Friday, April 20, 2012

A Year of Kathak

All the way back in August, I wrote a short post about embarking on a course of kathak (North Indian classical dance) lessons.  “More on this soon!”  I wrote.  Well, now finally, I am going to deliver on that promise. 

For several months, I took lessons with the teacher I had met back in August.  He was a good teacher, and a very talented tabla player and singer.  Often, he and one of the harmonium teachers would jam together as I danced, which was always a lot of fun.  For the most part, I took private lessons, though I was occasionally joined by other students.  Some were around my age, while others were quite tiny.  I had a good time getting to know the other kathak dancers, big and small, and my dancing improved quite quickly.

Unfortunately however, sometime in November, the kathak teacher stopped coming in for his regular classes.  I would come in to the school only to be told “Aaj sir nahi hai.”  (Today sir is not here.)  This happened again and again.  After a while, the staff realized that they should call students when the teacher would not be able to teach, so, instead of going to the school and being turned away, I was simply informed by phone.  Weeks went by, and, one day, having received no phone calls about my dance class, I thought that maybe finally Sir had returned.  When I walked into the school, the receptionist told me to go ahead to the kathak room, and informed me that there was a new teacher, a new Ma’am. 

I went to class and introduced myself to my new ma’am.  She was young, pretty, and impossibly graceful when she got up to demonstrate the new movements I would have to learn.  Her English was also very good.  I quickly adjusted my movements to fit the new style I would have to learn, and overall had a very productive first class.

The next few months of kathak were extremely confusing, and often frustrating.  My teacher missed a week of classes due to illness, and then I missed the following week due to my conference in Sri Lanka.  I had only two classes before leaving again for South India.  I told my teacher and the receptionist that I would be in South India for three weeks and therefore unable to come to class.  Something must have been lost in translation however, and I received several phone calls while in Bangalore, asking me why I was not coming in for my kathak lessons.

By the time I returned, my time slot had been filled up by other students, and I found myself in classes with large groups of six-year-olds.  They were very cute and entertaining, but not really the best classmates, as they (understandably) learned much more slowly, and had very short attention spans.  Whereas I had made large strides in my first few months of learning the dance form, my progress quickly ground to a halt as, again and again, I plodded my way through the most basic steps with the kids.  Additionally, my class times were continually changing, so it was very difficult for me to make other appointments and plans. 

When I had reached a point at which I thought I might just quit, my teacher asked me quite out of the blue if I would like to be in the center’s next performance.  She explained that the dance would be set to “Kahe ched mohe” from the film “Devdas.”  She then played the song for me.  I liked the song, as well as the idea of having some sort of culmination for my kathak experience this year, so I agreed to be part of the performance.

During the first rehearsal, I felt as though I had been caught in a whirlwind.  My teacher demonstrated the movements once, then asked us to perform them back.  The movements were so fast and intricate however, that I often needed to see them demonstrated many times before I could even attempt to imitate them.  Unfortunately for me, none of the other girls seemed to need this extra attention.  I left the first rehearsal with my head spinning, wondering if I had made the right decision in agreeing to be in this dance.

The next rehearsal was just as difficult.  My teacher quickly demonstrated while I attempted to follow along.  Compliments were extremely rare if not nonexistent, and each time I danced I struggled to take into account the many criticisms I had received.  “Practice at home.  And don’t miss rehearsal!” my teacher warned me. 

At first, I was extremely discouraged.  I blamed myself for just being a bad dancer (I have had a lifelong dance inferiority complex).  I blamed my teacher and the more experienced dancers who acted as dance captains, for not taking the time to slow down (there were other students who were also struggling, some more than I).  I didn’t know if I would ever understand the steps, and wondered fearfully if I would have to fake my way though the performance.

Slowly slowly, I caught on to the steps of the dance.  I practiced religiously at home, and soon became the person that some of the members of my group (the dance was split into several groups) watched for guidance.  I still made many mistakes and was often corrected, either by the teacher or the more experienced dancers.  Still though, I was becoming much more confident, and really enjoying myself.  The rehearsal process was intense; we would generally practice around two hours a day, six days a week.  I really loved it though, and it was especially nice to have something to do once my school duties at Navyug, Laxmi Bai Nagar officially ended. 

