Techniques and Institutions: The Transformation of British Dance

Techniques and Institutions: The Transformation of British Dance Tradition through South Asian Dance Author(s): Stacey Prickett Source: Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 2004), pp. 1-21 Published by: Edinburgh University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 02-12-2016 18:37 UTC

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Techniques and Institutions: The Transformation of British Dance

Tradition through South Asian Dance


In 1998, the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) created a South Asian Dance Faculty, expanding its range of dance styles for examination. The added imports of Bharatanatyam’ and Kathak are classical Indian dance forms which have transformed the face of British dance despite their relatively short history here. Inclusion of the new forms was initiated by Akademi, a British South Asian dance organisation, with funding from the Arts Council of England. Delving beyond ISTD’s response to the increasing multi-cultural face of British society, the organisation’s expansion opens avenues of inquiry into the re- lationship between dance techniques and British institutions. Fundamental dichotomies arise in considering identity and tradition in relation to the location and function of South Asian dance in Britain. How does the addition of South

Asian dance fit into the stated mission of the ISTD? And how does the ISTD fit

into the South Asian dance community and the larger context of a mainstream arts community? Other relevant issues concern the extent to which classical South Asian dance forms are culturally specific and their modification to fit within an ISTD curriculum. Questions on the location and function of the art forms exist within broader fundamental debates centring on the definition of the term ‘British’ – whose version of identity is invoked by the name? And while definitive answers are still elusive, issues of agency arise in considering the trans- formation of British dance. Interviews with members of the ISTD South Asian

Dance Faculty and research collected in the Leverhulme Trust South Asian Dance in Britain project are drawn on to examine the impact of South Asian dance on a British dance identity.


A central component of British culture is found in various boards and academies with codified approaches to artistic development and standardisation. Through objective criteria, skill levels can be measured through the examination process, providing internationally recognised levels of achievement. The Associated Music Boards, established in 1889, provides a standardised framework with

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which to assess the progress of aspiring musicians. The Royal Academy of Dance, founded in 1920, also offers established markers of achievement in ballet.

A century old, the ISTD was formed in 1904 to ‘educate the public in the art of dancing in all its forms’.2 Its mission statement sets out four goals:

* to maintain and improve teaching standards * to promote knowledge of the dance * to qualify, by examination, teachers of dancing in the ISTD’s specialist techniques taught by our 10,000 members in schools of dancing throughout the world

* to provide, through its syllabi, techniques upon which to train dancers for the profession.3

According to the ISTD, over 250,000 people are examined every year in 27 countries. Whilst the focus here is on British dance, the ISTD is an international institution with a total of 13 specialties, 11 of which have graded examination systems within ten faculties. The syllabi encompass various interests and skill levels – for example, ‘Dance Sequence’ includes line dancing, whereas the Cecchetti Ballet syllabus ‘supports the ballet professional’. The Imperial Classical Ballet syllabus offers classes supporting teacher training and advances in the ‘English style’. Other faculties include Latin American, Classical Greek and National Dance, with an emphasis on Scottish highland and country dances. In 1953, the Disco/Freestyle/Rock n’ Roll expanded the ISTD base and the Alternative Rhythms Faculty was added in 1999. Dancers are trained for a variety of purposes: as a recreational pursuit, as a vocation for the dance professional, and in training existing and future dance teachers.

At a basic level, institutional backing contributes to validation and integration of South Asian dance into wider culture. Training and examination processes are reinforced by the ISTD name and organisational structure, thus establishing a codified framework within an established dance institution. The ISTD approves independent teachers rather than supporting dance schools themselves, therefore enabling the integration of South Asian forms with relative ease. Bharatanatyam and Kathak teachers can adopt the syllabi within their existing teaching structure. With an emphasis on dance training, the ISTD functions alongside a range of cultural institutions which provide a network of support for those working in the South Asian arts communities.

Significantly, the organisation fits within the wider British education system and the face of British arts internationally. In 2001 and 2002, ISTD policies, codes of assessment and standardisation received approval by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in England and similar governmental authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland. The British Council also provides some administrative support for examinations abroad, contributing another level of institutional support. As the British Council promotes and supports touring programmes of British artists throughout the world, such assistance infers approval of the ISTD’s aims.

