Preya Mangalat Patel began dancing at the age of four. Now, as artistic director and choreographer at the Devi School of Dance in Austin, Patel teaches a small group of young students Bharatanatyam — an Indian classical dance form.
Patel and her troupe will perform a special garba piece, a traditional Indian dance, during the staging of the “Little Red Chunari” at the Austin Scottish Rite Theatre this weekend.
Born and raised in Phoenix, Patel was introduced to dance by her mother who encouraged her to enroll in dance classes.
“My mother loves me a lot,” Patel said. “When I was young, she put me into whatever dance classes were available at that time.”
When she was six, Patel met her guru — Kalashri Asha Gopal, founder and director of the Arathi School of Dance in Phoenix. Gopal was the only Bharatanatyam teacher in the small Indian community in Arizona at the time. As a young dancer, Patel lived to hear the beats and the rhythms and learned dance styles like ballet, tap and jazz, and other Indian classical dance forms like Mohiniattam, Kathak, Kuchipudi and Odissi.
“When you’re younger, you’re shown the moves and you’re told to show the right expressions,” Patel said. “But you are not necessarily feeling the dance. It was some time during my Arangetram that I truly fell in love with classical dance.”
A proud moment for most classical dancers, Arangetram is the debut on-stage performance of a classical dancer that usually takes place when the dancer is 13 years old.
“Once I found the passion for classical dance, I realized the depth and the scope of it when it comes to abhinaya and telling stories,” Patel said. “I feel like I still have a long way to go.”
Abhinaya, a concept in Indian classical dance, is the art of expression requiring a different set of skills and experiences. One has to be proficient at depicting expression and drama through dance.
Patel graduated as a dance major from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., in 1994. Shortly after, she decided to pursue a condensed, one-year program in cytology from a school in Las Vegas because she wanted space to pursue what she was truly devoted to.
“I chose to pursue cytology because it allowed me a lot of flexibility,” Patel said. “It allows me the freedom to be a mother and a wife, to dance and to have a job.”
Patel knew the kind of dance she really wanted to do all her life was Bharatanatyam.
“You can be quite creative with [Bharatanatyam] if you have the time and if you have the passion for it while still adhering to the traditions of it,” Patel said. “You can find things that appeal to different audiences as well.”
Having studied under several gurus, Patel said she has learned from each one of them.
“The more you are exposed to, the more you are able to find your own path,” Patel said. “That’s what sets you apart from other dancers.”
In 2007, Patel moved to Austin, and that was when she reconnected with her childhood friend from Phoenix, Sumana Sen Mandala, who had recently started a semi-professional dance group called Stage Sanchaar. Mandala and Patel, both students of guru Gopal, had completed their Arangetram under her.
Patel and Mandala performed together with the Stage Sanchaar troupe to raise awareness and funds for The Arts and Fitness Program for Young Children in Austin and in 2010 they staged a dance production titled “The Power of You.”
“Just as a good actor is able to get into the role, Preya as a talented dancer is able to get into the role,” Mandala said. “She is a versatile and beautiful dancer and she is very professional.”
During her involvement with Stage Sanchaar, Patel also met Minnie Homchowdhury, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer from India, who has been pursuing the dance form for more than 25 years.
“Preya is a complete performer,” Homchowdhury said. “The stage loves her. She is well-versed in both the Western and Indian styles of dance.”
In October 2013, Patel started her dance school with seven students. She trains them in her guru’s style of Bharatanatyam and wants her students to be proficient and comfortable with the form before moving on to other styles of dance.
“I really enjoy teaching,” Patel said. “I’m becoming a better dancer being a teacher, because I tend to look into things deeply, wanting to
answer any question that can come from the students.”
For Patel, classical dance has been a significant part of her life and she believes dancing has kept her focused and organized. The only time she has spent away from dance was during her pregnancy and her move to Austin.
“I think as an artist, when you leave that part of you out for a significant length of time, you don’t even realize what’s missing until you put it back in,” Patel said. “As soon as I brought back dance into my life, I felt I was a better mom, a better wife and a better person. I was complete again.”