Rhythm unites tap, Indian classical dancers

One of the ways classical Indian dancers Rina Mehta and Rachna Nivas are keeping their art form in practice is by joining forces with tap dancers.

It’s not a new idea.

The California artists, who appear in “SPEAK: A Kathak and Tap Collaboration” this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, say they are following on a path begun more than a decade ago by their guru, the late Pandit Chitresh Das, and Jason Samuels Smith.

Calling those pairings in 2005 and 2014 “a groundbreaking sensation,” Mehta adds, “We wanted to continue that legacy, but to bring our own voice and own perspective to it.”

To that end, their show spotlights women: Mehta and Nivas are performing with tap virtuosos Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (of “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” fame) and Michelle Dorrance, (choreographer and head of the New York-based troupe Dorrance Dance) in a production that stems from a 2015 workshop.

While perhaps more women practice both Kathak (movement connected to stories from ancient India) and tap, Nivas mentions that in both disciplines, “those still recognized as masters are men.”

Nivas and Mehta are among the five female co-founders of Leela Dance Collective, which is dedicated to maintaining Kathak traditions as well as innovation.

Mehta and Nivas are thrilled about the power and unity on display in “SPEAK.”

“We feel strongly that it’s collaboration, and not fusion,” Mehta says, explaining that the show is a series of vignettes “allowing audiences to weave in and out of different worlds” and in which tap and Kathak are each presented in their pure form, accompanied by Indian classical and jazz musicians.

“What’s really powerful is creating oneness, without changing each other,” says Nivas.

What binds the two is rhythmic improvisation.

“The connection comes from a deep place of groundedness,” says Mehta.

Yet the juxtaposition between Indian classical music’s non-linear 9 ½ beat cycle and the sounds made by tap dancers’ shoes — while the Kathak dancers are barefoot, wearing heavy brass and iron bells called ghungroo on their ankles – represents a great exchange that “pushes out,” and deepens, each form, they say.

At the same time, the Leela dancers are committed to preserving Kathak — a complex, ancient tradition based on stories of Hindu gods, that, Nivas says, has “suffered enormous historical trauma” — in ways they learned from Chitresh Das, who came from India to Northern California in the 1970s and taught until his death in 2015.

Mehta and Nivas, who met in graduate school for public health at UC Berkeley, then abandoned those ambitions to practice and promote Kathak, see themselves as missionaries for the form.

While Nivas admits it’s a “struggle” to compete with pop culture and Bollywood, she and Mehta, as “modern gurus in training,” remain committed to taking time to “energetically transfer their knowledge” to their students.


SPEAK: A Kathak and Tap Collaboration
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 24, 2 and 8 p.m. March 25
Tickets: $35 to $55
Contact: www.ybca.org
Note: Leela Dance also presents the premiere of “Son of the Wind” at 7:30 p.m. April 8 at the Green Center at Sonoma State University.

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