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Fig. 1. Bharatanatyam, photo by N. K. Shah. Students of Prakash Yadagudde, The Bhavan Centre, London (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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Despite its inclusion within an institutional framework, South Asian dance remains outside mainstream dance practices. A South Asian dance history in Britain stems from the 1930s when Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal premiered in London. Adorned in silks with glittering jewellery and head-dresses, charismatic performers danced to traditional instrumentation, awakening awareness of the complexity and beauty of Indian dance forms. Critics hailed the universal appeal of ‘Hindu’ dance, while professing ignorance of its cultural roots and intricacies of its aesthetic principles.4 Although contributing to conceptions of an exoticised ‘other’, Shankar and Gopal tailored the evenings for a western aesthetic, with explanatory introductions and a format comparable to a series of divertissements rather than the longer versions of the form seen by a knowledgeable audience in India.5

The transformation of South Asian arts from an exoticised vision to its

place in British society today stems from wider cultural shifts, supported by the educational practices of key organisations that supported arts practitioners starting in the 1960s. Naseem Khan traced the history of a South Asian arts organisational network established to introduce and interpret the art forms for non-Indian audiences.” Supported by the Asian Music Circle, an organisational framework provided for dance classes in Bharatanatyam and other forms of Indian arts. Rom Gopal’s early attempts to set up a permanent dance school in Britain were undermined in part by the absence of an administrative structure. Khan also points to the arrival of East African Asians in the UK during the 1960s, who brought along established cultural constructs and audiences knowledgeable in the art forms. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, other cultural organisations emerged to support growing numbers of South Asian migrants. Key features of the earlier practitioners were the perpetuation of a dance aimed for ‘authenticity, purity and classicism’, thus integrally linked to its cultural foundations in India.7 Backed by the South Asian arts organisations, the imported forms spread into schools and communities throughout Britain.

AkademT (formerly the Academy of Indian Dance), established in 1979, played a fundamental role in the ISTD process of inclusion. Akademr’s mission is ‘… to advance the education of the public in the understanding, appreciation and development of the art of dance generally, and in particular, Indian dance,

mime and music …’.” ISTD’s additions of Bharatanatyam and Kathak resulted from a research and consultation process instituted by Akademl in its search for ways to raise South Asian dance to levels commensurate with other performance dance forms. Diverse types of dance training and education in Western performance styles are available through GCSE, and the vocational B-tech/ national diploma courses, in addition to university programmes. Contemporary South Asian dance forms are represented institutionally by the inclusion of ShobanaJeyasingh’s dances for study in the A Level syllabus.

Within the university system, South Asian dance has made inroads into course outlines, with its forms treated as additional dance techniques and

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examples in dance theory classes, rather than being separated out as an example of ‘ethnic’ or an ‘other’ form. In 1992, a South Asian BA honours dance degree was validated at De Monfort University; however, it has not been maintained. A new BA in South Asian dance course is starting at the London Contemporary Dance School, also instigated by Akademi. Kathak is offered as a performance technique at the University of Surrey Guildford. The two-year Leverhulme Trust-funded project, South Asian Dance in Britain: negotiating cultural identity through

dance (SADiB), was based at the Centre for Dance Research at Roehampton University of Surrey and is the subject of a forthcoming book.9 Roehampton will also be adding an MA in South Asian Dance, subject to validation. On- going academic inquiry into South Asian forms is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Board funding of the Research Centre for Cross-Cultural Music and Dance Performance, a five-year multi-institutional project. Although the list lengthens yearly, a South Asian dance representation remains generally marginalised in comparison to ballet and contemporary dance forms. One marker of the margins is evident in the funding situation, where South Asian artists received only 1.93 per cent of the dance grants.'”

Beyond the theoretical ivory tower and funding bodies, South Asian dance is a vibrant part of the British dance tradition within both community and mainstream performing arts venues. Bharatanatyam’s legendary religious roots are traced to the Natyashastra, an ancient treatise on dance, drama and music that forms part of India’s rich cultural heritage. Suppression of the dance form under British rule was reversed with Indian independence and concurrent search for Indian identity in the 1940s. Although shifting from temple rituals to the stage,

Bharatanatyam draws from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics and Purana legends, and a spiritual element remains for its performers. Kathak has a more secular basis, integrating Hindu and Muslim influences where it flourished in the courts of northern India. Themes also draw from Hindu epics and legendary tales, yet the storytelling component of both dance forms extend beyond passing on a literary tradition. Embedded within the tales are ethical values, and dance is part of a multi-faceted theatrical practice which entertains and educates. Thus dance fulfils diverse functions for its practitioners and audiences. Today in Britain, dance is a vital aspect of the migrant communities.


Indian cultural influences are evident on a broad scale in contemporary British society. There is the oft-cited example of the ubiquitous Indian take-away, Bollywood-inspired fashion campaign at Selfridges and other high street fashion chains, coinciding with the West End musical Bombay Dreams premiere in 2002. As Jeyasingh, Sanjoy Roy, Janet O’Shea” and others eloquently articulate, today’s British culture offers a blend of East and West influences. The complex post-colonial relationship between India and its coloniser are played out in popular culture forms in addition to the dance stage.

