THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — At a cozy yoga studio in Thousand Oaks, a troupe of youngsters is training to be the next generation of Kathak dancers, carrying on the classical Indian dance tradition that dates back to 400 B.C.

What You Need To Know

  • Kathak is an ancient classical Indian dance form dating from 400 B.C.

  • The word "Kathak" is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "story," and the dance form was a feature of traveling entertainers and storytellers and was found in the royal courts of ancient India

  • Rina Mehta co-founded the Leela Dance Collective to preserve and promote Kathak through education, training and public outreach

  • The Leela Dance Collective is presenting ReSound, a 10-day festival of dance running from Sept. 17 through 26 at locations throughout San Francisco and Los Angeles 

Rina Mehta started training with master Kathak Pt. Chitresh Das when she was very young, and now she is passing her knowledge on by co-founding and leading the Leela Dance Collective.

Although many of her students are no older than 11-years-old, Mehta expects a serious attitude and disciplined effort.

"Although they've been training for many years, they're new to performing at a pre-professional level," Mehta explained. "So, a lot of their learning this year is going to be about how to be [a] performer and how to translate what they've been doing in the classroom to the stage. It's a great age for them to be doing it, because they're teenagers and kind of figuring out how to express who they are, how to be cultural ambassadors. It's a really great time for them to be having that experience."

The classroom is only one part of the Leela Dance Collective's performance practice, and now her veteran dancers are taking their moves to the streets with a series of outdoor performances and workshops called ReSound.

Mehta explained that tap dance is a distant cousin of Kathak, and, for their outdoor performances, the troupe dances on wooden boards so their percussive foot rhythms and ghungroos, or foot bells, can be heard.

Longtime dance troupe member Sonali Toppur said part of the challenge of preserving this dance form is balancing tradition with modern sensibilities.

"What we like to say is that we like to innovate within tradition," Toppur said. "But how do you preserve a concept and the traditional aspects of the dance form while keeping it relevant to current audience?"

Naturally, the Kathak style has also found its way into popular culture, such as Bollywood choreography, which has had many Western influences. It is a cultural dialogue, but Mehta points out the developmental changes in Kathak tend to be subtle.  

"Innovation and adaptation, it's not like a big flash of genius," Mehta said. "It's almost just a natural bit by bit."

One example is a subtle shift in a stance where the dancers turn from a sideways orientation to a more frontal one.

"This looks contemporary compared to the other movements," Mehta said.

The dancers have been rehearsing for the ReSound events that will take place at places such as the 3rd Street Promenade, Grand Park and other locations throughout SoCal where the public can marvel at the dance and then take a workshop to learn some moves themselves. It is a way of bringing an ancient dance into the now.

"Pushing us to innovate and to push the art form outside of its traditional spaces, into modern spaces, and being able to connect with today's audiences."