Intense and pure

On any given day, Amit Bagga could be considered a dancer, as he twists and turns to fulfill the many duties he carries out as an aide to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). But starting Friday he will put on a performance unlike any other as he reaches back to his roots to dance in a new South Asian arts organization’s latest show.

Though Bagga, 25, has been doing Indian dance since he was 7 years old, his decision to tap into his arts background after his move from New York to Washington last year proved more difficult than he had expected. 

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Washington “was a little bit underwhelming and perhaps homogenous compared to a lot of places I’ve lived,” he said, speaking of New York and Mumbai.

Involved in a variety of relatively unstructured Indian cultural activities growing up, Bagga viewed dance as a central and enjoyable part of South Asian social occasions, including weddings, birthdays and anniversary parties.

“In the ethnic culture that I come from, it’s a really, really important part of the celebration,” he said.

And when it came time to find and adopt a social community as an adult, it played a crucial role for him in Washington as well.

First joining what he called Washington’s “robust” South Asian gay community, Bagga became familiar with the South Asian Performing Arts Network (SAPAN) Institute, an organization dedicated to bringing together all types of South Asian performing arts and artists in the Washington area.

“They’re an extremely creative bunch of folks,” Bagga said. “They certainly pull a lot of different motifs from different parts of the subcontinent and bring them to the pieces that they perform.”

Founded in 2007 by four members of an Indian dance company, SAPAN now has roughly 50 members and offers classes, performing arts productions and networking within Washington’s South Asian community.

“Basically we just thought there was a gap missing in D.C. where we had so much talent and all these people that were really great violin players or really great singers or really great classical dancers, and they didn’t really have a place to go,” SAPAN co-founder Sarika Singh said.

For Bagga, SAPAN offered an opportunity to tap into his Indian roots and indulge his love of dance, both cultural and popular, all while meeting other like-minded people in the area.

“Involvement in this particular company allowed me to explore a really fun and enjoyable aspect of my South Asian heritage in a fairly structured, fairly professional setting, but one that’s not too stressful,” he said.

This weekend, Bagga’s artistic expression will be on display as a dancer in SAPAN’s production of “The Eleventh Face: Ravana’s Untold Story.” Combining dance, music and theater, the show tells the story of Ravana, the demon king of the Sri Lankan epic The Ramayana.

According to Bagga, the traditional Hindu epic “represents the triumph of good and purity over evil.” He added that the performance demonstrates just how strong certain artistic traditions are among the South Asian diaspora. Many of the dances, Bagga said, bring together people of varied ethnicities from different parts of the subcontinent.

“I think a lot of people don’t generally tend to know that if you’re from a different part of India, the way you practice your culture can be completely different, to an extent where people from different parts of India literally can’t communicate with each other unless they speak in English because the languages are just that different,” he said.

One unifier, however, is artistic performance. Dance, and folk dances in particular, have similarities throughout South Asia and become fluid expressions of emotion that transcend language barriers, Bagga said.

“I think dance is the most intense and pure form of emotional expression,” he said. “Whether it be dance or music or vocal performance, there are quite a large number of young South Asian Americans who feel the need to engage that.”

Due to his hectic work schedule — he’s Weiner’s office manager, scheduler and issues liaison — Bagga is able to participate in rehearsals only one night a week, compared to the four to five other members invest. His boss is aware of the show, though, but likely won’t be able to make the weekend performances as he’ll be in his district, Bagga said.

No matter how the show goes, Bagga said he has found something vital in his involvement with SAPAN.

“I’ve been fortunate to find a community of people I really find fulfilling and enjoyable, both intellectually and socially,” he said, which gives him an active and engaging way to remain connected to his cultural identity.

The performances will take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Undercroft Theatre at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington. Visit http://sapanarts.org for more information.