As an identity marker, Bharatanatyam holds significance for young female

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Fig. 2. Bharatanatyam, photo by N. K. Shah. Students of Pushkala Gopal and Unnikrishan Mudralaya, London (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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British Asians. The arangetram in Britain is a formalised debut marking achievement in the dance form while highlighting the importance of South Asian dance for its practitioners brought up in contemporary Western European culture. As a rite of passage, the arangetram is a solo dance event celebrating a professional level of training, encompassing issues of identity extending beyond displays of technical and interpretive abilities. Yet the demands of the dance form – above and beyond a social function of establishing or reinforcing notions of Indian-ness – require familiarity with elements of the culture, its literature, music and religious/spiritual systems. An arangetram also pays tribute to the teacher, the dancer’s family, community and cultural heritage, including music and food.'” The ritualised nature of the arangetram has been compared to the Jewish bas mitzvah.’3

Dance’s interrelationship to the broader foundations of an Indian cultural identity is evident in the ISTD’s recognition that the student is ‘in an environ- ment which may not necessarily complement the experience of Bharatanatyam training.14 TO counteract the absence, criteria is set in place to establish a cultural foundation within the ISTD syllabus. Kathak and Bharatanatyam syllabi aim ‘to lay a holistic foundation for young dancers in preparation for vocational training … through an integration between the artform’s major aspects, including move- ment vocabulary, performance skill and an understanding of the relevant music and literature’.’5 Portfolio requirements (evidence of outside knowledge on the forms) have some parallels with the National Dance Faculty syllabi which includes projects on chosen countries. Yet, the South Asian portfolio require- ments are highly detailed in terms of demonstrating an understanding of move- ment and music components, translations and contextual information about the South Asian forms as they exist in the areas of origin and the student’s locale. Significantly, a pre-requisite of passing a written theory exam was initially set in the South Asian forms, later replaced by the comprehensive file. The need to attend to a wider cultural framework to support dance

practices in the ISTD syllabus initially resulted in a disparity in the examinations

between different techniques. Bharatanatyam and Kathak examinations were com- paratively more difficult than the graded examinations in other dance faculties; however, the anomalies have been addressed in the interim.’6 Other ISTD examinations stress more of the bodily activity rather than a range of interpretive

elements. Anusha Subramanyam, a Bharatanatyam dancer/teacher involved in the consultation process, explained that the ISTD syllabus sets out an ideal vision of a training programme. If one was able to train students without time con- straints, this is what would be accomplished within a particular grade. But after her own students took on the examinations, she recognised how difficult they were in terms of the range of material covered in a year’s time, the anticipated length of time allotted to achieve one grade. Subramanyam commented that the ISTD generally examines the body, the bodily activity of movement, whereas the South Asian syllabi have a broader remit.”

Akademi’s consultants who worked with ISTD to establish the South Asian

Dance faculty remain involved in the modification of the examination syllabi.

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Fig. 3. Kathak, photo by N. K. Shah. Students of Gauri Sharma, London (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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Fig. 4. Kathak, photo by N. K. Shah. Students of Gauri Sharma, London (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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Because of the traditional solo nature of both Bharatanalyam and Kathak and personalised methods of training, problems arise in standardising the forms. The traditional method of teaching is a one-on-one relationship between disciple and mentor, the guru-sishya system. In the ISTD magazine, Dance, an article high- lighted a potential drawback of the standardisation process. Pushkala Gopal, Vice Chair of the South Asian Faculty, commented:

One of the successes of the syllabus has been that teachers who have trained in the one- to-one non-institutional methods have reached out to adopt our structure that is largely inspired by a dominant and equalising style. The challenge facing the Faculty is now ensuring that the nuances within the different, especially the minority, styles that foster individual, original expression (some of which eventually contributes to the sustenance or development of new traditions) are not lost.”8

Improvisational elements of the form, individual characterisations of dramatic components, the nature of abhinaya (defined by the ISTD as ‘action which carries meaning to the spectator; the representation or exposition of a certain theme; the art of expression”’19), resist standardisation in conventional pedagogic formats seen in Western performance dance styles such as ballet. As Chitra Sundaram recalls, gurus used to teach sitting down, with oral instructions provided which enabled some variation in interpretation with individual dancers.20 With an increased popularity of the forms, the emphasis shifts from a one-on-one training method to group teaching. And although the ISTD syllabus as written appears focused on the British student, interest in teaching the syllabus has come from Germany and India, thus reflecting the international scope of the organisation. German Kathak dancer/teacher lonna feels that the syllabus helps in two ways: the syllabus helps provide a better structure for her classes and gives students a goal to work towards, one of passing an examination.21 The validation of achievement from an internationally recognised dance organisation endows the award with what is perceived as a world-wide standard of accomplishment. In 1999, the process of induction of examiners involved three sessions, during which examiners had to come to terms with the syllabi. As Gopal explained, a new method of teaching has emerged, integrating health and safety issues alongside more fundamental shifts, resulting in an ‘unorthodox approach’ to the

pedagogic structure.2 Gopal discussed how the ISTD training results in the dancer’s greater level of independence from the guru, partially achieved through requirements of breaking down steps and learning to speak them in rhythm. Traditionally, South Asian forms are taught more intuitively, through a process of repetition, leading to comprehension. At every stage of the ISTD syllabi, a certain amount of independence is engrained in the learning process, established through a holistic understanding of the steps, thus offering opportunities to move away from a traditional dependence on the guru. Only through repetition can the fundamentals be embodied, but once this occurs, ISTD students achieve a broader knowledge, such as developing the ability to communicate with musicians about rhythm. Therefore, Gopal feels that ISTD students ‘achieve a better understanding of dance as a holistic style’.23

