I. The similarities between kathak and tap dance – based on what I’ve seen and enjoyed
As I’ve mentioned before, there is a certain special reason why I like both kathak and tap dances so much: the sound of the feet hitting the floor is actually part of the music. In both dances, the music would simply not exist were it not for the footwork, and the footwork or dances in general would not be as enjoyable even just to watch if for some reason you had to do so without hearing any of the sounds specifically made by the feet (even if all the other parts of the music were audible). Additionally, the complexity of the music naturally increases (or decreases) with the complexity of the dance and vice-versa. Of course, there are a number of dances that fit this special category: flamenco (which is most often historically linked to kathak), Irish clog dancing (which has been linked historically to tap dance), etc. But kathak and tap are the two dances fitting this description that I know best, have seen in films most often, and love the most.
Other things are done in a kathak and tap dances that help to make this link between the music and footwork even more significant. In tap dances, special shoes are worn; in kathak, the dance is done with bare feet, but ghungroos (lots of bells) are wrapped around the ankles. Ghungroos are also worn in other Indian dances, but I don’t think they have as much prominence in helping to create the music for those dances. Between the sounds of the feet hitting the floor and the jangling rhythms made by the ghungroos, it could be that the feet create at least half the sound of the music in a kathak dance.
Some people have said there are also similarities to be found in the respective histories of kathak and tap dance. According to a statement from the Leela Dance Collective (whom I will get back to later in this post), both have histories of “struggle and perseverance.” Now, I am sure that it would be very interesting to explore that line of thought further, but when I came up with the idea of writing this post, I was inspired strictly by the similarities that hit my eyes and ears. In addition, a quick search reveals that most people who connect the two dances in their minds do so for the same reasons that I have – it is all about the footwork! So, for now, I would like to sidestep (so to speak) that kind of comparison; maybe we can get back to it in a future post.
II. Looking for influences between the dances (and dancers) in old films
As someone who has spent his life in the U.S. (mostly in New York City), I have been somewhat familiar with tap dances in old films for as far back as I can remember. But I didn’t come to fully appreciate the dances in old Hollywood movies until I got addicted to watching old Indian movies and the dances that they featured. After immersing myself in old Indian films for a few years, I returned to old Hollywood films to realize what a special aesthetic connection the dances in the cinema of both nations had with each other, especially during their film industries’ respective Golden Ages. (To be a little more specific, I would say the 30s into the ’50s for Hollywood and the ‘40s into the ‘60s for what we might loosely call “Bollywood.”)
But were there kathak dancers in old Indian films who were directly influenced by tap dancers in Hollywood – or vice versa? Well, when I think about that possibility, there is one great kathak dancer who springs into my mind, and her name is Sitara Devi. Sitara was very fond of old American films, as she mentioned in her conversations with her student Antonia Minnecola. (By the way, Antonia – or Toni – is also the wife of tabla master Zakir Hussain. I delved into that relationship as well as her recollections about Sitara Devi last February.)
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times (and posted back in April 2014) there was a dance by Eleanor Powell – who was probably the greatest female tap dancer in the Golden Age of Hollywood – that obviously influenced a famous Sitara Devi dance in Roti (1942). And I think Sitara probably had a lot to do with making the decision to draw upon that influence. Eleanor’s dance actually turned into quite a tap dance toward the end, but that was not the part that influenced Sitara’s dance, and Sitara’s version did not focus on kathak footwork. So, while you might say that there was definite influence here by a tap dancer on a kathak dancer, this wasn’t really an example of tap influencing kathak. (Curiously, in both cases, there is a much stronger reference being made to a Hawaiian dance known as the hula.)
Outside of the case of Sitara, the best example that I can think of of a dancer in Indian films who performed numbers influenced by tap dances in American films was Helen, who did two dances that strongly resembled earlier dances by the famous American tap dancer Ruby Keeler. But again, here, the influence did not come specifically from the tap dancer’s footwork, and there was certainly no kathak in the dances by Helen (who was hardly any kind of a kathak dancer in general – though she may have dabbled in the form a little bit at some point). Plus, I would say that it is probably unlikely that Helen, herself, had much to do with selecting those Ruby Keeler influences.
Meanwhile, there isn’t even anything close when it comes to Indian film or Indian dances in general influencing American film dances (never mind kathak influencing tap). There are bad examples in American films of dancers doing what is supposedly “Indian dance,” but they were way off the mark. Ruth St. Denis got some dances into American silent films and she claimed a strong influence by India’s “nautch dancers,” but that is a whole other story – and a somewhat complicated one at that. (Priya Srinivasan had some interesting things to say about Ruth St. Denis’ Indian “nautch dance” influences in her book Sweating Saris, which I once wrote a little about, but there would be no point even in scratching the surface of that story here.)
III. In more current times, the dances finally meet – literally – in duets and quartets
Things look very different when we start to explore all the connections that have been made between American and Indian dances in the present millennium. This is because of both the fact that it is so easy now for people to see (and be influenced by) the cultural products of other countries, and that a big Indian classical dance industry sprung up in the U.S. due to major increases in immigration from South Asia (and changes in corresponding immigration laws). (That is actually another subject that is discussed – very extensively – in the book by Priya Srinivasan. Her focus was bharatanatyam, not kathak, but these changes affected all kinds of classical Indian dance as it has existed (increasingly) in America.)
One great aspect about the connections that have been made between kathak and tap dance in recent times is that they have been realized in actual kathak-tap dance combinations – duets (or jugalbandies) and more! This has not been done all that much in films (in fact, there is only one fictional film that I can think of as well as one film documentary – both of which I will get to soon), but it has been done a lot in live collaborations, many of which have been captured on video and shared via YouTube or Vimeo. And for that reason, in this final part of the post, I will be able to include several very good videos.
The fictional film in which we get to see a kathak-tap dance fusion is American Blend (2006). The actors doing the dance are David Oyelowo and Amrapali Ambegaokar (an award-winning dancer who is also the choreographer – hence why the camera focuses more on her feet than his). The kathak teacher whom you see in this scene is played by Dee Wallace (most known, curiously, for her performance in the science fiction film ET and a number of horror movies). As is pointed out somewhat overtly in another scene in the film, some people definitely notice that the kathak teacher is “white.” The mixing of races and cultures in the U.S. – and the need to be open to that – is one of the main themes of the film, hence the title. Admittedly, the message could have been delivered a bit more subtly, but in any event, it provides a great excuse for showing a mixture of tap dance and kathak. Plus, the film gives some interesting glimpses of Los Angeles. (That should be helpful for a lot of viewers who do not see LA so often, since this film was released mainly in India. And by the way, the actor who plays the Kathak teacher’s husband in the film is Anupam Kher, who has been in lots of other Indian films.)
Speaking of California, now I’d like to delve into a live-dance collaboration that originated there. The dancer whom I know about in this presentation is Rachna Nivas, who actually is in New York City now, having come to my town to be part of the new New York City branch of Leela Dance (which began in San Francisco). (I believe that their projects started with the Leela Dance Collective, but now they have an Institute that includes the Collective, the Academy, Foundation, etc. It gets a bit confusing, but they do provide informative links to all of these things on their web site.)
I just saw Rachna Nivas in a live performance about a month ago, and it was a great experience. Thanks in part to certain problems that affected all of us globally, I had not actually been to any live performance in a theater since 2019 and had not been to a live kathak performance for two and a half years, since I went to the April 2019 New York Kathak Festival (and mentioned that experience in a blog post, of course). So, I had reasons to be very happy about going to this show, but on the other hand, I think I would have loved the performance just as much had I been going to live shows every week.
But the dance last month was not all that pertinent to this post (although she did briefly mention tap dancers at one point during the evening). The show that Rachna Nivas has been involved in that is apparently very pertinent is a project called SPEAK, which she has performed in combination with another kathak dancer (Rena Mehta) and two tap dancers. (Usually, those tap dancers have been Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, though in the first video that I’m including here, Ms. Dorrance has been temporarily replaced by Star Dixon.) And by, the way, although there is some duet dancing in their shows, sometimes all four dancers join together, making this a quartet.
As shown in the video below (a compilation of a few scenes from the performance), SPEAK makes it very clear that kathak and tap dance have tangible things in common, obvious to the eyes and the ears. But the text below this particular video (at Vimeo) is also the place where I found the assertion that “Indian kathak dance and American tap dance, continents and ages apart, share parallel stories of struggle and perseverance.” And as I’ve said, that may be worth looking into it at another time. For now, though, we need only watch the dance, itself, to see why it’s a very nice idea to put kathak and tap dance together.
