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Rhythm In Her Heart

Oct/22/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Jeanie Beri promotes South Asian dance

South Asian women in a black formal dress and long dark hair with earrings
Photo courtesy: Jeanie Beri

Meet Jeanie Beri, the director of Jashn Productions and creative mind behind the inaugural Diwali Dance Festival (DDF) on October 26–29 at Walt Disney World® Resort this year. Beri, the founder and director of Rhythmic Arts Dance Center in New Jersey, also coordinates the annual charity event, Dance 4 A Cause, an event that welcomes children with special needs to join performances. She is a mom of three, one of whom has special needs.

Beri is on a mission to provide South Asian dancers with unforgettable opportunities, such as with the DDF, featuring Canadian singer RAGHAV. The three-day festival includes a parade, performance, and party.

In this interview, Beri shares her journey and what went into preparing for Disney’s first Indian dance event. 

Could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and how your early experiences shaped your passion for dance and community involvement?

I started dancing when I was four years old with ballet, tap, and jazz at the Kaye Lynns Dance Studio in Edison, NJ. Unfortunately, there weren’t many Indian dance schools until I was about 12 years old, when my mom found a wonderful dance school, Sudhamini Dance Academy.

That is where my Indian dance training began, and I started learning the classical dance form, odissi. My parents came to this country in 1978, so I’m sure everything was a bit of a culture shock to them, but for our family, Hindi movies were a way for my brother and I to stay connected to our culture and even learn the language to a certain extent.

I would watch and copy all of Sridevi and Madhuri’s dance moves. My first Indian solo was performed to Sridevi’s classic “Mere Haathon Mein” at one of the American competitions because there were no Indian shows happening at the time. My passion for dance continued to grow through my teen years, through college, and now as well.

Thankfully, my parents were always very supportive of my training. No matter how far the event, how long the show, or the expense behind it, my mom and dad saw that this was something I truly loved.

You juggle multiple professional roles, from running the Rhythmic Arts Dance Center to being the charity coordinator of Dance 4 A Cause. How do you manage these diverse roles, and what drives your dedication to each of them?

Rhythmic Arts, also known as Dancing Shiva, has been my baby even before I had babies. It started in 2004, a year before I got married. I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life as a career, so I advertised the ancient way by printing out flyers and putting them in local mailboxes. We had our first recital with 50 students in my parents’ basement. And now that we are celebrating 20 years, I have to say it was the best decision of my life.

Dance 4 A Cause came about as a way for me to bring two major parts of my life together. As a mom to a beautiful special needs daughter, I saw how happy dancing made her, but a typical dance class wasn’t right for her, and I knew there were other kids like her. So with the SKN Foundation, we created an opportunity for the Indian dance community to raise awareness and funds for a variety of special needs charities. Over the four years that we had the event, we raised over $30,000 for organizations like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Autism NJ, and the NJ Institute of Disabilities. We are hoping to bring this event back, as it gives our special needs kids the opportunity to also perform on stage in a judgement-free zone.

Without the support of my immediate family, none of what I do would be possible. My kids and other kids that come to my studio motivate me to continue doing what I’m doing, as they are our future and will hopefully continue this passion.

The Diwali Dance Festival at Walt Disney World is an exciting and unique event. What inspired you to create this festival, and what do you hope it will bring to the South Asian dance community?

I had taken my dancers to an event like this one during the Christmas holiday, and I thought to myself, why can’t this be done for the Indian community for one of our holidays? When I approached Disney with the idea back in January 2022, I really didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. But Disney loved the idea, and here we are almost two years later about to put on the first ever Diwali Dance Festival in Walt Disney World.

I hope that the event will give the next generation of South Asian dancers a chance to see how other schools perform and learn from them. We also hope it will unite our dance community. Many events are always competitions where everyone is trying to outdo one another, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Dancers can go further if they have support from their own community.

With nearly two decades of your own dance studio, could you share some memorable moments or milestones that have stood out in your journey?

 I have to say that the relationships I have made over the past 20 years are my biggest accomplishment. Some of my first-year dancers are now part of the Jashn Productions team that is putting on Diwali Dance Festival. We have been there for each other through many ups and downs, and dance is what has brought them all into my life.

My eldest daughter, Jiya, also took her first steps during a dance class when the studio was still in my parent’s basement. Moving classes from my parents’ basement into an actual dance studio was memorable as well as having our first reception a month before I got married. 

Being a mom to three children, including a special needs child, is a significant part of your life. How has motherhood influenced your approach to dance, both as a director and as a parent?

My kids are now 16, almost 12, and 19 months old, so I think it’s kind of the opposite where my dance studio has helped me become a better parent. Being patient with children and enjoying each moment is something that my students and especially my kids have taught me. My daughter’s diagnosis didn’t come until a few years after she was born, so I know I have changed over the years due to that fact alone, but I would hope that it has made me a stronger mom and teacher.

As someone deeply involved in the dance community, what do you see as the most pressing needs and challenges that dancers and their families face today?

I can’t speak for everyone, but the biggest challenge my studio has faced has been the events that take place in our area. There is need for a change to take place in how South Asian shows and competitions are run. When we voice our concerns, it feels like we aren’t heard, so after some time, you stop making noise and make the change yourself.

What advice would you give to young South Asian dancers who aspire to follow in your footsteps and make a meaningful impact in the dance world?

I would say to start small, get some experience, get involved with your local dance community, and truly see if that is your calling. The dance community is growing, and there is a definite need for fresh ideas, but don’t jump into something big right away. There is  pressure on dancers these days, especially because of social media, so try not to get overwhelmed by what others are doing and do it for the love of dance.

What are your future aspirations and goals for Jashn Productions and your involvement in the South Asian dance community?

DDF 2023 is the first of its kind, and we are very excited to see the event come to fruition. We can’t disclose what’s coming next, but just know that Jashn Productions is just getting started and we are ready to bring more events to the South Asian dance community.

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