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Ongoing debates within the artistic and academic communities focus on con- cepts of tradition and classicism. Gopal raised the question of how to balance measuring levels of achievement of the individual with issues of maintaining the ‘tenets of classicism’ – thus creating a dichotomy if one considers ‘traditional values as sacrosanct’. As she explains: ‘whilst trying to marry the heritage with the qualities of dance as a personal experience in the present and within a syllabus which assesses a range of styles on the same standard, a challenge is thrown up’.24 Stylistic differences between schools and teachers present one layer of technical variation, with an interpretive layer evident in the individual dancer’s performance. The standardisation challenge is met through assessing technical fundamentals such as rhythmic consistency and specified units of dance (arms and feet working together or working in opposition, for example). Where stylistic components are engrained, as in a particular eye movement corresponding with a foot stamp, examiners evaluate consistency in perform- ance and equality between use of the left and right sides of the body.25 The examination system is thus structured to take account of nuances in style, while addressing issues of authenticity and the maintenance of classical forms.

An integration of classical tenets into choreography based in the South Asian forms has shaped a diverse range of work in Britain. ShobanaJeyasingh’s choreography has roots in Bharatanatyam, but her use of contemporary dance moves it away from classical tenets. Nilima Devi’s approach to Kathak is more closely linked to the traditions of the form, reflected in her choreography outside the traditional canon when she relocated to England. In 1981 Devi founded the Centre for Indian Classical Dance (CICD) based in Leicester, which offers Kathak

and Bharatanatyam classes. Devi explained how the narrative components of Kathak are well received outside of India. Her methods of contemporising the traditional form began with choreographing to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and expanding the solo form for group dances. A 1989 production of The Ugly Duckling drew from a European fairy tale, danced to Indian music. Among the challenges posed were ‘How do you show a freezing duckling in Kathak style? And how do you depict the hatching of four sweet little ducklings and an ugly one?’26 More recent multi-cultural explorations are seen in CICD’s Kathak projects working with Irish musicians and dancers, African drummers and jazz musicians. The ISTD aims and objectives for the South Asian dance syllabi of making the forms relevant for contemporary students are thus aligned with existing practices of a number of South Asian dance artists performing and teaching in Britain.

As with other dance forms, people undertake training for diverse reasons. Yet parental and community expectations of establishing links to migrant roots

can influence career decisions, following from the development of Bharatanatyam in India. Bharatanatyam was transformed into a practice considered appropriate for the participation of middle/upper class young women, in part for purposes of reinforcing a national Indian identity. O’Shea identifies ways in which

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Fig. 5. Kathak, photo by R. MacKechnie. Akram Khan (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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Fig. 6. Kathak, photo by R. MacKechnie. Akram Khan (by kind permission of the ISTD Dance Examinations Board).

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contrasting versions of Bharatanatyam and identity shaped two factions in India during the 1930s and 1940s. The Tanjore style emerged from a version of authenticity established through hereditary lines to the devadasis (temple dancers) represented by T. Balasaraswarti (1918-1984). In contrast, Kalakshetra’s version of history and authenticity draws on a broader pan-Indian-ness traced to ancient Sanskrit symbols and treatises. Issues of nationalism also emerge in the post- colonial period, although O’Shea highlights how the forms were influenced by western aesthetic concerns. Rukmini Devi (1904-1986), who established the Kalakshetra school near Chennai in 1936, studied ballet with Cleo Nordi, a soloist in Anna Pavlova’s company. Pavlova is credited with encouraging Devi to return to India to study the dance of her own country. O’Shea discusses aspects

of the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam that are influenced by western dance systems and aesthetic concerns, in terms of the shape of dance class exercises and the utilisation of stage space in performance.27 A number of those involved in the creation of the ISTD syllabus were trained at Kalakshetra.28 Another crucial element of the Kalakshetra style advanced by Devi and her

disciples involves the purification of sringara, an erotic element, from the content of the dances.29 Sringara was a component of the devotional basis of the dance practice, but deemed by Devi to contribute to the degradation of the form. Specifically, Devi’s belief system integrated tenets of the Theosophical Society, a

