What is Ethnic Dance?: Questions and Reflections from a “Post Multiculturalism” Conversation

By Charlotte Moraga


Let’s face it, like it or not, traditional and ethnic dance forms around the globe are changing. I doubt there’s any dance style that’s performed exactly as it was 50 years ago. Dances forms are evolving, making them relevant, while adding diversity and depth to the dance field. Simultaneously there are dance forms that are being diluted and denigrated, or even disappearing. I believe all dance forms practiced today must address contemporary values and lifestyles or they will become extinct. Innovation within tradition is essential.

What does innovation mean? The American Heritage Dictionary states: 1. The act of introducing something new. 2. Something newly introduced. But I prefer the “WordNet” definition, which states: 1. a creation (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation. 2. the creation of something in the mind. This definition implies that innovation is not simply coming up with a novel idea, but lies on a sturdy foundation of knowledge, practice, and is actually a lengthy process, which requires depth, time, and tinkering.

Pandit Chitresh Das has a popular saying, “Freedom comes from refined discipline with responsibility.” For me this means that an artist has to go deep into the foundation of the form. If one is going to innovate within tradition, one first should learn the tradition thoroughly and achieve mastery at a high standard. Practicing, studying, exploring one form in-depth allows an artist to find what is at the core that relates to oneself and the community. This requires a lifetime of study. It starts with choices and artists, like everyone else, are always making choices.

On February 21, 2008, I attended the Dance Discourse Project #2 entitled “Investigating the Post-Multiculturalism Landscape” at CounterPULSE. During the proceedings I asked myself “are we stuck as a field? Who are we as a community? Is there a ‘we’?” Let’s start with the term ethnic dance. Is everything that is not “white dance” (historically ballet and contemporary dance) ethnic? Except, of course, for European folk dances. And what about white people who have adopted an ethnic form? In the early 1980s the Chitresh Das Dance Company received a letter from a presenter suggesting that the white dancers put on tan makeup and wear black wigs. Pandit Das refused, insisting that a dancer, regardless of their race, who studied deeply and was responsible to the community and the form could dance Kathak. Thank god we’ve seemed to move beyond that issue. Some would argue that ballet is ethnic. Some ethnic forms, such as Kathak, have more in common with ballet than they have with other ethnic forms, such as European folk dance. Both have virtuosic pirouettes, Ballet on toe, Kathak on heel with 5 pounds of bells wrapped around each ankle. What about tap dance? Both Kathak and Tap have intense rhythmic improvisation. Should we use a new label? What if we label them as percussive dance?

How are we going to educate audiences about the unique differences if we throw everything in one big box labeled miscellaneous? What about the term traditional? Can modern dance be traditional? Is Martha Graham traditional yet? So, what new category shall we call it? Culturally specific dance? What dance form isn’t culturally specific? There are so many different forms. In India alone there are more than seven classical dance forms and a myriad of folk dances. Each country may have dozens of popular forms and hundreds more regional forms.

Why do we have such limited categories of dance: modern, ballet and ethnic or traditional? Do these labels keep us marginalized? Ethnic dance festivals have been helpful in giving marginalized forms a performance platform. But I wonder if they don’t also contribute or perpetuate the marginalization by judging each by a similar standard in regards to production value.

One of the Dance Discourse panelists mentioned that he thought about auditioning for a festival, but they only allowed five-minutes to perform. “How am I going to show this tradition in five-minutes?” He asked. I think he is asking himself a very good question of the challenge, and challenges aren’t good or bad, they just are.

Pandit Das was faced with a similar dilemma in 1984 when he was commissioned by the Olympic Arts Festival Committee in Los Angeles to perform for 12 minutes. Fresh from India, he had a similar reaction: how was he going to present Kathak in 12 minutes? We’re talking 12 minutes distilled from a traditional Kathak solo that lasts for two hours, and up to three or four hours if the soloist is knowledgeable and skilled enough.

But the Olympic Arts Committee wanted 12 minutes. He had to make some serious choices based on over two decades of deep training in the guru shisya parampara (student-teacher relationship). With all his knowledge and background matched against the Indian value, “Audience is God,” he was well equipped to make some choices, yet maintain the integrity and technical excellence of Kathak. His decision was to take the essence of each segment of a traditional solo and distill each solo to what he understood to be a maximum effect of the form. Twenty-four years ago he was very interested in creating access to Kathak and still is, but ask him today if he would perform for 12 minutes and he probably would not.

When an artist makes a choice to try something new and different they’re changing their form. Audiences, funders, and critics have a tremendous influence on how forms develop in this regard. With that in mind, whose responsibility is it to consciously think about how these choices are changing their forms? What’s good change? What’s bad change? So many artists are just trying to survive, to dance and to perform. What can we do as a community to provide more contexts to our choices? One thing that seems obvious to me, is that we must continue to educate each other and ourselves.

The dance community would be well served to continue these dialogues that help us understand each other. All dance forms have universal truths. A simple or limited view of a dance’s history/tradition can lead to misrepresentation or a superficial interpretation of the form. Recently, a very successful contemporary dancer trained in Kathak stated that he had a problem as a young dancer in having to portray Krishna because he didn’t look like Krishna. I didn’t know if he was serious or not. Krishna is but a metaphor. Krishna represents the divine force in all of us. Radha, his lover, another metaphor, represents the beloved, the devoted. These figures can be interpreted on a superficial level as lovers or on a deeper level as the forces within ourselves. When you become Krishna, holding the familiar bansuri (flute) and hastak (hand position) to your lips you’re not simply portraying a Hindu God—you represent the divine force blowing life into the holes representing the five senses. You’re awakening your unconscious through your dance. I would imagine most dancers, in any form, are reaching beyond the human constraints of mundane expression. Martha Graham recognized this when she used the term, “Acrobats of the Gods” in reference to dancers.

Kathakas used to come from a hereditary line. Now anyone with the right attitude can learn the form. The guru-shishya parampara was such that the student would live with the guru, take care of the guru’s daily needs and the guru would teach them many things, a symbiotic relationship of preservation and devotion. Now of course most students learn in classes, often-large classes, once or twice weekly. Yet, for the serious student who wants to pursue the form deeply what choice is there? Is there a market for the traditional Kathak solo? It’s up to us to create those markets. Conversations and discourses like the one that took place at February’s Dance Discourse Project are invaluable to discovering who we are as artists and understanding in greater depth what we do. I personally can’t wait until the next Dance Discourse Project.

Charlotte Moraga is currently the artistic director of the Chitresh Das Institute. She has been dancing, teaching dance, performing, and making dances most of her life. But it wasn’t until her serendipitous meeting of Pandit Chitresh Das 30 years ago that she found her calling. A principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 20 years, she still performs occasionally, but finds joy and meaning in teaching and creating dances. Charlotte also teaches dance and art for the San Francisco Unified School District. When not teaching or dancing or making dances you can find her hiking the hills of San Francisco. You can email Charlotte at charlotte@chitreshdasinstitute.org.