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Shalini Patnaik is considered to be one of the best Odissi dancers in the world. In 1998, at the age of 15, she was recruited by Madonna to choreograph and dance at the 1998 MTV Music Awards. From left: Manjari Ehrlichman, Shibani Patnaik, Madonna, Laboni Patnaik, Shalini Patnaik. Courtesy photo
Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

Traditional dance helps keep sisters in touch with culture

ENCINITAS — Shalini Patnaik is a California girl, born and raised in San Diego. In fact, she’s a former Miss San Diego and a graduate of UC Santa Cruz. Like Americans of Irish, Italian and Mexican descent, Patnaik enjoys sharing aspects of her culture with others. For her and her sisters, Shibani and Laboni, this happens to be classical Odissi dance, thought to be the oldest surviving dance form of India.

Patnaik, who began studying Odissi at the age of 5, is considered to be one of the best dancers of her kind in the world. In 1998, at the age of 15, she was recruited by Madonna to choreograph and dance at the 1998 MTV Music Awards. Later, she choreographed Ricky Martin’s 2006 World Tour.

Today, she serves as certification project manager of Quality Assurance International in San Diego, a company that certifies organic fruit and vegetables. When she’s not in the office, chances are she’s exercising, rehearsing, teaching or performing Odissi dance somewhere in the world. Last week she returned from Vancouver where she was featured at the Gait to the Spirit Festival of Indian Classical Dance at the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

Shibani Patnaik travels the world performing Odissi dance like younger sister, Shalini, and older sister, Laboni. She’s performing in the ancient Rajarani temple in Orissa, India. Courtesy photo

Patnaik explained that Odissi dancers use facial and hand gestures to convey traditional, mythical stories. As dancers perfect the form, they are given more freedom to express themselves by interpreting their own poetry and stories through dance.

“Odissi is one of the most graceful dances,” she explained. “We have a saying that from the waist down you’re strong like a stone, while the upper body is soft and graceful. It’s that combination of strength and grace that makes it very appealing.”

Like ballet, rigorous exercise is required to achieve such grace.

“Dance training starts with a set of warm-up exercises that are repetitive,” she said. “It’s a mixture of yoga and aerobic exercises — squats and jumps.”

Patnaik explained that the dancer is in a squat position almost all the time.

“It requires a lot of quad strength,” she said, adding that strength is needed to make the proper sound of the foot hitting the ground.

“I think during my last dance performance (Vancouver) I burned 5,000 calories during a solo performance that lasted 1 and 1/4 to 1 and 1/2 hours,” she said.

Patnaik teaches students in a small dance studio in the family home. Her students range from age 4 to 40, many of whom are children with at least one Indian parent while others are typical California women who have embraced the art form.

“We bring teachers that we trained with from India to live with us for six to 14 months at a time,” she said. “When they are not here, one of us (sisters) will take over.”

Oldest sister Laboni Patnaik works in government relations at Qualcomm. Middle sister Shibani is vice president of Global Analytics.

“I’m very lucky because I work a lot with people in India and the U.K., so I work early morning and late at night,” Shibani said. “I have lots of time to work on dance.”

Shibani just returned from a 16-city tour with a music ensemble from India. She performed at venues that included the University of Buffalo, N.Y.; University of Maryland, College Park; University of North Texas, Dallas and international dance centers including Peridance in New York City.

“Growing up in the U.S. and having that connection with ancient dance traditions keeps me in touch with my culture,” she said, adding that she avoids standard repertoires, preferring themes she develops such as peace and the cycle of life that reflect the philosophy of Hinduism.

“The more explanation we give, the more relevant the dance is to today’s audiences, and the more interested they become,” she said. “Our goal is to reach mainstream America and to spread messages through the dance itself.”

For more information, including the performance schedule, visit the Center for World Music San Diego at or