philosophical society founded in New York in 1875.3o Issues of cultural specificity are thus complicated by the manner in which Bharatanatyam was codified and influenced by Western aesthetic concepts and Protestant mores among the colonised middle and upper classes of India in the 1930s when Bharatanatyam became accepted by the Indian elite. Whether or not the element of sringara is integrated, an emphasis on dance as a devotional practice necessitates what Vena Gheerawo describes the dance performance as an ‘individualism … suffused with holism in that it involves the whole person: body, mind, heart and

spirit’.”3 Valli Subbiah also explains that the components of Bharatanatyam – nritta (rhythmic elements) and abhinaya cannot be viewed in isolation, and that there are integral elements of religion and cultural practices inherent in the art form. ‘Indian dance is made up of several layers: every line, triangle, square or circle within the nritta aspect as well as every mudra [gesture] and movement in abhinaya

can be attributed to some form or another of religious thought or ritual.’32 Subbiah goes on to question the extent to which British students can relate to characterisations drawn from outside their experience, such as the portrayal of Radha’s feelings of dejection that Krishna has not arrived. She argues that an absence of experience can be overcome through the acknowledgement that Bharatanatyam is a theatricalised form, the abhinaya component is a skill, a vital part of the actor’s learning process.33 Western performance styles are taught with an emphasis on bodily movement rather than the intricate facial expressions that comprise part of abhinaya. Although, to some degree, facial expressions and hand gestures are integral to performance of every dance style, western forms such as ballet do not have the codified vocabulary of movements linked to meaning as seen in Bharatanatyam, apart from classical ballet mime. In addition, ballet can be

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studied separate from learning about its roots evolved from the French (and later Russian) aristocracy; however, an understanding of the cultural specificity of the classical Indian forms remains vital to their performance.

Additional complexities exist, grounded in issues of identity and migration within British Asian populations. For example, Subramanyam distinguished between Tamil and Bengali populations in relation to where art is placed within the community. Tamil visions of a pan-Indian identity contrast to a Bengali emphasis on more localised and community-based concepts.34 Distinctions also extend to perspectives about dance as a community-level activity and as a profession. Values of a migrant population can impact decisions about choosing dance as a career, as expectations can include abandoning dance performance after marriage.


Pedagogic shifts in the forms emerge in the structure of the ISTD examination syllabi, encompassing shifts within the larger community in response to the demands of teaching students living in contemporary British society. In Bharatanatyam training, former South Asian Dance Faculty Chair David Henshaw spoke of how the ISTD syllabus integrates training in abhinaya from the start, with the maximum of five marks (out of a possible 100 marks) attainable in abhinaya in the Grade One Examination. In India, an initial training emphasises learning the technical vocabulary first, with expressive qualities integrated later.35 Nina Rajarani (the South Asian Dance Faculty Secretary) discussed how she modified her teaching from her Bharatanatyam training in India, with the inclusion of more theory than she initially received. She also separates adavus (dance units) and repertory classes while integrating an unconventional usage of the tattukali blocks, wooden instruments used to set the rhythm. In order to reinforce rhythmic structures, students learn to tap out rhythms with their own set of blocks, thus breaking traditions of privilege since the blocks were used only by the guru.36

Some resistance to the ISTD from the South Asian dance community exists – for numerous reasons.37 On one hand complaints have been expressed concerning the use of examinations administered by a non-Indian organisation. Examinations systems already exist in India and among South Asian dance centres in Britain. One of the primary training and Indian cultural institutions in London is the Bhavan Centre, where examiners are flown in from India to conduct examinations. Yet those involved in the ISTD consultation and

examination processes represent a range of performers and teachers trained in Britain and India. Thus the ISTD agenda is not completely shaped by outsiders to South Asian dance and its cultural heritage, rather the impetus came from inside its artistic community.

Another source of resistance is grounded in the fact that Indian examination structures already exist thus predicated on a different cultural environment. Sushmita Ghosh explained that the Prayag exams contain more

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theory in the abstract requiring memorisation separate from the experience of dance, therefore they ‘do not make you a better teacher or performer’.38 In contrast, the ISTD examinations emphasise experiential learning, with encouragement to answer questions in accord with personal experience; therefore, ‘the knowledge is more organic’.” Bombay-based Kathak teacher Shila Mehta has been attracted to the syllabus for her own students in India.40 The ISTD emphasis on training the performer makes it more accessible to those who take up the style as a hobby. Gopal noted that students are ‘being trained to perform from the start, not just dance’.41 Also, a focus on posture and prevention of injury reinforce a healthy approach to dance, embracing an increased bodily knowledge integrated into training approaches across dance styles. The ISTD pedagogic structure includes elements of warm-up and cool-

