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Anjal Chande Embraces The Transformative Nature of Dance

Written by on September 15, 2022

Anjal Chande is the founder and artistic director of Pilsen-based Soham Dance Space.

After growing up dancing at informal homemade spaces and throughout her formal college studies, Chicago-based artist Anjal Chande has devoted herself to creating a space to foster her own creative projects and build community through teaching. Thus, Soham Dance Space was born.

“It started initially as this sort of… vehicle for me to scratch my different artistic itches as a performer myself,” Chande explained.

Since its inception in 2007, Soham has grown into a multidimensional organization for artists of all types: teachers, students, performers and more. It exists as an anticapitalist atmosphere and a space to explore new and alternative relationships with creative practices, a place where creative endeavors are no longer situated in a commodified structure. Chande knows the struggles of navigating the capitalist world as an artist, and takes an anti-hierarchical approach to her endeavors.

Through dance, Chande expresses this ideology through radical acceptance. She does not enforce hierarchy of the body. There is no right or wrong way to do things at Soham. Rather, Chande brings together artists who are deliberate about celebrating dance in this transformative way. 

“[Dance] has this really, really transformative power of subverting some of the ideas… that become internalized when we grow up in this, oftentimes, quite oppressive world,” Chande explained.

Chande’s own relationship with dance centers around self-reliance and Bharatanatyam dance. The form originated out of post British colonial India’s nationalism and focuses on rhythm, footwork and detailed gestures, especially arms and hands. Chande uses this as a medium to explore the versatility of dance.

For this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Anjal Chande discusses bharatanatyam, Soham Dance Space and her anti-hierarchical approach to dance.

Are you from Chicago? How and when did you get into dancing?

My parents are immigrants from India and they moved to Chicago in 1979. I must have started dancing in a previous lifetime, kind of convinced of that. I grew up, I think… dancing in a lot of sort of homemade spaces. At home and at… family gatherings, formally and informally. I definitely went down a path of learning to dance at a dance school. Shortly after college, I made a very deliberate choice to actually begin all of my dance work and sort of set up a dance studio in Chicago itself. 

What is Soham Dance Space, and what is its story?

I founded Soham Dance Space in 2007, in Pilsen. It started initially as this sort of… vehicle for me to scratch my different artistic itches as a performer myself, but also as… a teaching artist, a community builder and event producer, like, wanting to bring people together around particular ways, sometimes different and alternative ways, of doing things. 

Soham Dance Space, now, is really a very multi-dimensional, small organization where, partly I’m making my own art, partly I’m teaching, but I’m also producing the work of other artists and trying to create a home where various independent artists are able to use this space for a sliding scale, Black artists use this space without rent, and really just thinking about, like, non-transactional relationships with space and how, when our creative practice can kind of be… no longer situated within these commodified structures, what becomes possible then?

Soham Dance Space started, really, out of an endeavor to find alternative ways of being in relationship with creative practice. So, for me, initially, the medium was Bharatanatyam.

What is Bharatanatyam like?

It’s a form that was sort of organized, conceptually, out of India’s nationalism, post British colonialism. But the form itself, I mean, the aspects of it that are really embedded in my body are the aspects of rhythm and rhythmic footwork, as well as… gesture, all the way through the detail of the hands and the fingers. I think that there’s something about the articulations and the specificity that exists within the art form that I really love… There’s something about detail that is just really delicious. So much of the movement is about a sort of — you move in and out and sustain a squat position quite a bit. And… through that squat… there’s like the strong connection to the earth, this kind of grounded energy, out of which… the rhythms of the feet can really multiply in some juicy and vibrating ways. 

That was sort of the form, the tool… the medium that I was playing with. But the question was really like, “How do we teach dance or make dance in a way that is affirming of who we are, and not reinforcing of hierarchy?” I think a lot of the opportunities that exist for learning dance are really, really steeped in hierarchy, right? And hierarchy of the body and what the body should look like, or what is the right way or the wrong way. But also, the fixation ends up being more around executing something with precision than… it is about being in relationship to our creative capacities, which are so innate and so abundant within ourselves, right? And so, how do we learn dance and then feel encouraged to make dance in a way that is really prioritizing that, first and foremost? 

How does Soham Dance Space nurture this anti-hierarchical approach? Why is that important?

I think that you have to be really deliberate about how you kindle an atmosphere for learning and experiencing dance in that way. Our bodies showcase perceived and/or real identities that everybody wants to create rules around. And so that’s what makes dance, I think, one of the most radical art forms to uplift in this moment, is because, when we step into our bodies and use our bodies as a tool in our creative practice, it has this really, really transformative power of subverting some of the ideas… that become internalized when we grow up in this, oftentimes, quite oppressive world. 

What are some of the programs that continue to set this art space apart from other dance studios?

I feel like Soham Dance Space, it’s a space of reflection. I think, through the work that I do at Soham Dance Space, there’s definitely a sort of tackling of, “How do we find alternative models for doing things, knowing that so much of the infrastructure that exists was kind of built with white supremacy in mind… explicitly or not?” And so many of the infrastructures don’t actually support the kind of artists and art-making that I really believe in. And so, some of the work that Soham is doing is sort of just asking these questions of, like, “What kind of program can we create to sort of experiment with new ways of doing?” 

We had piloted this artist in residence program two years ago — 18 months ago, really — but it was kind of seeding a long time ago. It’s culminating this fall, and it’s really a program that is trying to figure out, “How do South Asian experimental dance artists find a partner with whom they can dialogue and be seen and be heard for who they really are,” right? And the complexities of their identities, but the complexities of their work, the politics of their work, the aesthetics and motivations of their work, which are not often understood by a lot of typical gatekeepers and presenters who tend to just tokenize or just flatten layers of meaning. 

The artist in residence program is an attempt to sort of uplift and complicate and reframe South Asian dance so that it doesn’t actually fall within these pigeonholes in the way it tends to, but rather tries to sort of disrupt the paradigms and disrupt and challenge and question the boxes that we are oftentimes made to make art within. 

Why did you decide to stay in Chicago and root Soham Dance Space here?

I had a really kind of intentional reason to be like, “If I’m gonna continue to make art, I want to situate my artistic practice in the city of Chicago itself.”

The sidewalks and the buildings and the parks are always… teeming with stories and narratives of all sorts of people living all sorts of lives, and all of our collective and individual histories kind of brushing up against each other in all of these public spaces. I think I’m really interested in the kinds of questions that come up when you interact with people who are different from you and who are maybe like-minded, but maybe have a different story, or maybe have a completely different point of view, but share the same CTA, you know? And like, I think that the kinds of questions that Chicago helps me ask are the sort of questions of like, “How do we care for one another across economic and racial and sub-cultural lines?” What are the ways that we can really take care of each other and… live in harmony with each other, and ourselves, and the land. 

Chicago helps me imagine, you know? It helps me really imagine, and helps me believe that imagination is healthy and imagination is… the way to live.

Learn more about Soham Dance Space on their website and follow Anjal Chande on Instagram.

Soham Dance Space has two upcoming Night Out In the Parks events; learn more on their website.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Introduction written by Makenzie Creden

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Photography, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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