Dancing Bollywood in Cleveland

(Cleveland, Ohio – April 21, 2014) Venkat Rama Raju danced into Cleveland from India two years ago to work on a masters in computer engineering at Cleveland State University.  While he had his pick of schools across the United States, he chose Cleveland deliberately.  “The concentration of performing arts organizations here is unmatched anywhere in the country,” he said.  “Cleveland’s Playhouse Square was the deciding factor.  When I saw that, I knew immediately Cleveland was the right choice for me.” 

Raj, as everyone calls him here, prepares to graduate from CSU this spring. He’s both President of the school’s Indian Student Association, and Graduate Assistant in Event Management for the university’s Center for International Services and Programs.

Raj saw snow for the first time in his life here. “The first time the snow fell, I laughed and danced in the snow flakes.” Having grown up in Hyderabad, a city in southeastern India where the winter temperatures rarely fall below 60 degrees, and summer can be in the 100s, Cleveland weather was new to Raj. But he’s reluctant to leave Cleveland.

“Soon after I arrived, I found tango,” he said, “and explored the dance clubs around town.”  His dancing was quickly noticed, and after performing Bollywood style at the CSU International Day In November 2012, he was asked to dance at the Third Annual Holiday Celebration of Cleveland’s Diversity held in the City Hall Rotunda.  Cleveland discovered Raj, but Raj had discovered dance long before.

“My father enrolled me in dance school in first standard [first grade in India] after he saw me dancing, and by fifth standard I was dancing in television commercials.  I was pretty famous around my town.”

“But students from India don’t come here to dance.  We study computer engineering.”  That didn’t stop Raj from dancing throughout Cleveland.  The local Asian Indian community also noticed.  Quickly, Raj was introduced to Asim Datta, President at the Cleveland Federation of India Community Associations (FICA). “Asim’s like a father to me,” Raj said, referring to how Asim and the local Asian Indian community took Raj under their wing.

“Raj is more than a fine young man,” said Asim when we later spoke.  “We asked Raj how we could attract the college youth from India to join in FICA activities.  To Raj it was a no-brainer – you have to take the community to the youth.  Raj said, ‘Host FICA activities on campus.’  So that’s what we did.”

On March 29th, families from throughout the region joined the students at CSU for Holi, the Festival of Colors, a traditional Hindu celebration of spring.  Through many speeches, songs, and dance performances, the college students learned just how widespread their culture is in Cleveland.

“I love Cleveland,” said Raj.  “So while I have job offers on the east and west coasts, I’m looking for something here.  And it has to be computer engineering,” he said referring to his student visa restrictions to only accept payment for work or training in the area of his major.  He has danced many engagements since coming to Cleveland, but was never paid once.

“Dance is big business, both here in Cleveland, and around the country. I can dance. I can teach. I can organize.  I can do great things in this country – but I have to bide my time.”  Raj will do just that working as a computer engineer.  If he subsequently gets a green card, he can then work on his dancing career.

“It’s too bad,” said Asim Datta in Cleveland Heights. “He’s a great dancer.  He started a dance club at school.  He teaches for free.  But he’s also very careful.  He doesn’t want to jeopardize his future either in programming, which he’s also very good at, or dancing.  Any company in Cleveland would be lucky to hire this man.  I wish they’d hurry up and hire him before he has to move to LA.”