down, thus attending to non-aesthetic issues of dance education. The syllabus for Kathak and Bharatanatyam both highlight environmental differences facing a student in Leicester as opposed to Chennai, for example. ‘Traditionally, in the South Asian climate, it has not been necessary to consider the temperature at which dancing takes place. The needs in Britain are different.’42 A temperature of 21 degrees Celsius is defined as the ideal minimum for dance. Physiological distinctions linked to location are also emphasised: ‘Similarly, it has not been considered necessary to have a clearly defined programme preparing the body for dancing. In the climate of Britain the needs are very different. Without a thorough warm-up before going into the particular demands of Kathak the dancer’s body is prone to injury and cannot work to its best ability.’4: Suggestions are offered for warm-up exercises, stressing the significance of choosing ones with relevance to the form, using precise terms and set rhythms, as the time cycles of Kathak technique are distinct from western musical structures. An attention to detail of the environment highlights the diverse locations

where South Asian dance occurs. Areas with high populations of South Asians or British Asians have organisations such as the Bhavan Centre and Akademi in London, offering different aspects of training and administrative functions for the dance community. The Centre for Indian Classical Dance offers Kathak, Bharatanatyam and folk-based forms in Leicester. Kadam and Sampad arts organ- isations in Bedford and Birmingham, respectively, also support South Asian dance artists. South Asian dance is also taken into primary schools in areas with large British Asian populations, assisted by local education authorities and various funding bodies. However, the existence of dance at the school level is not standardised across the regions. At arts venues, London’s South Bank Centre includes a wide range of South Asian music and dance performances, and the Free Summer Events are highly inclusive in their programming.


Among all the debates, a fundamental dichotomy exists in the name, the title of the organisation – the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing – and the integration of post-colonial dance forms in its portfolio. The very title of the

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ISTD labels the ideological structures upon which a colonial relationship was based – imperial. Although there are other non-British dance forms represented within the faculties, a range of historical precedents can be traced for their inclusion as British dance styles.

Debates on broader issues of identity, specifically concepts of British identity, take on relevance in considering the place of South Asian dance in the evolution of a British dance tradition. What is a British identity? A recent Runnymeade Trust-commissioned report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (the Parekh Report)44 highlighted that for centuries, historic concepts of British identity

predominately reference an English experience, overriding various national roots of the Scots, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish (which some would count as a separate). At its fundamental level, concepts of Britain simplify the mix of identities, values and cultural difference in existence within the islands com- prising Britain. For the ‘migrant cultures’ exemplified by the majority of South Asians in Britain, the ties are more recent to their homelands. Identity issues encompass influences of gender, class, region and generation, thus issues beyond origins must be considered. Generational differences are evidenced in the cross- cultural navigations of younger generations whose daily lives consist of diverse identities drawn upon depending on the immediate situation. Conforming to the daily experience of fitting into a multi-cultural, urbanised population, contrasts to interactions with family members, perhaps first or second generation immi- grants, and a localised enclave with a predominant cultural otherness to what is considered a white Anglo-Saxon traditional British identity. The Parekh Report labels the new identities as being ‘in between’ rather than an ‘either/or’. A re- examination of Britain’s imagined community is called for, with the need to develop as ‘a community of citizens and a community of communities’.45

The issue of assimilation and its relationship to a British identity is highly topical in light of current debates on immigration and nationality. Whereas the construction of identities involves ongoing processes, even for native-born caucasians, a number of South Asian and British-born South Asian dance artists argue against the notion of’in between’ in terms of their self-identities.Jeyasingh reflects on the east/west influences upon which she draws as an artist, but more significantly, in her day to day negotiations of identity.”6 Rather than viewing as separate the cultural signifiers from her background in India, Britain, Sri Lanka and East Malaysia,Jeyasingh described a pool of experience rather than drawing from separate containers of signifiers.47 Gheerawo, a Britain of Indian descent, also views the Indian and British aspects of her identity as intrinsically fused.48 The construction of a self-identity of artists such as Jeyasingh and Gheerawo resists the drawing of defined borders, of a sense of separation into a concept of in/between. The multiple symbolic layers of a national identity, as demonstrated by the colonised influences inherent in the shaping of Bharatanatyam as a marker of Indian-ness, resist definitive categories.

Benedict Anderson’s theories of ‘imagined communities’ are relevant in relation to formulations of cross-cultural arenas of the migrant identity49 and of the twenty-first century British experience. Hybrid constructions of self-identity

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occur in the arts, prior to being manifest in governmental and institutional structures. But arts funding bodies are seen to prioritise new work above the conservation of tradition and heritage in the arts, according to the Parekh Report.50

