Sonia Sabri. Photo: Simon Richardson Dance UK explores... Kathak

Date Tue 25 March 2014

Each month, Dance UK is investigating a different dance style for our members' e-newsletter, finding out about its technique, style and history. For March, it’s Kathak dance, which choreographer and dancer Sonia Sabri discusses in an interview with Dance UK’s Communications and Membership Officer, Laura Dodge.

What is Kathak and how did it originate?

Kathak is a dance form that comes from the northern parts of India. It started out as a storytelling form – the name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’, meaning story. It was folkloric originally and included song, spoken word and movements/gestures to tell stories.

From the 13th century onwards, Kathak absorbed features of dance from the royal courts of the Mughal era. This gave it a more a technical side, with emphasis on rhythm and symbolism, so Kathak combined ancient Indian folkloric devices with Mughal abstract art. In the 1950s and 60s, the dance moved from village courtyards to the stage. It’s still continuing to evolve and there are many different subtypes of Kathak developing.

The key features are rhythmical footwork and movement, expressive hand and arm gestures, emphasis on bodily shapes and alignments, and storytelling. Kathak is all about conveying moods and emotions through gesture and rhythmic patterns. It also includes a lot of spins and is very lyrical. The movement and music should work seamlessly together.

What should you look out for when watching Kathak?

You can tell if a Kathak dancer is skilled if they develop a relationship with the music and the audience, articulate their body well and maintain balance and fluidity of movement. There is also lots of improvisation in Kathak, so you should look out for spontaneity and creativity.

Kathak is very broad and very individual so there isn’t one particular way to do it. How it is performed is related to the particular dancer. The main thing is that it has a certain magic to it in the interaction with the music.

How does a Kathak dancer train? 

Training is very rigorous, like for ballet dancers. You normally need to train for four or more hours a day every day for at least seven years before performing. The ideal age to start is around six or seven, and even at that age you would need to do one or two hours a day. You can train by going to an institution specialising in the art form or working with a particular master. There is no dedicated Kathak institute in the UK but there are teachers here.

The training is first about learning the basics of the technique in a parrot sense, to get fluent in the vocabulary of the style. Then as you develop, it’s about adding your imagination and individuality and discovering yourself as an artist. Kathak dance is a lifestyle – your life revolves around the art form.

How does your choreography use Kathak technique?

We’re living in a dance age, where everything has to be modern and relevant to audiences. My choreography is a kind of contemporary Kathak, which looks at the progression and evolution of the form and what it means to me as a British-Asian dancer. I am reinvestigating what I know about Kathak in my choreography – how I can change things without losing the integrity of the form.

I take inspiration from other dance styles, but I’m not trained in them so it’s not a fusion. I have worked with contemporary choreographers and composers and I take certain principals – such as structure – and apply them to Kathak. It’s interesting to do this type of experimentation to see how it changes the form, to reinvestigate the nature of Kathak.

Why do you love Kathak dance?

I was lucky to have an inspiring teacher whose whole life was Kathak. The importance she gave to Kathak was drilled into me. I was seven years old when I began learning and it was really inspiring to see such passion. Being brought up with that, I know nothing else but Kathak.

I love also that it allows you to explore your individuality within the style’s wonderful vocabulary. The technique is all derived from natural movement used to communicate. As a child I was very shy; I found an invaluable way to express myself through Kathak.

What dance style would you like to see featured next in the 'Dance UK explores...' series? Email suggestions to laura@danceuk.org.