Indian classical dance – what's that?


Hello, and welcome to our first post for the Theiya arts blog, your unofficial window into the topics that motivate us. We want to be all-inclusive, just like we think dance and yoga should be, so jargon will be avoided as much as possible, and the focus will be on our personal experience: what is it actually like, dancing bharatnatyam or kathak, and what is it like doing it in Scotland?


Hang on, I hear you say: dancing what? And that is just the question I intend to answer: the first response you generally get when you mention your hobby in Scotland – just what is Indian classical dance?  


April, 2020

Theiyā Arts - The back story


Welcome back to the blog! To mark the one year anniversary of Theiya Arts’ founding, this time we have an interview with the founders Karen and Gaby. Despite this being a blog on their website, I really had to push for this, as the two of them are not fans of talking about themselves. But having known them for a few years, both as teachers and friends, I really wanted them to share their unique perspectives, and tell some of the stories they have from studying, dancing and teaching around the world. As well as this back story, I was also curious about their thoughts on the future, their interests, and some of their favourite dancers - see the links at the bottom of the post!

One quick note: this face-to-face interview took place before coronavirus hit the UK and social distancing was introduced. Everyone please stay safe and take care of yourselves, and I hope you enjoy reading the post as much as I enjoyed making it!

June 2020

Interview with Gaby and Karen



Patrick: Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you come to Indian classical dance?


Gaby: I'd never done any dance before. Growing up in Argentina, I’ve always been very active, but just in

team sports like volleyball. Then when I started going out with Lukas (now my husband), he took me to see

this band called Buddha Sounds. They play a kind of chill out world fusion: Indian music, some Chinese elements, which was unusual in Buenos Aires. At the time they had two Indian classical dancers, and watching them, I thought “I would love to know how to do that”, but I never thought anything would come of it, because there's no Indian community in Buenos Aires.

Then randomly, one day at work the guy I was sitting next to asked me what I was listening to, and when I said Buddha Sounds, he said “Oh. Did you know that one of their dancers' dad is our manager?” The top manager in the company was my to-be teacher's father, and she was working in the same building as me! So I sent her a message, and she said “You should come to one of my classes, I'm starting some.” I went to my first class as a trial and I loved it! I'd just been thinking about getting fit with the classes, but it was so much better than going to the gym! During the class, my mind and body aligned in a way I've never experienced elsewhere, and it was intriguing. I started going to classes twice a week. My first class was bharatnatyam but then kuchipudi suited my schedule better so I started that, and I loved it right away. By the following year, I was doing two hours of each, and that’s where the obsession began.


Patrick: This is probably a good point to ask, I know these are both styles of South Indian classical dance, but how would you explain the difference between kuchipudi and bharatnatyam to a layperson?


Gaby: I would say they're like cousins. The basic postures are the same, but even there the technical aspects have slight differences - how the arms are held, for example. The basic steps are completely different, but the facial expressions and the acting are the same in both, and the hand gestures almost are as well. I also find kuchipudi a lot more aerobic than bharatnatyam. It’s strange, though, in the classes there is actually nothing you do that is the same - the steps, the corrections, everything is different. But when you see a dance performed, the results are quite similar. I don't really know how that happens.

They do come from the same area of India. But historically, bharatnatyam was born in the temples, for a sacred purpose. Kuchipudi was more to share the (sacred) knowledge with the masses, the people. So I think in kuchipudi there was an entertainment aspect from the beginning, making sacred stories interesting for people who may not be drawn to the ritual. Also, though this is my personal interpretation and probably very debatable, historically kuchipudi was only performed by men. I think because of that the feminine aspect of the dance is a bit more exaggerated. For example, if you see my male teacher dancing next to his wife and his dancers, he is the most feminine and elegant of them all. Because they had to explore that side so much more to achieve it, I think that that somehow had an affect on the whole style.


Patrick: Thank you. We’ll have to post some videos at some point so people will see what you mean too. Karen, I believe you primarily do bharatnatyam now - how did you start?


