Spotlight on the Teacher: Rupa Nair

Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT instructor and company dancer Ms. Rupa Nair! Rupa is currently on maternity leave following the birth of her daughter this past summer.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

I have been drawn toward dance since I was a child in India. Due to my keen interest and love of dance, my parents decided to enroll me in a dance school when I turned 7. I studied Bharatanatyam for 12 years at Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, and was chosen to represent my school in various dance competitions. When I moved to the U.S. in 2007, the itch to get back to training was always there but I was never able to find the right school for myself. While visiting my husband in Minneapolis, we happened to attend a show where I saw KDT company dancers perform and it had made an impression in my mind. When I moved to Minneapolis for good in 2012, I decided to pursue Kathak and started training under the guidance of my guru, Rita Mustaphi. In 2014, I was graced with the opportunity to perform with the company dancers in KDT’s production of Rubaiyat, and there was no looking back. My journey with KDT started as a student, then an Intern and finally a company dancer and in the process I have had the opportunity to constantly learn under the guidance of Rita and my peers.

When and why did you begin teaching?  

Coming from a family of teachers, it isn’t very surprising that I naturally have a liking for teaching. I started interning as a teacher in the year 2016 and then, in 2017, I started teaching full-time.

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher? 

My guru, Rita Mustaphi, has been a great inspiration. The trust and faith she placed in me encouraged me to take up teaching. I have learned a lot under her guidance and when she approached me about teaching, I felt it was time to take my learning to another level.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I am more of a mentor to the students than a teacher. I want everyone to be comfortable around me and feel free to approach me. I like to work closely with my students until they grasp the technique and understand the concept behind it.

“Everyone pursues a passion for a reason, and I want [my students] to believe in that reason and not feel intimidated.”

What do you hope your students take away from your class?

I hope my students feel more confident in themselves after each class. Everyone pursues a passion for a reason, and I want them to believe in that reason and not feel intimidated. Two people will not have the same goal, so I encourage my students to really enjoy the experience of dancing and in the process, feel more confident.

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes? 

The most common phrase I tend to use is “If I can do it, you can do it too. All it takes is hard work and perseverance.”

What do you love most about teaching? What’s the hardest part of your job?

I love the look of satisfaction I see in my students. I like the fact that through teaching, I learn a lot from my students too. When you are enjoying teaching it is hard to stop at the end of the hour.

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students? 

The only advice I have is: Believe in your strengths as a teacher, believe in your students and make teaching an enjoyable experience for the students and for yourself.

Photo: Rahul Nair

Spotlight on the Teacher: Sarika Haris

Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT instructor and company dancer Ms. Sarika Haris.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

I began my dance journey in India where I studied Bharatanatyam, the South Indian classical dance style, for several years. While I was there, I performed in the Bhartanatyam dance ensembles Bhasmasur Mohini and Dashavatar. My mom recognized that I could dance at a very young age and decided that it might be a good idea to get me some training, and my dad was very supportive.

Fast forwarding a few years: when I came to the United States to pursue my PhD, I saw Rita Mustaphi’s company perform at the Indian Student Association’s Diwali show at University of Minnesota. It was love at first sight! I loved watching Kathak and was inspired to challenge myself to learn something new and different from what I had learned in India. That’s when I joined Katha Dance Theatre as a student in 1999. Right away, Rita took me under her wing and there was no turning back. Her compassion, humility, guidance and support have been instrumental to not only who I am as a dancer but also a huge influence on who I am as a person.

In 2002, I played the lead role in KDT’s production of Chandalika, The Untouchable. Over the years, I have performed in several KDT productions locally and nationally such as The Hungry Stones, Ritu – The Seasons, Sufiana – the Sufi Ecstasy, Pourush – The Masculine, Rubaiyat – Life in a Day, In Retrospect, Beauty and the Beast, Soul to Sole, Karna – The Abandoned Hero and many others. Over the years, I have continued my learning under the tutelage of Ms. Rita Mustaphi and have taken several workshops and master classes from Padma Vibhushan winner Pandit Birju Maharaj and Ms. Saswati Sen. In 2012, I had the honor and privilege of performing in India’s prestigious Khajuraho Dance Festival in a fantastic KDT production Karna – The Abandoned hero. I have been a KDT instructor since 2017. 

 When and why did you begin teaching?

Early on, I was a teaching assistant and helped Rita on and off for a couple of years. I then took a break from Kathak when I had my kids. Once I came back from my maternity leave, I resumed as a company dancer and then eventually started teaching in 2017. I used to watch Rita and visiting artists teach over the years and always thought I would like to teach someday. I wanted to teach so I could give back to the community as well as to the dance company. I am glad that Rita had confidence in me and guided me to teach. Teaching kids has been a very fulfilling and satisfying experience. I believe teaching has made me more patient and from a dance perspective, made me analyze the dance movements and break them into simple pieces that kids can easily learn.

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher? 

My biggest inspirations are my Guru, Rita Mustaphi, and my mom. Rita’s patience, compassion, empathy and willingness to share everything she knows have truly been motivational for me. My mom’s patience with the kids as an academic teacher has had a huge influence on me as well. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Pt. Birju Maharaj and Ms. Saswati Sen. Pt. Birju Maharaj has a unique style of teaching and is very humbling for us all. He connects every dance movement to things in nature and provides analogies to actions we do every day, making them very simple for us to learn and follow. In addition, I have also learned a lot from my fellow teachers such as Mukta Sathe, Monica Singh, Anurag Sharma and Rupa Nair. Honestly, I am inspired by the kids I teach as well! They make me a better teacher and help me grow with their honest remarks!

How would you describe your teaching style?

