By Emily Mason
We awoke to the sound of a conch shell being blown at five thirty each morning and walked to the studio in the cool semi-darkness. There we would spend the next three to four hours practicing footwork as the sun rose and the day warmed to as much a hundred degrees.
Starting with slow heel-work, the speed and complexity of our footwork would increase until the sweat was flying and minds were racing to keep up. On spur of the moment, Dadaji might decide to introduce a type of footwork that was totally new to many of us. As one student pointed out, the immersion experience made it feel much more natural to absorb a new style of footwork into mind and body, which was an exciting revelation to her. As we all fed off of the energy that was produced by Dadaji and by one another, the exhaustion faded into exhilaration and the impossible began to feel possible. Sometimes, as we stopped a moment to stretch, Dadaji would break into amazingly fast and complex footwork compositions or mesmerizingly subtle abhinaya, and we would all just watch in awe and try to take it in as much as possible.
Following the early morning footwork session, we would prepare breakfast together and then continue dancing for a couple more hours, branching out beyond footwork into chakkars and compositions, and after lunch we would have a class in Gat Bhao, or recitation. One of the highlights of retreat for me was arriving on Thursday afternoon and joining right in on a class that was practicing Holi Tarana. We were asked, as an exercise, to pair off and take turns portraying the playful push-and-pull between Krishna and Radha. It was exciting to work on improvisation and expression, and watch and learn as each couple presented what they had come up with. Another highlight was the recitation class led by Dadaji’s brother, Ritesh-Da, one afternoon. We learned several fascinating compositions, and listened, enthralled, to his lightning-fast recitation.
Group discussions are a big part of retreat, and after each class and dinner we would ask questions and talk. We inquired about and discussed such subjects as the history of kathak and Chhandam School, where we are now, and where we’re going. We talked about why we chose to be here, and how that answer might change over time, and we asked Dadaji about his personal history and heard stories we’d never heard before, as well as ones we had heard, but in a new context.
This retreat was special in that we were joined by students from Boston and Toronto, as well as both Northern and Southern California. It was wonderful to meet and connect with people from far away who are passionate about kathak dance in the same ways that we are. I come away from retreat with new friends, new questions to think about, and new skills to practice. Each retreat I’ve been to leaves me with new motivation and love for this amazing art form, as well as gratitude for the opportunity to study with such skillful and brilliant artists.