Karen: I've been dancing since I was about three years old, and at first for me it was always ballet. I'm the kind of person who will remain faithful to one thing and fully commit to that. I had a very young ballet teacher early on, and I truly loved her. I think I’m able to teach children because of her – she had such a lovely way of working with children at the age that they were. I just fell in love with dance. As a teenager, I couldn't understand at all when people my age stopped dancing because they had to focus on studies or whatever. Even the night before my final exams, I was in a full evening rehearsal, because I was in a ballet show that weekend. I still did very well in my exams! (my argument for all children why you should keep dancing)

I have to say that I was not a super-talented ballet dancer. As an examiner once said, I was very enthusiastic, and I smiled a lot, but when I look back, I can see that my body was not particularly well-made for ballet - I don't have hips that open 180 degrees to the side, I am far too tall - and it took me a while to understand my body in movement as well. It was only later that I started to maybe flower a little bit more. But even so, after leaving home, wherever I lived I would find a ballet teacher. It was an effort, in those days you couldn't just google dance, but I always made that effort, no matter where I went.


Patrick: You lived in several countries, too.


Karen: Yes. I remember, actually, in France [laughs] (I can’t believe I did this, I was just so clueless). So, as part of my university course I got to study in France, in Poitier, for a year. And my first priority when I moved was finding where I could do my ballet – I assumed you can just go in and find a class and join it. So I went to the Royal Conservatoire in Poitier, and I said “What days are ballet classes? How do I join” And they say “Er, well, the...sorry, who? What?” I didn't realise that everyone had to audition to come to these classes. They said: “Well, the teacher's going to have to see you dance,” - clearly this had never happened before. But they told me to come to a ballet class, and the teacher would see me. I didn't think much about it  - I went to the ballet class and at the end of the class the teacher said “Yes, you can be in the class” So I studied at the Conservatoire! [laughs] Being looked after by this 16-year-old who, because I struggled with my French, would make sure I got off at the right bus stop and things like that.

Later I started teaching ballet to very little children, helping them prepare for their ballet exams. That was my first experience of teaching children. Then when I moved to Edinburgh with Martin, my husband, I again found a ballet class, but the atmosphere was just not what I was used to, it was a bit clique-y. The teachers were good, I enjoyed the classes, but it did feel quite solitary, no dance family feel. But I couldn't not be there – I love dance so much.


Patrick: So is that why you switched from ballet to bharatnatyam?


Karen: Well, I don't actually know how this happened but I thought “Maybe. Maybe, I should try something else.” It was a big step, though. But I went to Dance Base, and I liked the sound of kalaripayattu [traditional Indian martial arts form] – which I couldn't pronounce at the time. I did one term and I thought it was amazing. So I decided that’s my new thing! We used to go to the pub for a coke after class with the instructor, and everyone would sit around the table and ask her a thousand questions. At some point, she said that she also did an Indian dance form. I couldn't imagine what that meant. But when the kalaripayattu classes weren’t continuing, I felt this huge loss, so I thought I should try something else, and I wanted to stay with India. That is how I started bharatnatyam. I liked that, like ballet, it had structure, and I liked that the more I learned, the further away the end point was. To the point that now I have been dancing since 2003, and I realise the end point of the learning process is many lifetimes away. I took a while to get to that point where I had that feeling of not being aware of anything else, losing myself in the dance. But that moment when there is nothing else, and you are in the story, in the movement [expressive gesturing]!


Patrick: Is that what you dance for – looking for those moments? A question for both of you – what do you dance for?


Karen: I think I dance because I absolutely have to, because that's what makes my heart and soul sing. [Laughs] But it's true! It's how something inside you feels tight and restricted, and after you dance everything is flowing once more. I feel free.


Gaby: You know how I said I didn't do any dance before? I really didn’t, I was brought up not being allowed to listen to music other than church music, and dancing was clearly not even an option. But since a young age I've done those two things behind everyone's backs. I've always found ways to listen to music, and I think it has been something that I would never have been happy without. I always felt that I needed to express music too, but I thought that meant singing. Then one day, I started dancing, and I realised it was my escape from everything, the only place where I felt okay being myself. Everywhere else, in my family, in this very religious context that we had, I wasn't allowed to be the way I was openly. But when I went dancing – then I didn't have to think or give any explanations, I could just be myself.

When I started bharatnatyam, it just made sense to me. After having thought a lot, and practised, and experienced other styles of dance (flamenco), I realise it was probably what I always wanted to do, I just didn't know it. I remember in the classes I was in front of a mirror, which for the first time was giving me back the version of myself that I'd always wanted to be. Dancing helped me embrace that, and also get my parents to accept me for who I was. It was always very healing, both physically and even more emotionally and mentally. From there it became a necessity. And I may not need it so much now – I feel free, and I am who I am in front of everyone - but I can't stop dancing. When I dance I disconnect from the things that were worrying me, and come back with a brighter mind. I found the same thing in Ashtanga Yoga.


Patrick: Talking about yoga, which I know you both do as well – what's the connection there, when did you start, how do you think it gels with dance?


Karen: I started yoga around 2003, 2004, and I think it was a class in a gym. I didn't particularly enjoy it, I found downward-facing dog the most uncomfortable thing ever. The problem was, I went to yoga class because I wanted my body to do certain shapes, and my dance teacher said “Go to yoga, that will help you.” It was not the right way to approach yoga, because I wanted to force my body, so I wasn't using my breath, or focusing my awareness in my body, I was just making a shape and restlessly waiting to be told that I could move to the next place. But because I knew so little about yoga, and that class had a lot of the philosophy side, I realised later that a lot of my thoughts were moulded in that time. Also, because I went with my bharatnatyam teacher, I started seeing how it was interconnected.


Patrick: And now you teach yoga?


Karen: Yes, I did my yoga teacher training, and I teach. It's so helpful in teaching children. Because children often have their eye on you, and they're just doing what they're told (if they're good children), but I'm interested in letting them have awareness of what their bodies are doing. I'll ask them “Where can you feel this exercise?”. I want them to know it’s okay if they answer differently from one another, because that is true for their body. So they are learning to work with their bodies the way their body is, instead of trying to force their body into a position someone else is doing, which may anatomically speaking just not be possible. Talking about anatomy, I recently taught one class the words “ishial tuberosities” - the word for their sitting bones. They think this is the most hilarious thing ever. [laughter] They will go to university and wonder why they know this word already.


Patrick: How about you, Gaby, how do you find teaching dance?


Gaby: I’ve actually always taught stuff. I was a bible studies teacher for kids, and because of my English studies I started teaching English at home as a teenager. So though when I started dance, it was not with any professional purpose, I think it's just natural to me. I once did an aptitude test, and I got two options – songwriter and teacher


Karen: Songwriter? That's very specific. [laughter]


Gaby: I think teaching comes naturally to me, and my teacher just observed that...


Karen: Do you think, because we came to this form of dance later in life, we still remember the feeling when we were learning for the first time, and therefore can understand what the students are going through?


Gaby: It could well be. Karen and I both don't put ourselves in front of a class as the teacher, in fact I struggle doing that a lot – we position ourselves there as a person who is sharing what they have learnt. I think that makes you able to have empathy with the student, which helps with the learning process. It’s the same for me. In India, you go to some teachers and the moment they see you they realise that you don't have the physical or natural abilities that they have in India, that you've been brought to this very late, so they already say: “Yes, I'll teach you a dance, but there's not really much hope for you.” Whereas other teachers are able to develop this empathy with you and understand where you're coming from, and actually get more results from you. That’s what we try and do.


Karen: We know we don't hold all of the knowledge of the dance form. We are maybe what our students need right now, but we also know, at a certain point, they will need more than that, and they will move on to another teacher. We want children to love dancing, to be excited about coming to dance class, we want to impart what we do know, and then when it's time for them to expand beyond that, we will happily guide them towards that path.


Gaby: We ourselves looked for teachers that did that with us. I always think it would have been different if I had arrived at my teacher’s class the first day and she had said: “This is how it is, I teach bharatnatyam like this because it is the absolute truth.” You find a lot of teachers like that, who aren't open to other styles or other types of teaching. But she always talked about her teachers in India, and taught us from her perspective as a student as well. So from the first moment we connected with her teachers, even though we didn't know them. We’ve always known there was more, and that at some point we would need to go to India and actually experience that, and she encouraged that. I do the same in my classes. One of the things that blew my mind when I went to India is how the teachers kind of become responsible for you - for your health, your body, making sure you eat - they take so much responsibility for you, and therefore you want to surrender to that.


Karen: It's hard to surrender that when you’re from this part of the world, where you have to be responsible for your own learning– to give yourself to someone without the guilt. I found that hard to allow.


Gaby: For me, it happens quite naturally. But then, because they are so responsible for you, it means if you fail, they are failing, and if you're not able to learn they are also not able to teach properly.


Karen: And that's it, isn't it? You do a performance, and it is not the dancer who should be seeking the praise – you're just the expression of your teacher. You're the least important person in the process [laughter] It is really interesting, if you compare it with performers here – though I think that is changing quite a bit in India too.


Patrick: You had quite a traditional dance education, right?


Karen: I had a very traditional education and set of teachers, yes.


Gaby: I think for some people it is changing. For example Viraja – she's younger than us, but she will always talk about her teachers. In Kalakshetra, they still connect with Rukmini Devi so many years later. I think that is something that is special to these dance practices, something I like. I don't know if I would have continued if I had been put on the spot in the beginning, if I’d had to make up my own sequence, improvise. I've only started feeling that I could maybe try my own things in the last couple of years.


Patrick: You have both started something of your own - Theiya Arts! How did that come to be?


Gaby: So first of all, we're both Geminis…[laughter]


Karen: There I was thinking okay, don't be too frivolous. We are a little bit similar, in that, well, I don't know if you realise this, but we're actually not from India [laughter], and we both were in our twenties when we learnt the dance form. Also, we have similar teaching styles.


Patrick: You’re looking at one another like you’re not sure whether what you’re saying is correct.


Gaby: I am wondering what Karen thinks about this. I came to Scotland later, and I joined Karen's classes as a student, and for me, everyone was new, and she was a part of it, and also part of Dance Ihayami, which was a concept that was bigger than the classes.


Karen: Actually, today I realised that Gaby was an Argentinian me – so to her teacher in Argentina, she was like me to my teacher. We used to help our teachers in the same ways, and take the same role in their organisations.


Gaby: I do think we are also very different as people. But there are fundamental values that we share, and I think that is the most important thing. For both of us, dancing was this thing that just made us better, it was healing, and we both saw the potential of this practice for other people. We're both creative, and we discovered that though we react to things differently, we can help each other sometimes. Our paths are very similar from the moment we started bharatnatyam, though.


Karen: The fundamental values, of wanting to work in a way that is kind, has integrity, and that we really have a person-centred approach. We want to work with individuals, rather than “I have an idea, and I just want to force it on whoever is available” What we teach in the class depends on the people who are there, not a particular outcome. I think that's really important, and gets more out of people. That's why we are good at community outreach.


Gaby: Sometimes we'll even move away from Indian dance – let's say there is a group who are sad because they can't be with their families for a Scottish holiday, I will maybe bring in someone to sing some Scottish songs, or let them share their own culture, and they end up having a great day. I think that is something we have in common – we look at what others need and try and accommodate that while still being faithful to who we are, and our values.


Patrick: I am curious about your impressions of studying dance in India – especially as you both, like you said, aren't Indian. Any first expressions, funny stories?


Karen: Ah, the funny story of my feet bleeding…[to be continued]


Gaby: India, for me, was related to my personal path. As I said, my doing Indian classical dance and yoga has always been something forbidden, or wrong. The dances we do in bharatnatyam to other gods were really, really wrong [laughs]. So I've always been afraid of going to India. One, because I'm afraid of insects and two, what if everything I was brought up believing was true, and I go and feel like I've been sinning terribly, or what if I have to go to temples!? That whole transition from religion made it easy to feel guilty about things. But one day I just decided to go, and I thought – either I’ll love it, and never stop dancing, or I will stop after the trip. It was a very decisive trip.

