Beyond Studio J with Laki

“Being the only girl in a guy’s team, I don’t want to be seen as the weak link. I want to be the strongest.
If I’m not tired at the end of the day, then I haven’t put in enough.”

Founder of Bharatanatyam dance school, Natya Praana, co-founder of Ranjhe Bhangra, and co-owner of LAKS Dance Crew, Laki is a force to be reckoned with. Her calm personality yet superhuman strength creates a mysteriously compelling persona. Read on to see what motivates the beautiful Lakshanya (Laki) Vasan.

How did your dance journey begin?
My mum wanted to learn dance when she was a little girl, but didn’t get the chance. She really wanted me to do it, so I was enrolled in Bharatanatyam when I was five. I learnt from many different gurus. My younger brother also learnt Bharatanatyam, and we did our arangetram together in 2011. I then went to India for further training, and did a few shows in Chennai. I was 16 at this time, so I was also balancing school with my dance.

Once I started university, I got more interested in Bollywood. I was studying Commerce-Law at Deakin but it wasn’t giving me any pleasure. Dance started taking over my life and it got to a point where I had to decide what I wanted to do. I felt so strongly that I wasn’t meant to be sitting at a desk. And that’s when Bhangra happened. When I found Bhangra, I knew that dance is what I was meant to be doing.

How did you discover Bhangra?
Through a chance meeting with a Dhol player! Five years ago, I was at the cricket and I met a Dhol player who asked me to come to their Bhangra team tryouts. I had only seen Bhangra videos on YouTube. I was really scared. I went to the tryouts and it was tough, but I felt really motivated to do it.

What did you like about it?
Bhangra is really active, which is the kind of dance that appeals to me. I’ve always loved sports. I graduated as sports captain from high school. I see Bhangra more as a sport than a dance. The stamina and strength that you require is very similar to martial arts.

When I joined Bhangra, the group was preparing for a competition. Bhangra competitions are taken really seriously. Initially, the practice was twice a week, and later it became 4 times a week.

I still remember my first Bhangra performance. I was petrified. But when we went on stage, it was the most amazing feeling. Performing Bhangra is a totally different adrenaline high than Bharatanatyam or Bollywood. The way the crowd responds and screams, and having to keep my energy up, that was a whole new different experience for me. I was like – I’ve found my love. I’m never leaving this.

Four of us in the group had started around the same time, and we became really close. We had a particular vision and so we decided to start our own Bhangra team – Ranjhe. This is an all-boys team, so I dress up as a boy when I’m dancing with them. Being the only girl in a guy’s team, I don’t want to be seen as the weak link. I want to be the strongest. It’s very motivational for me to push myself. If I’m not tired at the end of the day then I haven’t put in enough.

You spent a year in India recently to study Bharatanatyam. Can you tell us about that?
Once Bhangra sat comfortably into my routine, I started to explore Bharatanatyam more seriously again. But I realised that I couldn’t go deep enough here in Melbourne. I decided to go to Chennai, the home of Bharatanatyam. I wanted to find out if I loved it enough to pursue as a career.

I deferred my university course and went to India for a year, to study at Bharata Kalanjali. I trained under Sri V.P Dhananjayan and Smt. Shantha Dhananjayan (fondly referred to as ‘Master’ and ‘Shantha Akka’). Their school is a Gurukulam, which is a type of learning where you live in the school, you sweep the classroom and you study under the gurus 24/7.

For twelve hours a day, seven days a week, I trained under my gurus and I loved it. It was a complete immersion and it taught me about the kind of person and teacher I want to be. My gurus, apart from being well-respected all over the world, are also wonderful human beings. For example, Shantha Akka, gets up at 6am every morning, and sweeps the outside of her home every morning. They are so humble and have a very wholistic approach to dance and life.

Once I came back, I shifted my studies towards the Arts. I’m now completing higher studies in the field of Bharatanatyam.

Your parents must have played an instrumental role in supporting you to dance.
My mother missed out on exploring the arts when she was younger and so it was very important to her that I do something in it. She believes that its a part of life that brings discipline and inner peace. But she never saw it as being full-time. My dad works in the corporate world, and he needed some convincing. Especially when I wanted to go to India for a year, he thought I would hate it. But obviously I didn’t and he was finally convinced!

Tell us about your dance schedule.
After returning from India, I started a Bharatanatyam school – ‘Natya Praana’ meaning “Dance is our Life Force’’. Ninety percent of my time goes to Natya Praana. On weekends I teach from 9am till 6pm.

I am also the co-owner of LAKS Dance Crew, an all-girls dance company. We specialise in performing a large range of South Asian dance styles. My weekdays are quite jam-packed. From 3pm to 10pm, I am either training or teaching or giving private classes, or preparing for gigs.

Unlike most performers, my real passion is actually teaching. I love breaking down technique, and seeing the change manifest in a student. I love the feeling of moulding a beginner into an amazing dancer.

Who is your role model?
Shantha Akka, my guru in Chennai. I’ve never seen her yell at anyone and that is such a rare quality. I’ve always had really strict teachers, as is common in the classical world. Usually with nice teachers, the quality of dance from the students is compromised. But she is the only one I’ve seen who can still get amazing results from her students. She is so nice that you WANT to dance for her, you don’t want to disappoint her, and for her to bring that kind of emotion in her student, imagine the influence she must have.

What keeps you so motivated?
I feel so strongly about wanting to know the full potential of my body. I don’t want to have gone through life, not knowing all the different possibilities of this body. My favorite quote from Socrates sums it up really well:

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

Interviewed by Joshinder Chaggar
24 November 2020

Laki teaches Bhangra at Studio J (next course commences February 2021)