I grew up in the 1970s in London, to Mauritian immigrants parents who sent us every Saturday to learn Indian Classical ‘Kathak’ dance. You see my father, the late Gaya Matabudul, was a pillar of the Mauritian community and a Hindu Pandit, and both he and my mother wanted us to keep our cultural heritage and dancing was a way for me to do just that.
Almost every weekend my father hosted traditional Vedic ceremonies to celebrate auspicious days, and festivals and to build community. After the prayers and bhajans ( songs of worship ), my sisters and I performed our rehearsed Kathak dance routines, dressed in 'traditional Indian outfits. We also performed all over London at prestigious venues. It felt good to move my body and challenge my brain to learn something new.
'Learning Kathak, this ancient Indian performing Art at such a young age was a great confidence booster.''
Dancing through my memories
I recall performing a classical Indian Kathak routine at the prestigious ‘Commonwealth Institute’ in London at the age of seven. Never before had I seen such a professional-looking stage. The large auditorium was filled with rows of seats that seemed to go on forever. When it was my turn to perform and the curtain raised, I felt excited and nervous at the same time looking out at the sea of people in the audience.
You see, I was an overweight child who, up until that moment, had been rather self-conscious of how I looked. However, dressed in my beautiful Indian skirt and matching blouse, I felt like a million bucks. Upon hearing the familiar music, my fears, anxiety, and lack of confidence seemed to melt away as I began to dance to the folk song, ‘Fagan Formato Aayo’ and move melodically to the music.
Before long, I was lost in the rhythm of the dance. I remember feeling so happy and ecstatic on that stage, dancing almost like in some kind of trance. When the curtain went down, upon hearing the loud applause, I was brought me back to my body. It was a marvelous experience and one I will never forget.
The History of Kathak
I am grateful to have learned Kathak which is such an expressive dance with much culture and history. Kathak dates back to the 4th century BC and was very popular in the courts and kingdoms amongst nobility and royalty.
It originated from the traveling poets of North India, also known as ‘Kathakars’ or storytellers, rather apt, as I consider myself quite the storyteller! These well-traveled folks told vivid stories through music, dance, and songs, based on ancient mythology, portraying tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharat. '
The dancers wore vibrantly rich costumes, colorful makeup, and decadent jewels, They communicated through rhythmic foot movements, facial expressions, and eye work. They also used symbolic gestures of the hands and fingers called 'Mudras.' which are used in ceremonies, dance or sculpture, and painting. 'Mudras' mean mark or seal in Sanskrit.
Both Yoga and Kathak share the same commonalities as they both have several stages. It is said that if practiced regularly, then a state of Moksha can be achieved through these mediums.
Moksha means achieving one's dharma, detaching from the material world, and attaining a divine understanding of the self and nature.
Often Moksha is achieved through traditional meditation, but now I realize that meditative states can be reached through dance. I experienced it myself that day on that stage so many years ago.
These ‘Sanskrit' terms were familiar to me, especially as I went back to my roots to study Im 'Ayurveda' the Ancient Holistic Science of Life. Ayurveda is the sister branch to Yoga, which recognized the ‘mind-body connection’ long before Western medicine.
'Dance is the hidden language of the soul.
Often now, when I dance, I feel as though I am channeling my ancestors, perhaps reliving a past life and experiencing the joy they must have felt.
Influence of the 80's Pop Culture
Kathak was not the only dance form in my world. Growing up in London and being British I was spoilt for choice with Rock and Roll, Punk, and Pop music from the '80s. I picked up many dance moves from watching “ Top of the Pops”, my favorite UK TV show. These dance moves were so different Kathak, but I enjoyed dancing to them just as much.
By the age of eight, I had a dance group called “Dream Girls.” that performed regularly at school events. Dancing made my soul come alive and made me feel full of joy. I was inspired by artists like Kate Bush, Bryan Ferry, Prince, Madonna, Blondie, and Cyndi Lauper. Those artists set the stage for dance with their art-driven music videos and choreography.
Another dance influence in my life was Dance Aerobics and the workout videos of the eighties. Often my aunties, cousins and I danced to the fitness videos featuring Jane Fonda or Angelia Rippon (a British TV icon with a beautiful British accent ) whilst they taught dance aerobics.
I loved the music and movies of that era, from Flash Dance to Saturday Night Fever. And the fashion, oh the fashion! From the neon leg warmers, and pastel leotards, and the long slender, athletic, dancer bodies, Those videos never felt like exercise, yet we burned the calories away without even realizing it.
COVID was a catalyst for us to finally make the move from Brooklyn into greener pastures in the Hudson Valley. Though it was a difficult time for the world, including me a mother of two young kids to find an outlet where I could dance, and connect with other women, especially during the lockdown.
That winter seemed to never end and I felt quite isolated being in a new area with limited friends. My saving grace was the beauty that surrounded me. I spend the cold days dressed up snugly in my snowsuit, playing in the snow with my family in our wild garden. (I went from having no garden ( only a meager fire escape overlooking the Verrazano bridge in Brooklyn) to acquiring a beautiful huge garden.
Bewitched and moved by the beauty of upstate all around me, I felt inspired and compelled to move. And so I began dancing again. At first in my kitchen, then on my wooden deck overlooking the magnetic Catskill mountains. As the snow melted, I danced on the grass with only the white-tailed deer as spectators.
I discovered a large flat rock in one of the hayfields behind my house, where I sat and meditated and then got up to dance. Then on my hikes, I’d find quiet nooks at the Ashokan Reservoir to sneak in a few cheeky dance moves All the while whilst I was feeling joyful and happy, I kept thinking, if I am dancing alone in my house, then surely there are other women doing the same thing? Wouldn't it be great to create some joy and community around dancing together?
So finally one morning, sipping my decaf English breakfast tea, listening to Bryan Ferry's instrumental track ‘Tara’, I finally connected the dots. Why not combine my, practical knowledge of different forms of Dance, British Culture, and Ayurvedic study, for a greater purpose and create fun dance classes, each with different themes?
So I began creating playlists on Spotify and coming up with various classes in my kitchen. Each class would be different, blending different styles, and open to all levels. The goal would be to move our bodies, get a fun workout, and enjoy the deeper psychological and mental benefits of dance.
Though hosting my classes I find myself accountable to stay in shape and allow myself some 'me' time, to be with like-minded women, dance, and experience joy and laughter. I also hope to spread more diversity and infuse more culture into this lively community.
My next class Global Dance Fusion is a fun-flowing 45 mins where you'll experience a blend of these Kathak, Belly Dance, and Sega, all a curated playlist of traditional and modern, Indian, Mauritian, Israeli, and Punjabi Music.
So sign up here to reserve your spot at Global Dance Fusion in Stoneridge on Sunday 9th October @ 9.30
And so you can understand some of the benefits of 'Kathak' dance and how and why I include it in my dance workout classes check out the PDF below.
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I look forward to welcoming you on your next dance adventure…
PS to see one of my Kathak flow Ocean dances here
Nandini Natasha Austin
See you soon in one of my classes.