In the corner of a classroom filled with books and toys, 12-year-old Nistha Acharya practiced a graceful dance that tells the story of the Hindu god Ganesh.
Nistha and other girls in bright pink-and-green Indian dresses stretched their slender arms to represent the trunk of the elephant-head god. Bands of bells around their ankles jingled with each step. They cupped their palms to hold flower petals to offer to Ganesh, the god who removes obstacles from people's lives.
For Nistha, a sixth-grader at Cherry Run Elementary School in Burke, learning the movements and meaning of the traditional dance has helped her understand and appreciate a country and culture that can feel far removed from her life in Fairfax County.
"I'm American-born, and I do all sorts of American things," she said during the practice, on a recent Sunday afternoon. "But it feels good to be Indian, too."
The setting for Nistha's lesson, a colorful room decorated with the Hebrew alphabet and the word "Shalom," might seem a bit unusual. But dozens of Indian families gather at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia each Sunday, transforming it into the India International School. Students of all ages study Hindi and yoga. Many are learning to play Indian drums called tabla. Others are studying dances such as kuchipudi and bharatnatyam.
Radhika Yadav, a founder of the India school, said the community center, on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax, has provided a good home since 1992 but the school is ready for its own building. Members have launched a fundraising campaign, envisioning a place that would be both a school and a community center. It would be open all week and in the evenings, offering the space and flexibility for classes, lectures and performances.
Atul Jain, whose two sons attend the school and whose 4-year-old daughter is set to enroll, said he imagines a facility where Indians would gather and where people of other ethnicities would come to learn about Indian culture.
"The dream of this group is to have a cultural center through which we can create a vibrant contribution to the community," Jain said.
Jain, chairman of Teoco Corp., a Fairfax information technology consulting company, has been involved in the school for four years. Jain moved to the United States from India in 1981 and said the classes and companionship available there have helped his family stay connected with their culture.
"For me, this is really my homeland now, but my Indian heritage is never going to go away," Jain said. "Having an institution where I can bring that out is really important to me."
The India International School is like others across the Washington area founded by immigrant families seeking to keep the traditions and art of their native cultures alive for their children. For example, the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring offers cultural and dance classes on Sundays. The Vietnamese Cultural Society of Metropolitan Washington holds a summer "heritage camp" that includes cultural lessons.
Organizers of the nonprofit India school have raised about $300,000, Yadav said. She estimated they will need about $12 million to buy a large building. The group is soliciting donations from businesses, and youth group members are planning fashion shows and carwashes.
Yadav, who helps run the school and once worked as a substitute teacher at a private school, acknowledges that the group has a long way to go. But she reflects on how much it has grown since it was launched more than 20 years ago with little more than a desire to keep her two children in touch with Indian customs and traditions.
"We wanted our children to learn the language and music and to understand the philosophy, because that's a way of life," Yadav said.
Yadav said she and her husband, Gopal, along with their friends Dhananjaya and Indira Kumar, started meeting for potluck lunches in the mid-1980s to tell their children about the mythology and history of India. In 1984 the couples, each with two children, hired a teacher of Hindi and classical Indian music to work with their children.
More children signed on for the sessions, but growth came slowly. "People said, 'Why should we learn Hindi? We are living in America,' " Indira Kumar said. "But a few of us old-timers with ideas about our culture said we should pass it on to our kids."
The classes were moved from homes to a rented room at a Fairfax County community center and then to a church in Springfield. By the early 1990s, there were about 25 students.
In 1992, the school began renting rooms in the Jewish Community Center. Membership grew rapidly, fueled in part by Indian immigrants who moved to the Washington area during the technology boom. The school now has about 400 students and 14 teachers. Classes cost $400 a year.
As the school grew, its members began to teach others in the community. Members have visited senior centers and churches to talk about Indian culture, and students have performed at the National Cherry Blossom Festival and at Wolf Trap. The school prepared the food and provided entertainment when the Jewish Community Center held a program called "Jewish Spice From Out of India."
Dhananjaya Kumar, a former senior economist at the World Bank and now a yoga teacher at the school, stressed that the school is about culture, not religion. "We are promoting the values of the culture, which are universal," he said. "We are promoting peace and harmony."
The school is attracting a growing number of non-Indian students, a trend organizers attribute in part to the rising popularity of Indian music and films such as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend It Like Beckham." This month, the school's annual gala had to be held on consecutive weekends because the auditorium and other areas in the Jewish Community Center weren't large enough to hold the crowds that came to watch skits and dances, listen to music and munch on samosas and rice.
On one of those Sunday afternoons, Savitha Subramanian, 24, a dance teacher at the school, helped the younger girls prepare for their performance, straightening costumes and fixing bobby pins. Subramanian, who works at the World Bank, said the traditional dances have helped her feel grounded.
"It helps you understand where you came from," Subramanian said. "When I go to India, I know more about the culture than many kids there, because they are trying to be Westernized."
Gopal Yadav, an adviser at the International Monetary Fund and one of the school's founders, said some students who come at the encouragement of their families are wary at first.
"These kids, by inclination they are American, and initially they resist anything about being Indian," he said. "They want to conform; they don't want to wear those funny dresses. But when they do it, they grow to appreciate their culture."
Sneha Shah, 14, an eighth-grader at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon who came to the United States from India when she was 5, heard about the school from a friend three years ago and enrolled in a dance class on a lark. She quickly discovered a love of the dances of her native country and made many friends.
"I remember before I came to school I was kind of shying away from my Indianness, but now I'm so into being Indian," Shah said.
Shah is still taking dance classes and has added a Hindi class. She also is leading the school's new youth group, which is planning to seek donations from businesses and hold food bazaars to raise money for the new building.
For Shah, the school has meant a closer relationship with family members in India, whom she plans to visit this summer.
"My mom is so happy that I'm reconnected to my culture," she said. "The entire week I'm American. I have American friends. I use the phone a lot. I IM a lot. Then I come here, and I totally change."
Students perform the bharatnatyam. The India International School, founded 20 years ago, holds classes on Sundays. It has about 400 students, and classes cost $400 a year.Sneha Raju, 3, opens wide for a helping of lemon rice.A traditional closing dance is performed at the India International School gala.