Ascending the Stage

Divani Nadaraja’s footwork through dance and the law

Published in 2018 Virginia Super Lawyers — May 2018

If family law attorney Divani Nadaraja had to do a song and dance for her clients, she could. She’s only traveled the globe perfecting her act.

“I started dance when I was 4,” says Nadaraja, who, along with her sister, studied Bharatnatyam, a classical South Indian form of dance, when they were growing up in Hayward, California. “The text for the dance was written over 2,500 years ago; it’s very ancient. There are specific hand movements, body formation; the way you move your eyes to tell your story, both rhythmically and theatrically. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t on stage.”

She adds, “It takes years and years of training under a guru, and each generation brings a bit of their own interpretation.”

Her guru was based in San Jose, California, and her training took her to India and Australia. “It’s very intensive training that culminates in a solo dance recital in which you provide a three-hour performance,” she says. “My sister and I did ours together, in Walnut Creek, California. It’s a very big deal. You rent a theater; you fly your family in from all over the world—for us, that meant England and the East Coast of the U.S. We had 800 people.”

Add a live orchestra and the authentic dance costumes, and the arangetram, as the recital is called, is quite the spectacle.

It’s also a crossroads.

Arangetram translates to ‘ascend the stage,’” Nadaraja says. “It’s the premiere performance of what you’ve learned over 10 to 12 years of training. And after that, it’s kind of … you’ve now graduated a certain level. Do you continue, and make this your career?”

Nadaraja continued her training, and, as a triple-major at the University of Pennsylvania, she even danced with the founding members of PENNaach, the nation’s first collegiate South Asian dance troupe. 

“I’m very tied to my culture,” she says. “We are Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka has been in political upheaval for the last 50-plus years, culminating in a pretty bloody civil war that lasted for the majority of my life. The Sri Lankan Tamil population had to leave. There was effectively an ethnic war that was going on, sort of based on language: there was a Sinhalese-speaking majority and Tamil-speaking minority. Being from that minority population, culture became that much more important to my parents, and passed down. Particularly, our language.” 

Frustrated with the “lip service” she found given to South Asian studies in her world history classes in high school, she was thrilled to find a world-renowned South Asian studies program at UPenn, where she studied her native tongue.

“I can understand Tamil fluently, but I can’t speak it fluently,” she says.

While dance spoke to Nadaraja’s quest to keep close to her South Asian roots, the idea of law spoke to her dream to have a job that focused on people, not paper. 

“I always knew, eventually, I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “And I’ve always been drawn to children’s issues. But most important, I wanted to actually practice law as opposed to getting a law degree to open the door to other careers.”

Before landing at ShounBach, she worked for Legal Services of Northern Virginia, dealing with some heavy issues. “I wanted to do abuse and neglect work and work with underrepresented people,” she says. “I came from a very public-interest sort of background. My role with legal aid was to serve victims and survivors of domestic violence.”

She found herself helping clients and children out of tough situations—both domestic and financial. “A lot of family law issues started to come into play, and I fell naturally to family law,” she says. “Now that I have moved into private practice, I see, unfortunately, that domestic violence comes in all shapes and forms.”

Nadaraja enjoys the learning curve. “The issues that I’m exposed to are constantly getting more complicated,” she says. “More high-net-worth clients, more complicated businesses.”

She still finds time to dance it out, too. The stage where she does it? She helped found it.

“The SAPAN Institute was founded by five South Asian performers: singers and dancers, including my husband, who enjoys music, dance and theatre,” she says. “We realized there was no area or venue for talented artists to come together to collaborate and create new art.”

The institute partnered with the Smithsonian Museum when it opened its first exhibition on South Asian American culture, “Beyond Bollywood.”

“It’s something I’m really proud of, and is a place where performers really feel at home,” she says.

Speaking of home, Nadaraja has a mini Bharatnatyam dancer in training. She hopes, anyway. 

“My husband and I joke constantly: Will our child actually have rhythm?”

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