Summer is here and I am excited to finally start a Conversations with Changemakers series on Dolce & Masala. I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I started down the blogging path! Although I still need to figure out work/blog/life balance (if that is even a thing), the experience has definitely reinvigorated my passion for travel. By maximizing long weekends and holidays, I have had some amazing adventures on this blogging journey and met incredibly talented people along the way who are pursuing their own passions. I hope you enjoy my conversations with these dreamers and influencers!
Conversations with Changemakers: Valentina Manduchi of Apsara Dance
Meet Valentina Manduchi, one of the first influencers I stumbled upon last year. Founder of Apsara Dance, Valentina is a dancer, model, actor, choreographer, and entrepreneur. Unsurprisingly, she will be speaking this month at the European Union sponsored I Am Tomorrow conference which promotes women in technology, business, arts, sports, science, and politics.
1. As an Italian with no family ties or connections to India, how did you discover Indian dance? What sparked your interest in Kathak in particular?
One of the questions I get asked after a show or event is whether I am Indian. Most people think that at least one of my parents is of Indian heritage and that I am a Non-Resident Indian (NRI). When I respond that I am 100% proudly Italian, I always get a look of shock. Although I was studying Western dance forms initially, my interest in Kathak (one of the 10 classical forms of Indian dance) was inspired by the vision of the 2002 Bollywood blockbuster Devdas.
2. You traveled to India to learn directly from Indian masters. Can you tell me a bit about your experience as a foreigner learning classical Indian dance?
I started traveling to India seven years ago and had also participated in Indian dance camps in the UK. Of course, living in India helps you better understand its art and dance. There is a “guru-shishya parampara” system in India. Traditions are shared between teachers and their students, which creates a special bond. You don’t find this system in the West. I really admire it because under this system you are not just learning dance steps, but are also learning a way of life. However, Indian dance gurus can be guarded about their techniques and prefer that their students not study under other instructors. They do not push you to go learn different techniques from other teachers.
Indian Kathak dancer Nikita Banawalikar perfoming at Valentina’s last show
For my part, I like to encourage all forms of Kathak and inspire Italians to learn as much as possible about the various styles of the dance. So, I invite many different Indian artists to Italy. This helps spread Indian culture and dance here. Indian dance is also becoming increasingly globalized. In the UK dance camps, I saw students from China, Japan and other European countries spend months learning Indian dance so they could return home and introduce their country’s audiences to various Indian dance forms.
3. Who are your dance icons or inspirations? You have met some Bollywood stars on your journey. What was your most memorable experience?
In particular, two dances by the iconic Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit in Devdas served to spark my initial interest in Indian dance. I learned later that she was trained in Indian classical Kathak.
Since I began Apsara Dance, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with several Bollywood stars and choreographers. Meeting Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan in person and dancing at one of his film premieres was unbelievable.
Valentina with Bollywood Legend Amitabh Bachan
4. What was the first big break that helped you launch Apsara Dance? As an artist and creative person, what are the business skills that you had to develop to promote your brand?
My first big breaks were dancing at the Rome film premiers for Julia Robert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan. After these two premiers, many companies contacted me to dance or organize events with Apsara Dance. I was very young at the time and sought professional advice from my older brother. It can be difficult for artists in Italy to develop thriving businesses. Many people wanted us to dance for free, even when the events were not related to charities or fundraisers. My brother helped me develop business contracts for my first programs. I had to learn everything about business and client management from the ground up including how to create dance classes and organize events.
5. You seem to be on a mission to promote Indian and Persian culture, music and dance in Italy. Bollywood films and Indian dance are growing in popularity in countries with a large South Asian diaspora. What are the challenges you face in promoting Indian dance in a country with a smaller Indian community? How do you remain motivated?
The South Asian diaspora is still relatively new and small in Italy. They are mainly from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Punjab region of India. For the most part, they are insular and focused mainly within their own communities. I remember at the beginning, I went around and knocked on doors of cultural associations to promote my projects and handed out flyers to any interested diaspora I could find.
It took a lot of effort to generate interest among Italians as well. Now you see some promotion of Bollywood films in Italy, but its baby steps as there really is not a second generation of Indians in Italy yet. It can be a bit frustrating for someone promoting Indian arts. Unlike London, you can’t really go out in Rome and attend Indian community dance programs such as Garba during the nine-day Navrathri festival in the fall.
6. Recently you traveled to Iran and you have also traveled extensively throughout India. As a patron of Mogul and Persian arts, which destinations were on your must visit list? Do you have any advice for women interested in traveling on their own?
