Meet 5 Allen County artists sharing cultural history and legacy through creative expression

Who are some of the most prominent people groups in Allen County, and how do they preserve, pass on, and celebrate their cultural heritage through the arts?
 
These are a few of many questions explored by the Allen County Folklife Study made possible by a partnership between Traditional Arts Indiana and Arts United, as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The study began in Spring 2022 with the contracting of five Allen County Folklife Scholars who are members of different cultures, including Black/African American, Burmese, Indian, Latinx, and Native American.

These scholars represent and serve as liaisons between their cultures, the public, and local arts institutions. The goal is to identify, document, and honor cultural traditions through dance and related art forms, as well as to help Allen County better support more inclusive and varied arts programming, says Dr. Jon Kay, Ph.D., Director of Traditional Arts Indiana.

“When people hear the term ‘folk,’ they think we’re talking about outdated practices and artifacts—but it’s so much more than that,” Kay says. “Folklore is really about looking at traditions from a social aspect and evaluating their significance. It’s asking, ‘What is the community around this thing, and how can we pay attention to that?’”

At Arts United's 2022 Taste of the Arts Festival, the public will have an opportunity to meet Allen County’s five Folklife Scholars and experience their stories, traditions, dances, food, and more. Kay sees it as an opportunity to open important cross-cultural dialogues in Fort Wayne—telling more diverse stories of local history and creating more tangible, welcoming ways for people to interact via art and creative expression.
 
“We want this to be very approachable, so people in this community can get to know each other,” Kay says. “I think that’s something the world needs more of.”
 
As the Taste of the Arts approaches on Aug. 27, Input Fort Wayne sat down with the five Folklife Scholars to learn what this opportunity means to them, offering the community a window into their cultures’ history and ongoing legacy.

 

“Step is very high-impact, high-energy—kind of like a war dance. In step, your body becomes the percussion instrument.” Since Mr. Curry was a boy on the Fort Wayne’s South East side, he has been practicing the ancient art of spoken word, stepping, and dancing.

-Mr. Adrian Curry, honoring the Black/African-American community

In 2018, Mr. Adrian Curry, as he prefers to be called, founded the Art Leadership Center (ALC), a Fort-Wayne-based organization designed to develop the next generation of artists and scholars into globally minded leaders. One way they do this is through the art of  “stepping” or step dancing.

“Stepping and dancing are similar because they’re both forms of expression,” says Mr. Curry. “But dancing is more rhythmic and fluid, while step is very high-impact, high-energy—kind of like a war dance. In step, your body becomes the percussion instrument.”

Stepping is often practiced at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in fraternities, sororities, and even in competitions known as step battles.

Since Mr. Curry was a boy on the Fort Wayne’s South East side, he has been practicing the ancient art of spoken word, stepping, and dancing.

Mr. Curry’s Taste of the Arts display will highlight the history and significance of the art of “stepping” in Black history, explain how it has evolved into its current use, and share how it will shape the future. It will include on-stage performances by ALC students, using spoken word poetry and step dances for the community.
 
“At our booth, we’ll explain fundamental step moves and teach people some of the basics,” says Mr. Curry. “We want it to be interactive.”
 

“My dad knows how to play traditional Burmese music, and he’s been teaching me for years. Singing and dancing are traditions we can carry with us. When you pass them down from generation to generation, you never lose your culture.”

-Ruaxoi Non, honoring the Burmese community Ruaxoi Non

Even as a child, Ruaxoi Non learned the value of her family’s culture through dance and music. She arrived in the United States in 1999 with her parents, brother, and grandmother, and dance was one of the ways they stayed close to their family heritage.

“My dad knows how to play traditional Burmese music, and he’s been teaching me for years,” says Non. “Singing and dancing are traditions we can carry with us. When you pass them down from generation to generation, you never lose your culture.”

At the Taste of the Arts Festival, Non’s booth will include videos of Burmese song and dance performances, examples of traditional clothing, and interactive opportunities for people to learn Burmese dance moves.

Ruaxoi Non dancing.
 
“I’m excited for people to get a window into Burmese culture,” says Non. “I want everyone to come explore, ask questions, learn, and just have fun.”
 

“This opportunity is a stepping-stone toward a bigger movement: Beginning to understand each other’s cultures and enjoy other cultural traditions.”

-Sudhakar Santhanakrishnan, honoring the Indian community Sudhakar Santhanakrishnan
 
After moving from India to Los Angeles in 2000, Sudhakar Santhanakrishnan never dreamed he’d make Fort Wayne home. But when he came to Fort Wayne for work, he found it was a great place to raise his family.
 
