Shruti Parthasarathy, 17, of Middleton, Wisconsin, a senior at Middleton High School, has taught workshops on Bharathanatyam, a classical Indian dance, to nearly 400 students in her school district as a way to both relieve stress and promote understanding of her native country’s cultural traditions. When she was 5 years old, Shruti’s family left India and settled in Wisconsin. Fearful of losing her Indian roots, she took up Bharathanatyam, a 2,000-year-old dance form that depicts mythological tales of gods and goddesses through movement and music. “Growing up in Wisconsin, I would often get ridiculed for pursuing an ominous art form,” she said. “For years I tried to hide my Indian heritage. As a result, I carried an unhealthy amount of anxiety.” After stressful days, Shruti would retreat to her basement and dance. It always made her feel better, she said.
In October of 2018, she found clinical studies showing that the footwork, hand gestures and facial expressions of Bharathanatyam had, in fact, been proven to reduce stress levels. So she created “Calm with Kalaa,” an initiative that teaches both the history and culture of this ancient dance form and the movements themselves. After reaching out to health teachers throughout her school district, she began conducting one-hour workshops at a middle school. Then she began leading workshops at her high school, which ended up integrating the teachings into a required health curriculum. Shruti also has led workshops for her district’s staff on personal development days, and for university students and faculty at Yale, Princeton and Northwestern Universities.