At Saturday’s grand opening celebration for Adaa Dance Academy’s Tustin studio, 14-year-old Sarina Shah told the crowd about a recital rehearsal that took place when Adaa founder and artistic director Apra Bhandari was pregnant with her second child.
“She was standing on top of a chair screaming — I mean instructing,” jokes Shah, who has been Bhandari’s student since she was 5.
“I was nine-months pregnant!” Bhandari shouts from the sidelines.
“[One of the] aunties was like, ‘you’re going to send yourself into labor,’ ” Shah says. “And Apra didi responded, ‘If I go into labor, I have eight hours to put on this show.’ ”
Nine years ago, Bhandari started teaching dance in her Irvine living room with only two students. Now, she and her five instructors teach at the Chinmaya Mission in Tustin, Martial Arts International in Anaheim, Dance Works in Laguna Hills and the Talent Factory in Chino, with plans to move to more cities, including Cerritos, later this year.
But the new Tustin location at 2560 Byron Ave. is her first official studio, and last weekend, she welcomed about 200 well-wishers over two days of ceremonies, workshops and performances.
“It’s really exciting,” Bhandari says. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been a good journey.”
Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Bhandari started learning kathak, a classical form of Indian dance, at age 7.
By 18, she had participated in numerous dance competitions, talent shows and beauty pageants and won the title of Miss India New York.
While a student at Cornell University, she helped lead the college’s long-running Bollywood fusion dance team, Sitara.
That’s where Charu Sinha, whose teenage daughter is now a student at Adaa, first spotted Bhandari, about 15 years ago.
“These events had so much energy,” says Sinha. “The crowd would go crazy … And to see the level of Indian dance exhibited on a student stage in upstate New York, where you don’t always see that many Indians, I thought, ‘Wow.’ It was so inspiring and eye-opening.”
At the time, Bhandari was pursuing a career in media. After graduating a semester early, she went with her mother to Mumbai, thinking she was going to stay in India for six months before returning to New York for a job she had lined up at NBC.
Instead, she stayed for five years. She starred in a Telugu film and acted in commercials alongside Indian film legends Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.
Eventually, she found she preferred being behind the scenes.
“I love solving problems,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest thing I took out of production, that there’s always a solution — whether you’re in Bollywood, making sure the shoot runs on time ... or in a little dance studio in Irvine, dealing with parents if they have concerns or a costume rip at a competition.“
Working in Bollywood was a thrilling but emotionally draining experience, Bhandari says, and after she met her now husband, they decided to move to Irvine.
She wanted to slow down and start a family, but also continue her passion for dance.
“ ‘Adaa’ means poise, grace and your own style,” Apra explains, of her company’s name. “We can teach you technique, and we can teach you expressions, but you have to then eventually bring your own personality and style into it.”
The academy started with children, but eventually grew to include college students and adults. In addition to classical styles like kathak, Adaa Dance Academy teaches Bollywood dance, folk dance, and hip hop. They also offer exercise classes and wedding choreography.
Bhandari has been searching for a space for her own studio for two years.
“This is such a big milestone,” says Sinha. “And the [students] absolutely love her. She’s so warm. She’s demanding, as she should be as a teacher, but she’s a role model to all the girls, who can see that you can take things as they come and make it better and better every year.”
When Bhandari was a kid, she remembers her mother asking the director of her school musical if she could include an Indian dance performance in the show. Bhandari remembers being embarrassed; the last thing she wanted to be was different.
“But the director said, ‘That’s such a cool idea. Let’s try it,’ “ she remembers. “And when you’re welcomed, that’s how you gain confidence.”
The Adaa Dance Academy has competed in local Indian dance competitions for years, but recently Bhandari started taking her students to compete in more mainstream dance competitions.
“The first time we went, they were a little bit hesitant, because they were the only ones wearing Indian dance costumes,” says Bhandari, “but people really welcomed us. And I was like, ‘Look. People think it’s cool. You need to think it’s cool.’ ”
Now, she choreographs dances for her daughter and her friends to perform at their school talent show.
“It’s so fun to watch non-Indian kids having the time of their lives to Bollywood music,” she says. “I really want my kids and my students to be proud of their culture and to take that with them wherever they go.”
For more information, visit Adaadanceacademy.com. Bhandari will be leading free Bollywood dance classes in Costa Mesa every Tuesday evening in May, as part of the Segerstrom Center of the Arts’ weekly “Tuesday Night Dance” series in the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza.