, you can’t put it in your mouth, it’s so strong”); and that when she was growing up, her grandparents would clean the stove, then make designs in rice flour next to it “to thank that stove for helping us cook.”
The Indian practice of making beautiful, sometimes elaborate rice flour patterns outside of homes and businesses – the designs are intended to invite in prosperity – in part inspires the dance “Sacred Earth.”
This interview, conducted over two telephone conversations, has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We were surprised to hear that a famous dancer on tour in Maine is teaching a cooking class. How’d that happen?
A: When I first came (to America), I did a lot of work in schools all over Minnesota. They had a residency program where you teach Indian culture through dance. Many schools where I did these residencies asked me if I would cook and if the chefs in the lunchroom could make one simple thing for the kids to eat for India Residency Week. This is how I started to understand that food was a way to socialize and to get an entryway to the culture of India to Americans.
I started cooking when I was 20. I got married at 20 and had to set up my own household and had to cook, and I wasn’t very good at it. Slowly and surely, I improved. For 45 years I have cooked. I am used to doing fast, quick, easy, tasty food. So it comes from experience, not because I am a professional. I am not a chef. We have an expression – that person has a good hand smell. It means they are a good cook. Somehow I am a really good cook, and I love to cook.
Ranee Ramaswamy (kneeling) and her daughter Aparna (center) are the founders of the Ragamala Dance Company, which will perform Thursday in Westbrook. Ramaswamy will also teach an Indian vegetarian cooking class.
Q: American dancers, at least ballet dancers, are infamous for a tortured relationship with food, many suffering from anorexia and other eating disorders. Is the same true of classical Indian dancers?
A: No. If you go to India, you find dancers of all sizes. Women are voluptuous. Women are curvy. (Indians) like women who are not just stick-like. In general, in India, looking curvaceous is a little connected to wealth. You are well off, and you look good.
The expectation of being very skinny is not there.
Because (Bharatanatyam classical) dance is a solo dance, you don’t have a body type, eight people or 12 people don’t have to look the same. The dancer is an individual who embodies the spirit of the music, the song. In all Asian dance, the strength comes from within. It is not about having long, tall bodies. It’s more about having an extremely emotive face, and a body that goes with that face. Even in my own company, we have five dancers. There is one very tall dancer. I am the shortest. There is all in between. They are all beautifully shaped but nobody is stick-thin. (The difficulty with food) happens when everybody has to look the same.
That doesn’t mean you can let your body go. We keep healthy in every which way. We are careful with what we eat. We exercise so that we keep in shape. We avoid eating sweets and ice cream. It’s not easy to dance when you are overweight. I am 65, and I still dance full time with the company, and I maintain my body. Sometimes, I say, ‘Why am I doing this? Maybe I can eat all I want and just relax.’ But I don’t really feel like I am missing anything. Because what I get out of performing is so satisfying. Just practicing this art form is so satisfying. It doesn’t seem like a sacrifice.
Q: How do you eat before a performance?
A: Traveling, it’s actually a little difficult to keep your food routine. We live such disciplined lives. We need rest. We need food.
And you have to constantly keep fit. Dance takes a lot of energy.
We eat breakfast in the morning, like oatmeal or toast or yogurt. We usually eat our lunch at 2 p.m. Yesterday, we were performing in Winona (Minnesota). For lunch, we had soup, vegetarian soup, rice, some bread – our carbohydrates. We had cheese. None of us are vegan. A lot of us are vegetarians. Some of us have a little salad or munch on a bagel. And after 2, we don’t eat anything.
Then we eat after the performance. The presenters give us dinner. We usually give a list of what we won’t eat. Last night we had a pizza. It’s often easiest for presenters to order a pizza. They can get it vegetarian, and it’s easy for us to carry to our hotels.
When we are traveling, I carry a rice cooker. We always try to find a co-op, where we can buy some yogurt. Once you have toured a lot, you figure out what works. I always carry these things in case there is food that is not…. Sometimes the presenter will provide meat sandwiches, which I don’t eat. It used to be very difficult when I first came to this country as a vegetarian, but now things have changed so much. It’s so much easier.
Q: Dance is, of course, an art form. Do you think cooking is also an art form?
A: There are two words in Indian classical dance: Bhava means expression. Rasa means flavor. So the bhava is the emotion that the dancer puts in their body. They emote as they dance. And the rasa is the feeling the audience gets watching the dancers. It is like the chef. The chef puts in ingredients, the spices you put in your food, that’s bhava. And rasa is the flavor that the person who eats it gets. If the perfect ingredients don’t go in, the taste is not going to happen. But it’s not about measuring 1/2 cup, 1/4 cup, 1 cup. It is about knowing how much to boil, how much to blend, how much to stir fry. That comes with practice.