Can the ISTD be viewed as an institutional remedy, in providing for a standardised dance foundation drawn from traditional South Asian dance

forms, yet mediated by the experience of early twenty-first century British life? The Akademi research and consultation process for the ISTD was supported by the Arts Council of England, thus endowing another level of institutional validation. Between 1 January 1999 and 31 December 2003, 456 examinations have been undertaken in the South Asian Dance Faculty. Of this total, 189 are

in Kathak (up to grade 4) and 267 in Bharatanatyam (up to Grade 5).51 The inclusion of the forms by the ISTD marks a transformation of what can be considered a mainstream dance organisation. It will be interesting to see how the construction of British dance involves both tradition and translation over the years, and the extent to which the process goes both ways. Gopal emphasised that teachers in India are increasingly exposed to new dance practices acquired through inter- national travel, thus dance practices there are shifting as well.52


As the examination statistics suggest, the ISTD is progressing in its mission statement aims of education with reference to Bharatanatyam and Kathak, achieved with instigation from within the South Asian dance community itself. The South Asian Dance Faculty, comprised of dancers and performers in the two styles, continue to refine the syllabi, addressing new issues as they arise. Significantly, the potential influence on British culture extends beyond promoting knowledge of the dance forms themselves, due to a focus on the cultural forms embedded within the education. The ISTD’s inclusion of the forms enhances their

accessibility for those without a South Asian heritage. In filling gaps created by the absence of India’s literature, music and spiritual elements in Britain today, there is potential for a more comprehensive understanding of the nation’s multi- cultural foundations, moving beyond Indian-inspired fashion and cuisine. Yet the extent to which the knowledge will remain as separate containers of signifiers thatJeyasingh spoke of remains to be seen. British Asian students can draw from a more holistic pool of experience, reinforcing diverse aspects of their identities. In standardising the forms, a dichotomy exists which can ultimately impact how Bharatanatyam and Kathak develop as British forms. A balance is required between the reinforcement of technical dance foundations while permitting nuances of style and interpretation to flourish. Tensions between innovation and classical tenets are also present, brought to the fore through new teaching methods which break from the guru-sishya tradition. Holistic approaches and an emphasis on independence contained within the ISTD training may also contribute to a cross-over between styles of dance which comprise a British dance tradition, with more aesthetic influences from South Asian dance integrated in western performance styles.

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1. There are different ways of spelling Bharatanatyam. The spelling here conforms to the ISTD’s publications.

2. Anon., 1999, 3. 3. Ibid.

4. David, 2001, 37-9. 5. Ibid, 41. 6. Khan, 1997, 25. 7. Ibid., 27 8. Dutta and Sarker, eds., Living Tradition, CD-ROM, 2000. 9. Dr Andrde Grau is writing a book based on the SADiB research. Copies of the Lever-

hulme SADiB Report are available at the Dance Department, Roehampton University of Surrey.

10. Dutta and Sarker, op. cit. 11. Jeyasingh, 1998; Roy, 1997; O’Shea, 1998. 12. Gorringe, 2001. 13. Greenstein and Bharadvaj, 1998. 14. Anon., 2001a, 2. 15. Ibid., 3. 16. Subramanyam, 2001, David Henshaw, email correspondence with author, 7 March 2003. 17. Subramanyam, op. cit. 18. Gopal, 2001, 47. 19. Anon., 2000a, 34. 20. Gopal and Sundaram, 2001, 47. 21. Banerjee, 2002, 55. 22. Gopal, 2000, 55. 23. Gopal, 2003. 24. Gopal and Sundaram, 2001, 47. 25. Ibid.

26. Devi, 1997, 42. 27. O’Shea, 1998. 28. Gorringe interview with author, 2001. 29. O’Shea, op. cit., 47-8. 30. Allen, 1997,63-100. 31. Gheerawo, 1997, 53. 32. Subbiah, 1997, 38. 33. Ibid.

34. Subramanyam, op. cit. 35. Henshaw, 2001. 36. Rajarani, 2001. 37. Henshaw, interview with author, 2000. 38. Ghosh, 2000, interview with Magdeline Gorringe. 39. Ibid.

40. Banerjee, op. cit. 41. Gopal, interview with author, 2003. 42. Anon., 2000b, 3. 42. Ibid.

44. Parekh, 2000. 45. Ibid., xv. 46. Jeyasingh, 1998. 47. Jeyasingh in Grau and Prickett, 2002. 48. Gheerawo, op. cit. 49. Anderson, 1991. 50. Parekh, op. cit. 51. In Kathak, 125 have undergone examinations at Grade 1, 42 at Grade 2, 18 at Grade 3

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and 4 at Grade 4. Bharatanatyam totals are 168 at Grade 1, 68 at Grade 2, 18 at Grade 3, 11 at Grade 4 and 2 at Grade 5.

52. Gopal, 2003.


Allen, Matthew Harp (1997). ‘Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance’, The Drama Review, 41, no. 3 (TISS), Fall, 63-100.

Anderson, Benedict (1991). Imagined Communities, rev. edn., London: Verso [orig. pub. 1983]. Anon. (1999). An Introduction to the Imperial Society of Teachers ofDancing, London: Imperial Society

of Teachers of Dancing. Anon. (2000a). South Asian Dance Faculty Bharatanatyam Grade Examinations Specifications, London:

Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. Anon. (2000b). South Asian Dance Faculty Kathak Grade Examinations Specifications, London:

Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. Anon. (2001a). South Asian Dance Faculty Bharatanatyam Syllabus Outline, London: Imperial

Society of Teachers of Dancing. Anon. (2001b). South Asian Dance Faculty Kathak Syllabus Outline, London: Imperial Society of

Teachers of Dancing. Banerjee, Sujata (2002). ‘What is so special about the Kathak syllabus?’, Dance,January, 55. David, Ann (2001). ‘Ram Gopal: A Challenge to Orientalism?’, Attendance, 36-45. Devi, Nilima (1997). ‘Teaching and Choreographing Kathak Dance in Britain’, Choreography

and Dance, 4, No. 2, 39-43. Gheerawo, Vena (1997). ‘South Asian Dance: The British Experience? Holism and

Individualism’, Choreography and Dance, 4, no. 2, 51-3. Gopal, Pushkala (2000). ‘Induction of Examiners’, Dance, May, 55. Gopal, Pushkala (2001). ‘Progress for South Asian Dance’, Dance, May, 47. Gopal, Pushkala and Chitra Sundaram (2001). ‘Standardising a Solo Form’, Dance,

November, 47. Gorringe, Magdeline (2001). Arangetrams – the rituals and role ofa bharata natyam dancer’s solo events,

unpublished paper. Grau, Andree and Stacey Prickett (2002). South Asian Aesthetics Unwrapped, report on Akademi’s

South Asian Aesthetics I Jnwrapped Conference London: Akademi. Greenstein, M. A. and Rama A Bharadvaj (1998). ‘Bharata Natyam: Translation, Spectacle

and the Degeneration of the Arangetram in Southern California Life’, Proceedings of the Society ofDance History Scholars Annual Conference, Oregon, Riverside: University of California, 127-34.

Jeyasingh, Shobhana (1998). ‘Imaginary homelands: creating a new dance language’, in Carter, Alexandra, ed., The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 46-52.

Khan, Naseem (1997). ‘South Asian Dance in Britain’, Choreography and Dance, 4, no. 2, 25-30. O’Shea, Janet (1998). “‘Traditional” Indian Dance and the Making of Interpretive

Communities’, Asian Theatre Journal, 15, no. 1, Spring, 45-63. Parekh, Bhikhu (2000). The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, London: Profile Books. Roy, Sanjoy (1997). ‘Dirt, Noise, Traffic: Contemporary Indian Dance in the Western City;

Modernity, Ethnicity and Hybridity’, in Thomas, Helen, ed., Dance in the City, New York: St Martin’s Press, 68-85.

Subbiah, Valli (1997). ‘Maargam’, Choreography and Dance, 4, no. 2, 35-8.

Additional Sources

Devi, Nimila (2000). Interview with Magdeline Gorringe, 30 June 2000, for the Levehulme South Asian Dance in Britain Project.

Dutta, Sanjeevini and Biasakha Sarker, eds. (2000). Living Tradition: Celebrating. South Asian Dance in Britain, CD-ROM, produced by Kadam Asian Dance and Music.

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Gorringe, Magdeline (2001a). Interview with author, 12 October 2001, London. Henshaw, David (2001). Interview with author, 25 September 2001, London. Khan, Naseem (2000). Interview with Magdeline Gorringe, 19July 2000, for the Leverhulme

South Asian Dance in Britain Project. Pawar, Priya (2000). Interview with Magdeline Gorringe, 14 March 2000, for the Leverhulme

South Asian Dance in Britain Project. Rajarani, Nina (2001). Interview with Magdeline Gorringe, 19 January 2001, for the

Leverhulme South Asian Dance in Britain Project. Ghosh, Sushmita (2000). Interview with Magdeline Gorringe, 15 February 2000, for the

Leverhulme South Asian Dance in Britain Project. Subramanyam, Anusha (2001). Interview with author, 15 October 2001, London.

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  • Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 2004), pp. 1-94
      • Front Matter
      • Techniques and Institutions: The Transformation of British Dance Tradition through South Asian Dance [pp. 1-21]
      • Stepping through the Looking Glass? The Aesthetics and Politics of Daniel Larrieu’s Mobile ou le Miroir du Château [pp. 22-44]
      • Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown: Falling in the Dynamite of the Tenth of a Second [pp. 45-56]
      • The Demons in a Database: Interrogating ‘Stravinsky the Global Dancer’ [pp. 57-83]
      • Book Reviews
        • Review: untitled [pp. 84-85]
        • Review: untitled [pp. 85-90]
      • Books Received [p. 91]
      • Journals Received [pp. 92-93]
      • Back Matter