Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I was at the Chhandam School of Kathak all day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. I’m there every Sunday at our branch location in Fremont, California. Throughout the day, company dancers and I teach kids from our Youth Dance Company; we also practice on our own. I’m currently the director of the company and a principal member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company; we range in age from 20s to 60s. Kathak is a classical type of dance from India. The name comes from the word katha, which is defined as the art of storytelling, and that’s principally what we do — we tell the histories of gods, heroes, hunters and demons.
I have lot of daily responsibilities, including running rehearsals and choreographing performances. It’s hectic. Today, we worked on finishing a performance we’re doing next year at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley — it’s called Shiva, for the Indian god known as the destroyer of the world. Shiva was nearly complete when our founder and guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das, passed away suddenly nine months ago.
We still feel his loss at the academy, every day. It was a shock. He was only 70. He’d just had a complete physical. We were on our way to finish a choreography for the performance when he had a heart attack, and 10 minutes later, he was gone. He was an incredible master and teacher.
We have to convince parents that this is something as prestigious and difficult as ballet.
I actually met Chitresh in a serendipitous way in the early ’90s. I moved to San Francisco from Atlanta, got married, had kids. I went back to school to get a job as a teacher, and I needed a PE credit, so I enrolled in Chitresh’s kathak class at San Francisco State University. I’m not of Indian ancestry; I didn’t even know kathak was a classical dance. But I became captivated by Chitresh from the first day. I remember him saying, “I’m not a dance teacher; I’m a dance preacher!” He was a crazy personality, over the top. And he really elevated the art form and inspired people. Shiva, appropriately, talks about time and death and energy and realizing your potential. I didn’t know the dance would give me all of those things.
I don’t think kathak dance, or classical dance in general, gets the attention it deserves. People don’t realize how much work we put into practicing and supporting ourselves as dancers or as teachers. We have to convince parents that this is something as prestigious and difficult as ballet. But ethnic dance is not as well-supported as ballet. If you’re involved in ballet, you expect to train six hours a day. Sometimes parents don’t understand kids have to develop a riyaz, a practice, for this dance too. Since we started the company in 2002, kids we worked with have become super high achievers, going into difficult careers. We think we’ve helped prepare them.
Kathak dance is more than a hobby. It’s a spiritual, complex path. You’re bringing out stories and doing music and athletic spins that feel like flying. And every cell of your body is on fire when you’re doing it.
Dealing with personal relationships outside of the group is difficult for all of us in the company. A lot of us have second jobs and kids and larger social lives outside of dance. And we always use Sunday to practice. That’s when everyone else has an off-day. I have missed a lot of my kids’ birthdays. But I think it’s OK. It’s not really a sacrifice, because my children are seeing someone who is following her passion.