In his poem “Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats famously asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” An appropriate question for classical Indian dancer Namita Khanna, who’s been doing it since she was three years old, and teaching and performing it since moving here in 1990 to study Architecture at CU Denver.
Performance is in her DNA. Her father, Kishan Khanna, was a Hindi playwright and theatre director, her mother, Aruna Khanna, an actress and classically trained Indian singer. “There was always music in our household,” she said. “Grandpa would be drumming on the breakfast table and I would dance. My first time ever on stage, I was one year old.”
Sensing her interest and natural talent, her parents found a dance guru to teach her Bharata Natyam, a classical dance style that originated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “It’s the oldest form of dance in India,” she said. “Very angular and squatty. Very precise. There’s a lot of eye rolling, neck movement, and hand gestures in it. Dance in India originated as both worship and celebration. The dances tell the stories of the gods. We believe that Shiva puts his energy and passion and anger in us when we dance.”
At age 11, she was introduced to another form called Kathak. Less angular and more flowing and graceful than Bharata Natyam, Kathak involves a lot of spinning and intricate footwork. “It’s like a conversation between the tabla player and the dancer,” she said. “They try to match each other’s rhythm. It’s almost a competition.” Her choreography combines elements of both, and is seasoned with Indian folk dance and a dash of Bollywood.
In February of 1991, while still a student, she was invited to perform in a show for the local Pakistani community. “Two weeks later, I got a call from an Indian lady who’d seen me dancing. She wanted to know if I’d teach her two daughters. I was flattered and excited, but unfortunately too busy with schoolwork to accept.”
A year later, however, she found the time to start a class for the two daughters and one other girl in the basement of her home in Arvada. Within a month, five more students had found their way into the class, and it wasn’t long before her fledgling Indian dance academy had outgrown the basement.
Over the years Mudra Dance Studio has had to move to ever larger spaces. Its enrollment now tops 138 students. “Sixty to seventy percent are Indian,” she said. “The balance are whites, blacks, and mixed ethnicities. Also a lot of adoptees. The point is, you don’t have to be any particular shape, or form, or age, or color to learn Indian classical dance.”
In addition to the classes, the school maintains a professional performance group of eight dancers and two drummers, and a hectic schedule that last year exceeded 100 performances. “One day last November,” Khanna said, “we did a performance in Littleton and then had to rush all the way up to Greeley for a second performance on the same day.”
Khanna maintains that her work as an architect, and her work as a choreographer are of a piece. “My architectural training enables me to get a sense of the design and color and geometry of a performance,” she said. “It helps me visualize the whole scene in 3D.”
Having a second career as an architect also means she doesn’t need to worry about supporting herself through dance. “It was important to me from Day One not to make dance about money,” she said. “It’s not about money and has never been about money. For me, dance is the raw and honest expression of my soul. When I’m on stage I’m able to transfer the joy I’m feeling to the audience. I can see it in the smiles on their faces. That to me is beyond satisfaction. It’s beyond any payment in the world.”
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