Click here for all links

Social media links

Sophia Salingaros' artistry moved her audience
- Kate Macdonald
Photo credit: Raghavendra Rampur (R Square Pix)

September 6, 2023

An open heart and a willingness to discover joy in whatever unexpected guise it might arise: these characteristics combine in an utterly unique way in Bharatanatyam artiste Sophia Salingaros. What led this highly acclaimed dancer from San Antonio, Texas into a love affair with the intricately complex and demanding art of Bharatanatyam - an art form whose origins trace to South India?

"My mom always wanted me to be a ballerina, and I started classes in ballet when I was five years old. From the beginning, I absolutely loved the magical blend of music, movement, and the stage. One day, my mom invited a family friend who taught Bharatanatyam over for dinner. This friend invited me to come and try a class, since she saw that I loved dance. My mom had absolutely no idea what this dance form was like, but she was open to the opportunity.

In that first class, I fell in love. There was something - I can't explain exactly what - that drew me to Bharatanatyam. You've heard of the saying, "When the student is ready, the guru appears"? Well, a couple of months after I started my classes, my teacher's guru moved to San Antonio - and I became his first student!"

Sophia describes her guru, Dr. Sreedhara Akkihebbalu, as a life-mentor who has guided her not only in her artistic journey but also in creating a balance between her two chosen life paths: dance and medicine. Her journey with Dr. Akkihebbalu began at the age of nine at his institution Kaveri Natya Yoga, and continues to this day. Sophia's guru has always encouraged her to enlarge the scope of her art by studying with other stalwarts. Sophia's first trip to India was to participate in a workshop with Rama Vaidyanathan.

"India: the birthplace of Bharatanatyam! I was utterly captivated by the way the dancers in India live and breathe dance. The Chennai season was a portal into another world... My guru has always encouraged me to watch every performance I can, in order to bring new inspiration into my dance; he sees this exploration as a pathway leading to a discovery of my own unique voice. I followed his advice and soon I was blessed with invitations to perform in India."

Sophia Salingaros

South-central Texas is far removed from South India, the birthplace of Bharatanatyam. In embracing this artform, Sophia admits that she had to play "catch-up." She immersed herself in Hindu mythology and Indian literature. Her guru would provide her with word for word translations of the texts used for dance, which she memorized. She studied Carnatic singing for ten years. Sophia acknowledges that she can't draw on an immersive experience of the Indian culture from birth as other Bharatanatyam exponents do. However, the emotional resonance of the characters portrayed, and the mythological context in which their stories unfold, are universal. "The purest thing I can offer," she humbly states, "is my immense love and respect for this art form."

Sophia's dance offerings at the Mahabharatottsav, a four-day celebration of Indian culture organized by The Great India Festival in Ottawa, Canada, this summer exemplified her love of this art form. In the hours preceding Sophia's presentation, rain poured from an angry sky, threatening to cancel the performance that she had travelled from New York City to offer us. But the rain perceptibly slackened as she began her performance. (Perhaps Rudra and the Maruts were captivated by the magic unfolding on stage!)

Sophia opened her program with a piece in praise of Lord Ganesha, the Ganapati Thalam. With characteristic elegance and precision, she invoked the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, opening the way for a brilliant outpouring of dance. The rasikas who had braved the weather and were gathered for her performance applauded enthusiastically. This was followed with an Alarippu which was a whimsical testament to Sophia's choreographic talents. In this creation she reimagined the traditional Alarippu as an ode to musical instruments. The rasikas watched with rapt attention as mridangam, veena, flute, cymbals, tanpura, voice, and ankle bells all materialized on stage through her delightful interpretation.

Her next offering was Emi Sethura, a Telugu folk song that tells the story of an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva who comes across a Shiva lingam hidden in the forest. The humble villager is not trained in the ways of the priests and does not know what to offer to Lord Shiva present in the lingam. Should he offer water? - flowers? - milk? - fruit from the trees? No. All of these have already been touched by other beings: they cannot be pure enough for the Lord. In an incandescent burst of understanding, the devotee realizes that the most perfect offering was with him all along: the love of a pure heart, humbly offered. Choreographed by Dr. Sreedhara Akkihebbalu, Sophia's interpretation touched the hearts of those gathered for her performance.

Sophia Salingaros

Sophia's final offering was a Thillana in Revathi ragam. In this original composition, Sophia evoked the enchanting movements of the peacock upon which Lord Muruga rides. For a timeless moment, I was transported into another realm. The musical compositions upon which Sophia's Bharatanatyam magic was woven were composed and recorded in Bengaluru by Dr. Sreedhara Akkihebbalu. When Sophia left the stage, I recall seeing a woman in tears, trying to get the artiste's attention. When she finally succeeded, she simply said, "No words. I have no words." Her tears told the story that she was unable to articulate. Sophia Salingaros' artistry has the power to profoundly move her audience: the power of heart speaking to heart.

Her unique presence in the world embraces two diverse callings: the art of Bharatanatyam, and the study of medicine. When asked how she manages to maintain these two diverse practices, she has some interesting observations.

"My advice to anyone considering combining professional careers in medicine and art is to stay focused. If you love something enough, you will find the time you need to pursue it. Many artistes, including my guru, have paved the way as dancer-doctors. Time management is crucial, as is determination. I see art and medicine as complementary practices. Often people imagine walls and boundaries that prevent them from pursuing their calling in life. But that is just a mindset."

Sophia's open mindset is carrying her towards an expression of her full potential in both medicine and the arts. In addition, as a Belgian-Greek-American Bharatanatyam dancer, Sophia hopes to spread awareness that true art knows no cultural or religious boundaries. May Sophia continue to create connection and healing through her chosen paths of medicine and dance!

Kate Macdonald
Kate Macdonald is a retired English teacher who discovered the joy of Bharatanatyam 2 years ago at age 62. Her Guru, Supratim Talukder of Kolkata, believes that learning can happen at any age.

Click here for all links
Reviews | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns