ArtsEkta bring the ancient Indian dance form to Northern Ireland, via their South Asian Dance Academy, writes Joes Nawaz

Full of the rich narratives of Hindu mythology and the epic exploits of Lord Krishna, Kathak is a dance form that is as much about storytelling as it is about movement. Its fascinating historiography links ancient Indian religious rites with Persian influences via the muslim Mughal Empire that ruled India during the 16th and 17th centuries. And while it was once the preserve of royal performance, it has long since descended (or ascended) to the level of the street.

After the departure of the British from India in 1947, Kathak came out of the demi-monde and into prominence on the Indian stage. In the 1950s, it became permissible for men to take part. And now, in 2010, the complex evolution of Kathak continues with a whole new generation of practitioners in the north of Ireland. And most aren’t even Hindu, or Indian, for that matter.

The South Asian Dance Academy is the latest initiative from Indian arts group ArtsEkta. Under the auspices of coordinator Caroline Healy, the SADA has, in just over two months, trained up seven local dancers in this traditional Indian dance form. The teachers’ origins (Sri-Lanka, Argentina, Iran and even Tyrone) are as eclectic as the myriad influences that are infused within contemporary Kathak dance.

South Asian Dance AcademyTraining with the very top exponents of the Indian sub-continent’s dance traditions, including the famed choreographer Cyd Shahah (himself a Bangladeshi), the seven have been primed and begun rolling out a programme of workshops and festival appearances across Northern Ireland.

As a dancer, Healy acknowledges the physical intricacies of the Kathak tradition and the demands it can place on potential new teachers. 'The training was very intensive, especially for those dancers unfamiliar with Indian dance. Personally, I’m familiar with more western styles like latin, jive, salsa and lindy hop. Kathak is entirely different rhythmically and has its own musical syntax and body movement.

'For example, European and American dance is very feet orientated. But in Kathak the feet move at a totally different speed and pace to the upper body. It’s really challenging to do both. First of all you have to nail the rhythms of the feet, only then can you focus on the rest. To watch an expert like Cyd Shahah do it is mesmerising. Utterly brilliant.'

However, Healy feels that the main appeal for the wider community lies not in the complexity but in the 'malleability' of this intriguing performance style. 'We’ve had our teachers out and about in the wider community for weeks now and at least 250 people have taken part in workshops already. It’s really amazing to see the different sorts of groups participating.'

'Dance students can get into the virtuosity of it, young children can tap into the storytelling element and community groups can use the workshop to develop confidence in movement. It’s a truly adaptable and compelling dance form.'

Traditionally accompanied by Indian instruments such as tabla and harmonium, the universal appeal of Kathak lies in its combination of the exotic and the accessible. Nisha Tandon, project manager for ArtsEkta believes the time is right for Irish audiences and participants to embrace Kathak, which is a world away from the modern cultural stereotypes that belabour the popular image of India.

'When people think about Indian culture, they think Bollywood, Bollywood, Bollywood. It’s a convenient and general stereotype for all of India but this dance shares a strong element of storytelling with Irish culture, which makes it recognisable to a wide range of different groups. People can make a connection through the stories being told.'

Kathak itself has such a diverse heritage that it makes a mockery of the idea of ‘purity’ in culture. And as with so many traditional dance styles across the world, the synchronicity between Irish and Indian music and dance can be truly startling. Riverdance and Kathak, for instance, aren’t a million miles away from each other. Indeed, in past cross-cultural projects, ArtsEkta have had bodhran players accompanying classical Indian performers, to seamless and fluid effect.

It hasn’t been all tolerance, light and mutual exchange though. Tandon, with a weary but well-practiced patience, reveals that a few local communities have displayed what’s known as 'a reluctance' in taking part in workshops for fear of losing their own identities.

'The response has been wonderful in the main, but sometimes more religious communities here have a problem with things like this. They’re terrified that they’re being converted into Hindus by us. Some communities haven’t seen a foreigner before, let alone taken part in a south Asian dance workshop. It’s remarkable that they haven’t had this access to other people and other cultures. You wonder what the kids are going to learn if they don’t give them that experience of talking to different people.'

'It’s not so much fear in certain communities but lack of access and exposure to other cultures,' adds Healy. 'But normally, if you give people a new and exciting experience, it makes them want to go and learn more. "That’s interesting – I’ll go and Google that." For most people, it’s really an opportunity to take part in something enjoyable and interesting and maybe go away and find out a bit more about Indian culture or dance for themselves.'

With the religious and ethnic make-up of the north ever so incrementally diversifying, it’s welcome news that ArtsEkta aren’t only giving people something fun to take part in, but with their motley, magnificent seven they’re bringing a little galvanising cultural illumination to some of the unlikeliest and therefore important settings. We’ll have Orangemen in finger-cymbals yet…

To find out more about the South Asian Dance Academy or to get further information about taking part in a Kathak workshop, go to www.artsekta.org.uk.