How a classical Indian dance gives UofL statistician outlet to champion social justice

Prathiba Natesan Batley | Nathan Cornetet/Fusion Photography
Prathiba Natesan Batley | Nathan Cornetet/Fusion Photography

Left brain or right brain? Most people, whether analytical or creative, focus on one skill. However, Prathiba Natesan Batley challenges this idea by excelling as an expert statistician and as an accomplished dancer.

Natesan Batley is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development and interim associate dean for faculty excellence at UofL’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). Although she specializes in statistics, there is another side to her life. Natesan Batley is a three-time Indian National Champion of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form, and founder of Eyakkam Dance Company.

“The left and right sides of my brain are always fighting against each other. Dance is a nice creative outlet for my mathematical brain, so it gives me a good balance,” said Natesan Batley.

Why Dance?

In addition to being a creative outlet, dance also has become a way for Natesan Batley to further her work in social justice. You may wonder what does an Indian classical dance form have to do with a place known for shaping future educators? She explained that by working in the CEHD, she connects her left and right brain with social justice as a driving force.

“I’m a statistician. I could work anywhere on campus, but I found a home here because the issues we address are close to my heart. As a college, we work with underrepresented groups, we talk about how to teach minority and Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), and we talk about the well-being of BIPOC faculty.”

Natesan Batley started her journey in dance when she was 12 years old. In 2012 she established Eyakkam Dance Company in Dallas, Texas, and is now based in Louisville. Eyakkam focuses on social justice, particularly in the practice of dance. Historically, Bharatanatyam has been subject to stereotypes and exclusion based on stigmas of the abolished Hindu caste system – a human rights violation that still exists in India and among the Indian diasporas.

Despite being involved in the dance form for more than 30 years, Natesan Batley has experienced exclusion from the Bharatanatyam community.

“I come from a mixed caste background and generally, people do not welcome someone like me. I am not seen as being part of that inner circle,” she said.

After struggling with the concept of not belonging, Natesan Batley realized that the world was her oyster. “I realized that what we do, such as being kind and compassionate, is what marks our identity – not belonging to a group determined by the roulette wheel of our birth,” she said.

Natesan Batley’s dance company seeks to reinvent Bharatanatyam by remaining true to the art while erasing the caste, religious and physical identities expected of dancers. Her dance company, Eyakkam, means “movement” in Tamil. She says although most Bharatanatyam dance companies choose a Hindu word or name with religious implications, she “wanted the name to be secular, so people understand that we don’t just dance. Eyakkam is not just physical movement. It is a political movement. It is a social movement.”

Eyakkam Dance Company serves the community through performances, workshops and teaching. In its community outreach efforts, Eyakkam has helped raise over $1.3 million to rebuild schools and facilities for children with disabilities, for organizations focused on water, sanitation and hygiene products in southern India.

Natesan Batley has taken part in more than 300 performances and uses them to explore the vocabulary of the past to tell the stories of the present. Many of her productions highlight contemporary social and cultural issues, while others underscore the intricacies of classical literature. She has performed with jazz musicians, modern dancers, flamenco and tap artists, and Celtic musicians. Natesan Batley volunteered to teach dance to migrant workers in Lebanon where their only common language was dance. “Art transcends boundaries and Bharatanatyam especially does that because it relies so much on facial expressions and body language, which are universal.” She has directed shows with more than 75 dancers, an enormous task that she describes as “rewarding, educative and akin to herding cats.”

Recently, Natesan Batley was featured by Fund for the Arts in the annual “I Am An Artist” campaign. Each year they feature three-to-five artists whose primary profession is not art, but who excel at art as a second profession. For the campaign, Natesan Batley was involved in a video montage with other artists.

“Our jobs can consume so much of our time, especially as faculty, but when you love your job as much as I do, you are in awe that someone pays you to have fun with numbers,” she said.

Natesan Batley explains that research and teaching are her life’s work, but dance also has always remained fundamental to her existence. She owes much of her success to the encouragement from her husband, mom, brother and her guru.

“I have known dancers who have not been able to fulfill their dreams because they might not have the significant level of support that is required for being immersed in the arts. I also have a guru whom I consider a second mother. When we choreograph, we are in absolute sync with each other,” adds Natesan Batley.

Dance/USA Fellowship Opportunity

In October, Natesan Batley was named one of 30 movement-based artists selected for a one-year fellowship through Dance/USA, an organization that champions an inclusive and equitable dance field by leading and supporting individuals and organizations. The fellowship is funded by the Doris Duke Foundation.

As the only fellow from Kentucky, Natesan Batley will receive funding and have the option to participate in an emergent programming process that honors choices around connection, rest and desire. She plans to use her funding to produce a short film on sexual abuse and sexual harassment called “Dirty Secrets,” in partnership with Uniting Partners for Women and Children and the contemporary dance program at Indiana University.  

“For me, this award means recognition,” said Natesan Batley. “Not only for my work and what I have endured within the community in the form of discrimination but for what I am doing within the dance form. Just like I believe everyone can learn statistics, I believe everyone can dance. The Dance/USA community has embraced me and my work with open arms and that is a kind of appreciation I did not get back home even when I was the national champion. It makes me wonder what ‘home’ really means. By truly becoming inclusive, it is not just the art that can gain visibility, but the dancers who can truly evolve as humans.”

By Tessa Chilton, CEHD. Read more updates and stories on the College of Education and Human Development website.

Video courtesy, Eyakkam Dance Company

Source: How a classical Indian dance gives UofL statistician outlet to champion social justice (UofL News, Jan. 25, 2023)