After I started feeling more comfortable about the dance, I was able to reflect more on the learning process.  I realized that my teacher’s seemingly unforgiving approach to teaching the dance was a big part of what had motivated me to work so hard, and had allowed me to make the progress I had made.  In America, educators are often extremely worried about damaging their students’ self esteem (or increasingly, of incurring the wrath of their students’ parents).  When I was training to teach tae kwon do, my teacher cautioned me to always “compliment, correct, compliment.”  That is, I was supposed to both precede and conclude my (always constructive!) criticism with something positive about what my student had just shown me.  Example: “You have great attitude and power while doing your kicking combinations!  Your arms are swinging around a lot though, so remember to keep your guards up.  But your kicks look great, good job!”  I remember sometimes struggling to find anything good to say, but always came up with something, so as to avoid hurting any feelings.

This experience made me realize though, that we don’t need compliments every step of the way.  In fact, rare compliments are far more valuable, as the recipient knows they are sincere.  Had I received a “compliment, correct, compliment” type of response every time I danced in rehearsal, I doubt I would have been motivated to work as hard.  Additionally, I would have felt cheated, as I would have known that my performance did not necessarily deserve the congratulations I was receiving.  I truly believe it was the brutally honest teaching approach that allowed me to progress at all.

As with every other experience I have had in India, the rehearsal process taught me a great deal, not only about dance, but also about India and Indian culture.  The very Indian teaching style as described above probably made me most aware of cultural differences, but there were other things as well.  As in school, any food that made its way into the dance room was shared with everyone, and our teacher would often bring Prasad (blessed food) or snacks to distribute to everyone.  Rehearsal timings were also very Indian in nature.  Sometimes I would become frustrated; in America, if rehearsal is scheduled from 5-7pm, it generally takes place from 5-7pm.  In India however, “5-7” usually actually means “6 until who knows when.”  In many ways I have adapted very well to Indian culture, but “Indian Stretchable Time” is one thing that still somehow always manages to catch me off guard. 

One bright side of always inadvertently coming early for my rehearsals was that I often was able to watch the younger kids rehearsing their dance.  This was always entertaining, and I got to know the little ones as well as the older girls in my dance.  I soon came to be known as “Angrezi wali didi” (English big sister) among the little girls, and enjoyed the opportunities to practice my Hindi and learn Hindi clapping games with them. 

Soon enough, the big day came, and we all showed up at 11am to the dance school, so we could get dressed, do our hair, and apply makeup.  We were scheduled to perform at 3:45, and required to be at the venue by 2:30, so we had a good amount of time. 

Of course, we received a number of phone calls about delays, so we ended up not reaching the performance venue until about 4pm.  Even at this point we were told we had arrived too early, and that there was no space for us in the green room.  We stood in the audience section for a while, and watched a few dances before finally coming down to the green room, where we waited some more.  Eventually, we were called to the backstage area where another waiting period commenced.  We finally performed at around 7:30pm. 

As with every dance I have been a part of, the buildup was huge, but the dance itself went by in a flash.  As I walked out onto the stage, I remember feeling blinded by the lights, being worried that I would slip or my hairpiece would fall off, and wondering if my room mate Jo was still in the audience after all this time.  During the dance itself though, I had a lot of fun.  It was exciting to finally perform this piece that we had been working so hard on, and really fun to feel my full skirt opening like an umbrella as I spun.

When we exited the stage to loud applause, we received sincere compliments from our dance teacher, which all of us appreciated of course.  After exiting the building, I discovered that Jo had indeed sat through the entire three hours, enduring preteen renditions of the extremely sensual Bollywood hit “Chikni Chameli” and crack voiced adolescent male versions of Enrique Iglesias’ “I can be your hero baby.”  (She assures me that there were also quite a few enjoyable performances as well!)  It was especially nice to have her there as she and I were in fact the only ETAs in Delhi at that point, and I was grateful to have at least one “fan” in the audience.  This reminded me how grateful I am for my family, who over the past five years would frequently drive from our Maryland home to Philadelphia, often enduring horrendous traffic, just to watch me perform.  Naturally, Delhi is much further away than Philadelphia, and my family’s presence was really not possible for this show, but the experience did remind me of the support I have been getting for my various performing activities over the years.

My year of kathak lessons in Delhi definitely had its ups and downs, and there were times when I wondered if it was all worth it.  Unquestionably, the final performance convinced me that it most definitely was.  I am so happy that I made the decision to learn classical dance while on this stint in India, and I hope to have the chance to dust off my bells and learn kathak again some day.  Perhaps on my next trip to India?  Let’s see…

Showing off our costumes

Applying alta, a red decorative substance

One of the dance poses


  1. This is so interesting, Abby! I I totally agree with your view that american teaching can be overly complimentary. It's really nice to know exactly where you stand and how hard you need to work, and to motivate yourself to take strides in your own learning experience. Amazing that you were able to have this experience this year!

  2. Thanks Reena! Definitely a learning experience. I'm sure you've also received a lot of "Indian style" instruction with your music!