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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine


Empowerment Through Dance

Rashmi BasapurRashmi Basapur ’10, winner of this year's Second Decade Society/Florence "Meg" Long Walsh Leadership Award, will spend the next year combining two of her passions—public health and dance—by teaching classical Indian dance at a free boarding school in India. The school serves children born into the country's lowest caste, the Dalits, or so-called "untouchables."

With the $15,000 award from the Second Decade Society (SDS), Basapur, a public health studies major, will live and volunteer at the Shanti Bhavan School outside Bangalore, working as a classroom instructor during the day for students ages 4 to 17. After school, she'll train girls in the classical art of Bharathanatyam, an ancient and widely practiced dance form that Basapur has spent the past 11 years mastering. Bharathanatyam is generally off-limits to Dalits, who are too poor to afford lessons and not valued enough to be included in this aspect of cultural heritage.

Basapur, who has spent many summer months at her grandfather's home in Bangalore, wants to help change that. A certified instructor, she seeks to impart the physical benefits of the dance—endurance and fitness, chiefly—and use Bharathanatyam to boost the girls' self-esteem. She also wants to pass on the teaching to someone else when she leaves. "For years following, then, I can look forward to returning as a public health professional and seeing the enduring results of my initial program," she wrote in her SDS application essay.

She will use some of the SDS money for dance costumes for the children; those for Bharathanatyam are elaborate and expensive.

In recommending her for the award, James Goodyear, associate director of Arts and Sciences' Public Health Studies Program, said Basapur's project takes direct action against injustice. "If fundamental change starts with one small step, then teaching Dalit girls a series of classical Indian dance steps can lead to dynamic change," he wrote. "Enabling poor girls to gain self-confidence and a sense of belonging in today's India is a profound act of empowerment."