I should add that this SPEAK performance apparently has been done on different tours, during different years. While the sample above was from a few years ago, the performance in the clip below, from YouTube, is a little more recent, being from 2019. And though the Vimeo clip gives a larger sample, I think I find this shorter clip to be even more enjoyable. In prior posts, I have also mentioned how much I like the verbal recitation of rhythms in kathak – that is the padhants. Here, the dancers enter into a conversation between padhant and jazz scatting. It’s very amusing, although there is obviously also a lot of skill involved.
The Leela Dance Collective is actually an outgrowth of The Chitresh Das Dance Company. Chitresh Das was Rachna Nivas’ teacher/guru and he was obviously the source of the concept of combining tap with dance, at least where the Leela dancers are concerned. Several years ago, there was a documentary made about Chitresh Das’ collaboration with a tap dancer named Jason Samuels Smith. As you can see in the following excerpt, the tap dance and the kathak are both quite impressive. As the title says, this is fierce!
The clips above are all related to projects that I know something about, to one degree or another. But there are quite a few kathak-tap duets that can be found simply from searching on YouTube. I will add a couple here that caught my eye, but for those who want to find more, it is quite easy to do so.
The first thing I noticed about the dance excerpted in the next clip is that it takes place in Canada (at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, in Vancouver, in 2013). The announcer who appears before the clip says that he doesn’t think this combination has ever taken place before, which is obviously not true. But it may be true that this is the first time this kind of duet was tried in Canada (which is something that was asserted in the text accompanying another clip of this event). The announcer says that this is like a conversation through rhythm instead of words – which I gather is the same idea that the Leela people wanted to convey when they called their project SPEAK. (Unfortunately, an actual announcement of this fact feels a bit like a statement of the obvious – at least to me.) The duet is certainly appealing, although I felt that the tap dancer (Susan Nase) seems to be given more prominence than the kathak dancer (Amika Kushwaha). To even that balance out, maybe the kathak dance could have been a little more active and dramatic. But those are just quibbles – these people deserve a lot of credit, especially if this was the first time a kathak-tap dance duet was put together in Canada.
The final clip that I’m going to include comes from a dance academy based in Mumbai (Sumeet Nagdev Dance Arts). Here, I also noticed a bit of imbalance between the two sides of the dance. For one thing, either the tap dancer (Cia) was preferred by the audience, or it’s just that the people who supported her were much louder than those who supported the kathak dancer (Snehal). The tap dancer is also dressed in a much more flamboyant and revealing way than the kathak dancer – the difference between costumes is greater, I think, than in other video clips. Plus, I see less rhythmic “conversation” here than outright competition. Putting all that together, I could not help but think of the Vyjayanthmiala vs. Helen dance off in the 1969 film Prince. (Actually, now that I think about it, that scene contains a nice snippet of flamenco vs. kathak.) In any event, this clip below is obviously from a very studently kind of affair; it doesn’t have the more professional look of performances by Chitresh Das or his Leela Dance disciples. It’s good for what it is, though, and I would like to see many more such performances coming out of this school.
In the future, when I watch these kathak/tap dance duets, I think that I would rather not see dances where there is a whole lot of competition between the styles. I would also like to see the blending (so to speak) of the dances develop in some way. Right now, I get the feeling, mostly, that when people put on these kinds of shows, they strongly have in mind the idea that they are showing the audience a combination that didn’t exist before – which means there is a big air of novelty surrounding these events. If this kind of duet (or quartet, etc.) is going to become more common, it would probably be appropriate to see the emphasis on novelty toned down a little. Additionally, maybe there should be less emphasis (in most of these performances) on the fact that the dances come from different cultures. I would actually love it if I never again had to hear or see the phrase “East Meets West”!
Maybe there should be more fictional films that bring kathak-and-tap combinations in as part of the plot. It would be nice if American Blend were not the only fictional film (that I know of) which did this. Maybe it would also be good if the two different dance styles were combined specifically for the purpose of relating story (rather than a duet appearing as a moment in a story). It’s not that I necessarily prefer it when the dance is relating a story – in fact, as I have watched more kathak in recent years, I have developed more of an appreciation for the non-story-telling kind of kathak – the nritta or pure dance. But in the case of these duets (and quartets, etc.), maybe the addition of a strong story-telling component might encourage dancers to mix things up in ways that they have not done before. In any event, I hope that I do get to see more developments in this kathak-tap dance relationship in the future. If that happens, I definitely will do another post on the subject.