Festival of India: Tradition Through Dance

Below, the Indian Classical Dance troupe, directed by Guru Uma Kallakuri, performs during Sunday's Festival of India on the Illinois State University quad. The annual festival brings together cultural, spiritual, artistic, fashion, and culinary traditions from across the various Indian states. The event is co-sponsored by the McLean County India Association and designed both to unite Indians and Indian-Americans throughout the Bloomington-Normal area and to introduce Indian cultures to Twin Citians.

More highlights from the festival, along with reflections from major festival coordinator, ISU graphic arts instructor, and McLean County India Association President-Elect Archana Shekara tomorrow here at Twin Cities Stories.

Conexiones Latinas Helping Launch Ballet Folklorico

Conexiones Latinas de McLean County is launching a new endeavor, Ballet Folklorico de Central Illinois, an attempt to showcase the art and culture of the Latino community.

The original Ballet Folklórico de México is a Mexican ensemble in Mexico City. For six decades, it has presented dances in costumes that reflect the traditional culture of Mexico.

The ensemble also has appeared under the name Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández.

That ballet's works and musical pieces reflect various regions and folk music genres of Mexico. Many of the ensemble's works reflect the traditions of indigenous Mesoamerican culture.

Numbers of performers in individual dance numbers range from two to more than thirty-five.

Under Hernández, the group was a pioneer of Baile Folklórico in Mexico. Similar groups have formed in the U.S.


Roxanne: Local Dance Club Offers Rich Mix of Cultural Expression

Fata Dance Club will conduct its fifth summer session in Bloomington, offering a rich palette of "dance cultures" from throughout the globe.

"Fata" stands for "from Africa to America." The club teaches dances from African, Caribbean, and Latin cultures as well as jazz, hip-hop, and praise dance, according to club director Roxanne Ledford, "without bias."

"We encourage all races cultures and skill levels to join as a way to network, learn about each other and unify," Ledford said.

"I'm originally from Chicago where I attended Columbia college dance major. I danced with a couple of dance troupes and worked for a few afterschool programs.

"We service youth ages 3-15 and adults 16 and up every summer and during special events such as Worldwide Day of Play and Culture Night. Unfortunately we are not funded by any organizations, but it feels good to have been able to pull this off with the help from the parents who enroll their kids as a member."

A one-time membership fee pays for dance space, costumes, music, props, and snacks, and the club also conducts fundraising activities to help supplement Ledford's own out-of-pocket costs.

"No one gets paid at all," Ledford stressed. "It's challenging and sometimes overwhelming, but worth the outcome. We perform for (CultureFest) every year as a way to show what the group has learned."

Open enrollment now through May 30. Learn more at

Uma: Youth a Focus For India Association in 2015

When you speak of McLean County’s Indian “community,” you’re covering a wide swath – from Indian-American residents of long standing in the Twin Cities to university and college students to visa’ed workers and specialists in the U.S. seeking a community with which to temporarily share the cultures and traditions of their homeland. Bloomington-Normal is home to Indians representing a number of the subcontinent’s states and culturally diverse regions.

And Uma Kallakuri sees it as her mission to reach out and unite them all. Kallakuri is 2015 president of the McLean County India Association (MCIA), a group formed in the late ‘70s to support what she deemed a “handful” of Indian families across the cities. Now, McLean County is home to a reported 600-some families of Indian heritage, a new Hindu temple opened its doors last year at 1815 Tullamore Ave. in Bloomington, and a new priest was installed in December.

Members of McLean County's Indian community celebrate during "PARAMPARA - The Heritage," an Indian classical dance performance last February in Bloomington, featuring artists from Nrityamala Dance Academy.

Members of McLean County's Indian community celebrate during "PARAMPARA - The Heritage," an Indian classical dance performance last February in Bloomington, featuring artists from Nrityamala Dance Academy.

Kallakuri pledges to continue MCIA’s central goals of “bringing together the community and inspiring them to keep up their traditions and their roots, while at the same time helping them integrate into the community and give back to the community.” Kallakuri, a local classical Indian dance instructor and adjunct professor with Illinois Wesleyan University and, understands the need to keep fresh blood flowing through the community, and MCIA currently is focusing especially on younger members of the community.

