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Anjali Gera, MD, Found a Passion in Indian Dance. She Wants to Pass That on to Her Patients.



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Anjali Gera, MD, first learned to dance a form of South Asian dance, Bhangra, by watching the moves on satellite TV. Today, she is a fellow in movement disorders, performs Bhangra at weddings and charity events, and hopes to make it part of patient care.

Anjali Gera, MD, grew up, straddling the divides of two worlds in her hometown of Louisville, KY. Born to South Asian parents, she spoke Hindi and Punjabi at home and English at school. She met no other Indian children or families in Louisville, but from an early age, she said, she loved the Indian form of Punjabi dance she was only exposed to through the satellite TV channel her parents watched. Years later, when she went off to college at the University of Chicago, she connected to a broader South Asian community—and found a venue to rekindle her early passion for the form of dance she first experienced as a child.

Dr. Gera is in her second year of a two-year fellowship in movement disorders at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And when she is not involved in her studies and patient care, she finds the time to perform her beloved art form at weddings and charity events. Dr. Gera plans to combine her lifelong passion for Indian dance with her career in treating patients with Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. She spoke to Neurology Today about the role dance has played in her life and career.

When did you first begin dancing?

My parents tell me that I started dancing before I could walk! I am Indian by heritage, but I was born and raised in Louisville, KY. My parents raised me in a household where the only languages spoken were Hindi and Punjabi. Although they both spoke fluent English, they wanted to pass down their native languages to me. Every meal was homemade Indian food, and the TV was always playing Indian channels.

In Kentucky, where did you learn Indian dance?

We had this huge satellite dish that you had to have back in the day to get access to those [Indian] channels, and we had a round dining table that I used to hold and dance around to Indian songs playing in the background. There were not any Indian dance classes in our area at the time, and I did not have much family around—just my parents and grandparents. With my dad's family in Toronto and the rest of my mom's in India, I did not have the opportunity to regularly dance with others as a child. So I taught myself to dance by watching videos of Indian songs! I loved to dance so much, that when the TV would turn off, I would ask my parents to play my favorite Indian songs. And I continued to dance.

What was life like growing up as an Indian-American in Kentucky in the 1980s and 1990s?

It was like living in two worlds. My life at home was a very Indian life. On the other hand, throughout all of grade school, I did not have a single friend who was Indian. I was born in 1986 and started school in the 1990s, and there were no Indian families in the area at that time. We had no Indian grocery stores or restaurants in Louisville. Despite my very different environment outside of home, my first language was Hindi, and when I started school I did not know a word of English.

How did that experience affect you?

It was a unique upbringing that I could only appreciate when I was older. As a kid, when learning a second language or two languages at the same time, you don't really know which words belong to which language. So I would mix up the two. The teachers would say, “She's asking for this and we don't know what that is,” because, while the sentence was largely in English, one word (what I wanted) was in Hindi. Ultimately, I was able to learn English very well, because, as I have learned as a neurologist, the language centers of the brain are still so malleable at that young age. I am still fluent in Hindi too, and I understand Punjabi, the language of the region of India that my father is from. This has allowed me to understand and enjoy the lyrics of Hindi and Punjabi songs, and also immerse myself into the culture when I visit India or am with my family. Specifically, Bhangra is a type of Punjabi dance in which I have taken an interest since childhood.

How did you take your dancing to the next level?

That is a bit of a long story, and it has to do with how and why I became a doctor. When I was 12, my mother had a large ischemic stroke that left her hemiparetic on the right [side of her body] and with Broca's aphasia. I helped my father care for her, and her rehabilitation inspired me to pursue medicine and later neurology. I had a full-ride scholarship to any university in Kentucky, but I really wanted to come to Chicago. We used to travel there several times a year when I was child. I loved how diverse Chicago was, not only with a much larger Indian population but with so many other backgrounds to which I had never been exposed. Moreover, we would go to the Indian markets and I would get to buy all my CDs, so I just loved it. Thankfully, I also received a full-ride scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which allowed me to attend the University of Chicago. I moved to Chicago at age 17. For the first time in my life, I was having conversations with other students about all types of dance, including Bhangra!

Where did you dance in college?

The University of Chicago has several South Asian dance teams, and I was a part of the Bhangra team. There is a big South Asian Students Association cultural show at the University of Chicago annually, and most of our practices focused on preparing to perform in that show. But midway through college, our team also started competing both within Chicago and outside the city through the Punjabi Cultural Society of Chicago and Nachte Raho. We also performed at charity events, weddings, and at community events including at Navy Pier in Chicago.

As graduation was approaching, a group of about six or seven of us on the team wanted to continue to dance together. We were all girls of all different backgrounds, with only one Indian (me). I have always been fascinated by how Bhangra attracts people from all backgrounds. So we decided to create our own team and called ourselves the Balle Bhangra team. We continued to perform in competitions and fundraisers for many years after graduation.

How did you keep up with dance in medical school and residency?

In medical school, my life became more and more busy, of course, but I kept up with dancing as much as I could. I continued to be a part of my dance team and also taught Indian dance to children in my community. I was also interested in learning other types of dance, and our anatomy professor was teaching anatomy during the day followed by tango lessons in the evenings! I joined the lessons and performed a tango dance at my medical school's winter ball with a very good friend and classmate. During residency, things paused a little bit and I only did a couple of dance events a year. But now, in my second year of my movement disorders fellowship, thankfully I have a little more time and perform about every other month at weddings and charity events.

What does dance mean to you?

It has been a long journey as far as pursuing the medical profession and becoming a movement disorders neurologist, as well as experiencing a major hardship in my childhood, but this journey has been made significantly easier by dance. Dance kills my anxiety and fills me with joy. It is my main stress reliever. Dance is therapeutic, and I have witnessed this in myself and my mother. I dance with my mother whenever I am able, and we both feel it has helped with her mobility, mood, and general outlook on life. My career as a neurologist will be focused on caring for patients with movement disorders, including people with Parkinson's disease. Upon completion of my fellowship, I hope to be able to get trained as a dance teacher for patients with Parkinson's disease, and incorporate dance as a part of caring for my patients.

Why is Bhangra your chosen type of dance?

Bhangra is the happiest dance I have ever seen. It is a very energetic and lively dance, and the costumes are beautifully bright and colorful. Maybe I am biased! But if you watch anyone dancing Bhangra, the happiness on their face is just so visible. And I feel it too. In fact, this happiness is infectious: watching someone dance Bhangra makes you want to get up and dance too. Bhangra can be choreographed or freestyle, done by a 9- or 90-year-old. It does not require any experience to enjoy it, and allows you the freedom to move however you feel in that moment. Also, it is very, very energetic. If someone were to dance typical Bhangra moves for five minutes, anyone would be sweating and short of breath. I feel so good after exercise and enjoy being a very active person as a runner and a dancer. My entire body is engaged in this type of dance, and I can share this joy with anyone, so for me that's very exciting. It happens to be a part of my heritage, but even if it was not, I think I still would have discovered it and made it a part of my life.