But then I got to India, and I loved it instantly. I felt really comfortable there. It made no sense even to myself, but of the group I went with, I was probably the most comfortable. I enjoyed every step of it, even the classes. I thought the teachers would see me, and say what are doing, your body is not made for this, and I would get back and feel awful about myself, but it was exactly the opposite. My teachers were all very encouraging, they appreciated the fact that we were there, grown women with the same commitment and passion they get from 15 year-olds training for their arangetram [first public performance, rather like a dance graduation]. So I knew right away I would never stop this dance form. I also fell in love with the place, and now I miss it like I miss Buenos Aires. India became like a second home, insects and all. I've developed a stronger stomach for spicy foods, and I didn't feel like anyone was trying to convert me. I just felt how similar we all are. Nobody questioned my religious upbringing, actually it gave me common ground. Having to be a good girl in church, how to be a good wife, all these structures I was brought up with in church – it's the same in India.


Karen: I suppose it was similar in Ireland, when I was growing up there was the same kind of traditionalism to Argentina. This idea in India that all Westerners are all overly free and open in some ways – that was not our reality.


Gaby: The thing that India taught me the most was to just let go. I realised from the first day that there was nothing I could do about anything, and you realise that that is how you get to places.


Karen: You start your day with one plan, and within half an hour it's completely different. That was difficult for me, as a very organising person. The first time in India I remember wondering how I generally could survive in life – I had to learn how to do everything again, how to eat with my hands, how to dress, everything.


Patrick: When did you first go?


Karen: I first went in November 2008, and did my arangetram in January 2009. I arrived in India, and the same day, completely jet-lagged, I started my classes, with everybody from the school watching. My teacher said “We'll just do some adavus” [basic steps] and I was thinking “Don't stop – you're in India now, you can't stop” I was sweating like crazy, and felt like I was about to faint. Then the teacher stops me after a while and says “Karen, what are you doing?” I start apologising, but he says “Your feet!”, and I looked down and there was blood everywhere. Because it was stone, and we're used to dancing on wooden floors. Everyone around was going: “What's wrong with her, doesn't she dance? But she's doing her arangetram!” They also couldn't understand why I was sweating so much. So yes, that whole process was weird – even when the musicians came and I had to understand that it wasn't my job to talk to them, even to say hello – it was all very different. I didn't understand temples, there were no explanations, but I just kind of got used to having no idea what was happening, and I just felt quite calm in the midst of it. So that was my introduction, and now, similarly to Gaby, it is my second home.

Want to know more?


I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Theiya Arts’ founders. If you are interested in knowing more, you can press the buttons below: present and future to learn about the challenges they face dancing in Scotland and their thoughts on the future of Indian classical dance, or rapid-fire round for some light-hearted questions about their favourites in dance.


About me:

Name: Patrick

Nationality: British (yes, okay then, English, but I swear I've spent longer in Scotland than England)

Dance background: I started learning Indian classical dance (kathak and bharatnatyam) just over two years ago. I have also taken some classes in other (Indian) styles. Before learning dance, I trained in various martial arts, and I actually find the two have several similarities: attention to detail, frequent repetition of basic movements, etc.

I am aware that starting my studies only two years ago means I am a rank beginner in the grand scheme of things. So I suspect I was invited to blog about dance not only because writing was seen to be my strength, but also to share my perspective of Indian classical dance through the eye of someone relatively new to the dance form, living here in Scotland.


While there are several sites which provide factual information on the different styles, there are far fewer which talk about the day-to-day life of a dancer, especially of an increasingly popular style being practised so far from its place of origin. And so the focus here will be more personal and experiential. On the blog, I will do my best to be as clear as I can about where I have sourced specific information, to not pretend to be an authority on things I know little about, and to remain open (welcoming, actually) to comments and criticism.

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