“If I was taken out of Fort Wayne now, I’d be a fish out of water,” Santhanakrishnan says, in jest.

Over the past several months, Santhanakrishnan has worked alongside other members of Fort Wayne’s Indian community to bring a taste of Indian culture to this year’s arts festival.

“As a parent, I love seeing these opportunities for my kids to not only share their culture, but also learn about others’ cultures,” says Gowri Sundaram, a member of Santhanakrishnan’s team whose daughter will perform in the festivities.

Sai Santhosh plays the Veena, a ancient Indian string instrument.

Santhanakrishnan has also enlisted the help of Indian American student Reya Patel, whose parents moved to the United States before she was born, and Dr. Vijay Chilakamarri, who has played a fundamental role in building the thriving Indian community Fort Wayne has today.
 
“Our display at Taste of the Arts will focus on the traditional dance style Bharatnatyam, along with an instrumental recital known as Veena,” says Dr. Chilakamarri. “This opportunity is a stepping-stone toward a bigger movement: Beginning to understand each other’s cultures and enjoy other cultural traditions.”
 

“You are who you are because of where you come from. That’s never going to change. It’s important for younger generations to learn about the culture and to be proud of their heritage.

-Raquel Kline, honoring the Latinx community Raquel Kline
 
For the past decade, Raquel Kline has been involved with the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Day of the Dead celebration. This year, she’s bringing a few trademark elements of Latinx culture to Taste of the Arts. A native of Nicaragua, Kline moved to the U.S. when she got married 20 years ago. Since then, she’s dedicated herself to keeping her heritage alive for her family and her community.
 
“You are who you are because of where you come from,” says Kline. “That’s never going to change. It’s important for younger generations to learn about the culture and to be proud of their heritage.”
 
Honoring the Latinx community at the Taste of the Arts Festival is a significant undertaking due to the wide number of countries represented within the culture.
 
“There are so many different nationalities within Latin America, so I’m focusing on highlighting traditions and practices that several countries have in common,” says Kline. Her display will feature three traditions: dance, food, and crafts.

Pupusas, a traditional dish in El Salvador and Guatemala, being made.
 
Kline has invited the folklore group Amaneceres de Mexico to perform at the festival, largely because the group includes people of all ages—a powerful testament to the importance of passing traditions from one generation to the next. Other members of the Latinx community will also be in attendance to share about the making of pupusas, a traditional dish in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to highlight the process of making piñatas, which is far more intricate and involved than piñatas you might find in today’s party stores.

“We have such a rich community in Fort Wayne,” says Kline. “I think the Folklife Scholars program can only evolve from here, and I’m excited to see how it grows over the years.”
 
 

“My kids would come home and tell me their teacher said the Miami people left Fort Wayne in the 1800s, and that made me even more passionate about making our culture known. Our people have a past, but we are of the present, and we’re going into the future. The Miami people are here in this Fort Wayne community.”

-Dani Tippmann, honoring the Native American community: Miami Tribe Dani Tippmann

Dani Tippmann grew up absorbing the Miami culture at her mother’s knee.
 
“From the time I can remember, we’d go out in the woods or pastures to pick plants for supper or to heal wounds,” she says. “I didn’t even realize we did things that were considered ‘different’ until I was in college.”
 
When her kids were in school, Tippmann saw how easy it was for Native Americans to be erased from history. 

“My kids would come home and tell me their teacher said the Miami people left Fort Wayne in the 1800s, and that made me even more passionate about making our culture known,” Tippmann says. “Our people have a past, but we are of the present, and we’re going into the future. The Miami people are here in this Fort Wayne community.”

Dani Tippmann examines one of her plants.
 
Today, Tippmann is still passionate about the nutritious and healing nature of plants. Her display at Taste of the Arts will focus primarily on how native plants are used in food, medicine, and technology. She has also coordinated a group of stomp dancers, some powwow dancers, and a basket-weaver to perform and share about the history of their traditions.

“I think to live here in modern Fort Wayne, it’s important to understand its history and everything that came before,” says Tippmann. “The Taste of the Arts Festival is a great opportunity for that, and I’m looking forward to both sharing and learning about the cultures represented in this community.”
 
Taste of the Arts: August 27, 2022
 
This year’s festival will take place on Saturday, August 27, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit the festival’s official website for information on scheduling, vendors, and other events.