That includes working to engage Illinois State and Wesleyan and, increasingly, Heartland Community College students in events and celebrations for the overall Indian community. Kallakuri hopes to foster a broader mentoring program offering youth the opportunity to develop professional and life skills and insights from established members of the community.

 “Youth are our future, and we want to create a platform for them so that we can keep working on understanding better and then work more on diversity,” she maintains. “We are trying to bring them all together.”

With State Farm, two hospitals, and two universities to a growing retail/restaurant sector, McLean County suffers no dearth of Indian mentors. Through her local Nrityamala Dance Academy (NDA), launched in 1984, Kallakuri has helped keep classical Indian dance vividly alive and provided cultural insights for the broad community through local performances that often have helped support causes such as the Community Cancer Center, Children's Hospital, Red Cross, Salvation Army, American Heart Association, and Hindu temples. The academy has contributed as well to Hurricane Katrina and Asian tsunami relief.

MCIA is co-sponsoring a marrow donor registration drive this Sunday, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Normal Community Building, 1110 Douglas Street, while NDA students will perform at 2 p.m. March 21 at the Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal.  

MCIA attempts to reach out to new members of the local Indian community, including temporary workers and employees, “to let them know there is a place they can call upon and come forward and connect with other Indians,” Kallakuri relates. MCIA also helps coordinate orientation/training sessions on the community for area businesses and agencies, and offers cultural education for area schools. Kallakuri points out that while many Twin Citians may be aware of the fall festival of Diwali, they may be unaware of Indian New Year, celebrated in March or April. The annual Festival of India, held on the ISU quad each September, offers a glimpse of Indian regional cultures, art, food, and folkways. While there are often significant differences in observances and customs across the various Indian states, MCIA sponsors generalized seminars, celebrations, and other events designed to bridge all subcultures.

“We do come together, especially at the Festival of India,” Kallakuri said. “Everyone enjoys coming together and watching one another. Each state and each region has its own way of cooking, its own way of dressing, its own way of doing things. But basically, there’s the same idea behind it all.”

Kallakuri finds Bloomington-Normal “generally, a good place to live.” She has taught not only at Wesleyan and ISU but also at other regional universities and in surrounding towns, and has found her fellow Illinoisans generally “encouraging.”

“I’ve had good experiences here – I love this place,” she said.

For more information on the Indian Community and MCIA, visit


Best of Area Gospel Honor King's Memory

The Mount Pisgah Praise Dancers performed at the 2013 Gospel Festival

The Mount Pisgah Praise Dancers performed at the 2013 Gospel Festival

Illinois Wesleyan University and the United Community Gospel Singers of Bloomington-Normal will present the 25th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday Gospel Festival on Jan. 19. The event, free to the public, will run from 4 to 9 p.m. in Westbrook Auditorium of Presser Hall.

The festival honors King’s legacy and will feature performances by The United Gospel Singers of Bloomington-Normal Mass Choir, The Gayles Memorial Baptist Mass Choir and Praise Dancers of Aurora, The Fantastic Jones Family of Springfield, and the Rev. Spencer Gibson and the Integrity Singers from Peoria.

Additional performers include Mount Pisgah Sunbeam Choir, Union Missionary Baptist Church Junior Gospel Quartet, Union Missionary Baptist Church Adult Choir, Mount Pisgah Praise Dancers and Mount Pisgah Adult Choir.

The Gospel Festival was founded in 1991 by the late Corine Sims and her husband, the Rev. James Sims, with Illinois Wesleyan and the United Community Gospel Singers of Bloomington-Normal as co-founders. King spoke at Illinois Wesleyan in 1961 and returned to the University in 1966 after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

For additional information about the festival, or to make arrangements for persons with disabilities requiring any auxiliary aids, services, or special arrangements, contact Carl Teichman, director of government and community relations at (309)556-3429, or Barbara Sims-Malone, president of the United Community Gospel Singers of Bloomington-Normal, at (309)706-6638.

Presser Hall is located on the west side of Park Street. To access free parking across the street behind the Minor Myers, jr. Welcome Center, turn east on University Avenue