When new students join us at the foundation, a question that often arises is whether learning another classical dance form, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak or Odissi, will be helpful or a hindrance to learning classical ballet. Our answer is always that it can be helpful under the right circumstances.
Let’s take a look at why with the help of professionals in the field. Vibha Ramaswami is a Kathak dancer, ISTD associated teacher and KathaKonnect founder. Dr Jigna Zaveri is a Kathak dancer, teacher, and counselor. Poornima Kartik is an Odissi dancer, teacher and performer. All three have students who dance both ballet and Indian classical dance.
Do you think it’s a good idea to learn more than one classical dance form at the same time?
Jigna Zaveri: Yes, it is beneficial to learn different classical dance forms at the same time. When we look at ballet, which is a western classical dance form and Kathak, an Indian classical dance form, there are many similarities among them. The similarities between the two dance forms helps the dancers in their learning process.
Vibha Ramaswami: It’s possible to learn more than one classical dance form, but there has to be a certain amount of maturity in the student before attempting to learn several forms at once. Until the student has mastered the basics of one, don’t jump into another one. Gain some understanding first.
Poornima Kartik: Yes, it’s okay to learn more than one classical dance form at a time, but only with permission from the teacher. Teachers’ qualifications, and their understanding of other classical dance movements, body and alignment are crucial.
In my opinion, a student should also have a clear idea of why and what forms he/she wants to learn and if they can complement each other or not. It’s not easy to learn two classical dance forms at a time. Students need to have passion, dedication and must be willing to work hard.
Does age matter in terms of learning more than one classical art form?
Vibha Ramaswami: Older students will have an easier time distinguishing between subtleties in classical dance forms because of their experience. Their body awareness, spatial awareness and understanding of stylization will be better. They will also be able to pick up faster. In the early teens, it is slightly more difficult.
This is not to say that younger children can’t learn two styles at the same time. Younger children can at times understand and learn different styles easily, as they are naturally developing their motor skills at the same time.
Poornima Kartik: Age does matter, but I also feel passion and dedication can overcome the barrier of age. Also, it would be beneficial to have a clear goal for a dancer/student for learning more than one dance form.
What should students keep in mind when choosing to learn more than one classical form?
Jigna Zaveri: A student often manifests what is being taught by the teacher. Learning under a teacher who is well qualified and dedicated towards excellence is a must for learning classical dance. The teacher plays an important role in the student’s willingness to learn the art form.
Vibha Ramaswami: If one style begins to affect another, it becomes a problem. Awareness of the differences between the styles is most important, whatever the form may be. Clear distinctions between the styles will help, and this may need the aid of the teachers of both styles. An important role of the teacher is to spot and eliminate problems before they become a habit.
Are there any similarities between classical ballet and the Indian classical dance forms? Can they be of benefit to one another?
Jigna Zaveri: Ballet and Kathak are both classical dance forms imbibed at an early age and stage in life. In Kathak, the dancers practice Chakkar’ (where they turn around on their heel and fix a center point). Similarly, in ballet the dancers pirouette on one foot, but on the toes rather than the heel.
While performing a pirouette in ballet or Chakkar in Kathak, dancers follow a technique called spotting. The dancer fixes his/her gaze on a single location (known as the spot or spotting point). This prevents the dancer from feeling dizzy and helps the dancer have more balanced movements.
Dance is a way of expressing too. The gestures and facial expressions (Abhinaya) convey the emotion, sentiment and mood of the story. Likewise in ballet, dancers have different facial expressions called mime, which enables the audience to understand the story.
Vibha Ramaswami: When there are similarities between different Indian classical forms, such as Kathak and Bharatantyam, it can be harder to distinguish between them, especially for younger students. Classical ballet is a very different style of dance. Though it has some similarities, it should be easier for students to distinguish between classical ballet and classical Indian dance than between two classical Indian dance forms.
Poornima Kartik: Sure. Indian classical dance styles like Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam do have some similarities at the same time as they look completely different. Similarly western classical ballet has similarities with these above mentioned dance forms and any Indian classical dance form can be complemented by learning classical ballet. For example the postures like Araimandi in Bharatanatyam, Chowka in Odissi and plie in classical ballet are close to each other. I would say they are siblings.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Jigna Zaveri: Learning classical dance requires regular practice through strength, balance, breath, control etc. A dancer must commit to his/her teacher and get trained with complete dedication under the teacher. When the performer repeats and practices, they would acquire mastery over the art. The dancer must willingly submit to the teacher (guru) so that our bodies convert to dancing bodies equipped with the needed skills. The skill endows the dancer with an identity. Practice is the most essential part in retaining and developing a good dancer. When a dancer follows the discipline and dedication of practicing the art form, they try to manifest the same behaviour in their daily lives.
Vibha Ramaswami: For serious students learning a classical dance form, sufficient time must be spent in classes. This means several hours in a week. If the student is learning two dance forms, those hours must be doubled, not divided between the forms. To truly understand the intricacies of the styles, time spent in class is important.
Poornima Kartik: As far as I understand, most Indian classical dancers do not focus much on fitness, unlike ballet. This scenario is, however, changing slowly. I would say learning ballet helps improve fitness and flexibility, and in turn gracefulness in Indian classical dancers.
We feel that ballet and some Indian classical dance forms have similarities, despite initial appearances. The use of external rotation from the hips, for example, which is one of the pillars of ballet, is used in both Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Both genres also use the body as a tool to tell specific stories and enact different characters. Classical ballet and Kathak also have similarities despite their different origins and characteristics. An upright posture, graceful arms, and the use of the head and torso in turns are all part of both classical dance forms. In classical ballet, mime is also used to communicate the story.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that these dance forms remain very different, and that each should be learned by building a strong basic foundation under the instruction of qualified teachers. The integrity of the art forms should be kept intact by not unconsciously mixing them up. Indian classical dance teachers often advise students not to learn different genres of dance for this reason. If the dancer is well trained and understands the differences, however, there is no reason why they should not enjoy more than one genre of dance. They will benefit from more exposure.