An Introduction to Kathak

Although dance of any style and genre fascinates me, my background is in contemporary. So like you, I’m excited to learn more about South Asian dance styles.

Blogging has created the perfect opportunity to have a catch up with my dancing friend, Katie Ryan. I first met Katie four years ago, when she was a final year student at London Contemporary Dance School. As part of their BA degree programme, LCDS offer the opportunity to study Ballet or South Asian Kathak technique in support of contemporary. Katie was studying Kathak, so I thought this would be a good place to begin our conversation…

What made you decide to study Kathak alongside contemporary during your training at London Contemporary Dance School?

I had already been training in another style of South Asian classical dance called Odissi since I was 6. Although Odissi and Kathak are different in a lot of ways, there are some common principals which run though South Asian dance and I thought it would be good to keep developing my strengths in these areas whilst training in Contemporary dance.

What would you say are the fundamental differences between these two dance styles?

Although they often share the same venues and programming in a UK theatre context I would say classical forms of South Asian dance such as kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi are more parallel to ballet in that they are formal styles with a set technique and codified movement vocabulary that identifies the style and its particular aesthetic. Traditionally South Asian classical dance uses a combination of abstract and narrative composition. There is a very strong link between the music composition and movement composition – the rhythm of the percussion is mirrored by the rhythm of the dancer’s footwork, the musical phrasing generally matches the movement phrasing. Historically the narratives expressed through dance have been religious poetry set to music and interpreted by the dancers – these narratives are mostly from the Hindu mythological tradition, but there are also many Islamic influences in kathak. Many of the South Asian dance styles have evolved from temple dance forms – danced worship – to be the stage art forms they are today. Kathak has a different heritage – a combination of a storytelling tradition and a performance tradition from the royal Mugal courts gave birth to this dance style.

So…those are distinct differences in historical development, content and context.

In terms of differences in movement vocabulary and technique between kathak and contemporary, kathak would be set apart by its use of rhythmic footwork, multiple turns on the heel, detailed use of hand gesture, more limited use of floorwork (kneeling and sitting – yes, lying down and rolling – very unlikely), eye movements, animated facial expression – sometimes quite exaggerated/stylised, more limited use of jumping or rising (small jumps or rises are used, but less frequently than in contemporary).

There would be a different list again for each style of South Asian classical dance…but the common elements would be:

  • rhythmic footwork
  • animated facial expressions
  • detailed hand gestures

It is important to note that the above are all characteristics of the traditions, but they do not define it – as with all dance forms they are evolving into more contemporary/ neo-classical forms or extending the boundaries within the classical tradition.

Are there any similarities between contemporary dance and Kathak?

Hmm..tough one – it’s also very hard to define contemporary dance – which I would say is more amorphous!

Common elements between kathak and contemporary dance could be: grounded quality, a fluid movement quality, use of high speed movement… I’m sure there are more…

What Kathak dancers and performances have inspired you?

Akram Khan (Desh & Zero Degrees are my favourites)

Aditi Mangaldas

Kumudini Lakhia (choreographer and director of Kadamb)

Aakash Odedra

Yuko Inoue

Gauri Sharma – my teacher at LCDS

Urja Thakore

Diya Kasturi 

What are your top tips for anyone who would like to learn to dance Kathak? and for events and classes listings.

There are lots of classes out there now and you can even do exams in kathak with the ISTD syllabus if you want. 

Katie Ryan (left) performing as part of Odissi Ensemble with Khavita Kaur. Image credit - Simon Richardson


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