Despite the grave concerns expressed by my family (due to the country’s negative image in Western media), I booked my tickets and embarked on my journey to Iran without even booking any accommodations in advance. I was seeking an adventure, you know! I relied on couch surfing, which is highly-reccomended in Iran as the best way to meet locals. I enjoyed every moment of my trip to Iran as a female solo traveler.
One of the most precious memories was an overnight train trip from Tehran to Mashaad, where I spent the night in the ladies compartment eating and singing Iranian and Italian songs with three generations of women (a granny from Mashaad and her daughter and grandchild who now live in the United States). I was also part of a photographic project by Mahmoud Farhoui on female solo travelers in Iran.
For me Iran is pure poetry, the beauty of the people, the sanctity of the religious sites, and the delicious food. I highly recommend the bazaars if you are foodie! Iranans were welcoming and I was struck by the intellectual engagement and interest in the arts that I observed. In Shiraz, many people were reading poetry in the streets. I visited religious sites and Sufi shrines in Mashhad (where Imam Reda is buried) and Shiraz (where the great poet Hafiz is buried). Everything was so deep in meaning!
For my next trip, I want to visit the Caspian region and Tabriz. I especially want to visit the tomb of Shams I Tabriz, the great Persian poet who created magic with Rumi. Yes, I also went to Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey during an earlier trip . Regarding travel in India, I paid homage at sites such as Ajmer Sharif, Nizamuddin, and Fatehpur Sikri — home to great Mogul queens and Sufi poets.
7. Congratulations on your new Indian destination wedding planning business in Italy! What services do you offer couples looking to plan their big day in romantic Italian locations?
After several years of dancing and performing at corporate events and weddings in Italy, I discovered a whole new world. Wedding planning! It started naturally with Italian event planners approaching me for advice and additional services. They needed assistance in putting on turbans for grooms and other traditional services required for various types of Indian weddings.
This year, I started a small consultancy business called Apsaras Events to provide professional services for couples seeking an Indian style wedding in Italy. Our main service still focuses on providing a range of international entertainment – everything from Bollywood, to belly dancing, opera singers, and Italian folk dancers for bespoke events. Now, we have expanded or services to provide all of the traditional Indian arrangements required for pre-wedding Mehndi ceremonies, Bharat processions, and post-wedding Walima receptions.
Couples or parties can rent saris and turbans from Apsara Events, which reduces the hassle required to plan an Indian destination wedding in Italy. We try to cover all of the necessities a couple would look for (Hindu priests, photo/videography, floral arrangements, catering, etc). Our next goal is to secure white horses, which are popular for the traditional procession.
8. What trends are you noticing among clients? Which destinations are the most popular? Are there any lesser known Italian destinations couple should really consider?
We have been dancing in Tuscany for ages, and the region remains the most popular among our Indian wedding clients. Next on the list are Lake Como and Venice in the north and Amalfi Coast/Capri and Puglia in the south. The villas near Milan are popular as well. However, all of Italy is a jewel and there are many under the radar destinations in Italy that deserve the attention of young couples seeking their ultimate romantic moment.
Rome’s Appia Antica and historic center are famous and beautiful settings. However, arranging logistics for a large wedding can be tough in central Rome. Meanwhile, there are many small towns in the Lazio region near Rome that have beautiful mountain landscapes that would be perfect for a destination wedding. I am hoping to promote some of these unique destinations to foreigners. We also are starting to get clients for the islands with a wedding coming up in Sicily. There is definitely room to grow.
9. What are your next steps for growing your business or your brand? Do you have any advice for other artists starting out?
I am currently working on a new design for my website. It’s hard to maintain and update a website with so many ongoing projects. I don’t have a personal photographer following me around yet 😉
My advice for new artists is to be very careful about your partners. Try to maintain your standards as quality really pays off in the long-term. Concentrate on a few projects if necessary. It can be difficult to balance artistic inspiration with the need to earn a living. There is also nothing like learning from your own experience to figure out what works best for you.
10. How can we follow your journey or catch an Apsara show? How can aspiring dancers take one of your classes?
You can follow me and learn more about Apsaras Dance and Events on social media. There you will find the latest information about our events and projects. For Rome readers, new dance classes will start in October 2017 throughout the city. We will update the course schedule on Facebook and Instagram and look forward to you joining a class and traveling with us to India.
I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Good luck and keep dancing and dreaming!