I would like to describe myself as someone who is compassionate but also strict. I expect a lot from my kids and want them to learn and have fun at the same time. I am always trying to push them to do their best, so there are times when I am strict. But I also incorporate games so I can keep dance fun and engaging for the kids I teach. Like I mentioned before, the kids have taught me to be patient and become a better teacher, but I know I have a lot to learn as a teacher and am looking forward to it!

What do you hope students take away from your class?

My goal in my class is to be a true ambassador for Kathak. I would like each of my students to be true ambassadors of Kathak as well. I hope to fuel their passion for dance as they continue to learn Kathak. In addition, I want them to have fun and be motivated to keep dancing.

“The satisfaction I receive after I teach is the greatest reward. I feel like I have a chance to give back and make a small difference to the dance community.”

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes?

Yes, I do. Most commonly: “How do I know you are ready? Can I see Utpatti please?” Others include “Feet in a V – piece of a chocolate pie!”, “I love ice cream”, “I hate homework!” I use some of these phrases to help kids remember the basic movements and stances in Kathak and ensure that their foundation is strong.

What do you love most about teaching? What’s the hardest part of your job?

The satisfaction I receive after I teach is the greatest reward. I feel like I have a chance to give back and make a small difference to the dance community. In addition, I feel like teaching has made me a better dancer, since I must be detailed and analyze every movement to be able to teach. The hardest part of my job is to keep the kids engaged and not bored. Learning something new and difficult can be challenging and helping kids get over the challenge is what I look forward to. To hear “I got it!” from the kids in my class is super satisfying. To see the kids accomplish what they thought was difficult and challenging is very exciting.

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students?

I am incredibly blessed to be part of the KDT organization with Rita as the best teacher anyone could ask for. In addition, I have personally learned a lot from my fellow teachers. Based on what I have observed and now experienced as a teacher, my only advice would be to be patient, encouraging and honest. Remember that teaching helps unlock new potential!

Spotlight on the Teacher: Monica Singh

Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT instructor and company dancer Ms. Monica Singh.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

My connection to dance and KDT began before I was born. My sisters danced with Rita Mustaphi for a couple of years when they were young. When I was 7 years old, my parents reconnected with Rita and my Kathak journey began. For 21 years, I have been learning from Rita Mustaphi and have the great fortune to not only learn from her but progress and go from student to intern to company member and instructor. With KDT, I have participated in many professional shows including Dots and Feathers, Sundari aur Nag, Ekam, Black Candle, Retrospect, Karna, Pourush, Rubaiyat, Sufiyana, Ritusamhara, and The Hungry Stones. I’ve also had the honor of attending classes and workshops held by Pandit Birju Maharaj and Ms. Saswati Sen here in Minnesota. These experiences have shaped my passion for dance and guided me to become the person I am today. 

When and why did you begin teaching?  

I trained to become a teacher under Rita Mustaphi for a year before beginning to teach in 2012. I have loved to teach, even if it was pretend, since I was a little kid. Having the passion for dance and the opportunity from Rita was the perfect mix to stir my excitement for teaching. 

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher?  

My first and most important inspiration as a dancer and a teacher is Rita Mustaphi. From knowing me as a young child to now as an adult, she has guided me and taught me more than just dance. Many of her teachings have helped me grow and become successful in life. Her dedication to her art and school is inspirational and a goal for all of us, especially me. My other biggest inspirations are my parents. Both are teachers by profession and have taught me more than I can say. My dedication, practice, and personality have been shaped by my inspirations.

How would you describe your teaching style? 

For me, a big part of being a teacher is putting the student first and adapting one’s teaching style to the student. Everyone learns differently and as a teacher, it is my responsibility to understand my students and their learning styles. By doing this, I can teach in the way I know they will respond to and learn from. I succeed if those who I am teaching feel like they have succeeded and enjoy what they are learning. However, I also put emphasis on practice and more practice. As students, sometimes we just want to keep moving up without perfecting the basics. I try to enforce in my students that if they keep practicing and perfecting the basics, only then does growth come. 

What do you hope your students take away from your class? 

I hope my students take away a respect for the arts, discipline in hard work, enjoyment from learning, and greater self-confidence. These are things I took away as a student which have helped me immensely in life. Because I know how gratifying it is to have these takeaways, I hope that I can give my students the same through their classes. 

“I succeed if those who I am teaching feel like they have succeeded and enjoy what they are learning.”

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes? 

I often use “feet together”, “follow your movement”, “use your wrist”, and “have confidence.” One phrase I have started using a lot with students is “smile!” That is a fun reminder for them.

What do you love most about teaching? What’s the hardest part of your job?

I love watching my students dance, especially when they have a piece done and are showing it with confidence. It is a very special feeling when a student performs a piece they’ve worked hard to learn with a big smile. The hardest part is keeping a balance between having fun and being strict. As a teacher, you must do both and maintaining that balance takes practice.

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students? 

Love what you are teaching and learn to adapt to your students. 

Photo: Anjana Nair

Spotlight on the Teacher: Anurag Sharma

Katha Dance Theatre is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on KDT Board secretary, parent, instructor and company dancer Mr. Anurag Sharma.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

My passion for dance inspired me to begin learning Kathak from Rita Mustaphi in 2004. It was Rita’s compassion towards Kathak and her welcoming demeanor that helped me make my decision to start learning Kathak. The rest is history! After ten years of rigorous training under Rita Mustaphi, I had the opportunity of a lifetime in both 2014 and 2016 when I completed a total of six months of extensive training directly under the living legend and Padma Vibhushan-awardee Pandit Birju Maharaj in New Delhi, India. I have attended Chicago’s International Kathak Festival in both 2004 and 2009. Joining conferences and workshops conducted by the Kathak exponents from all over the world was a great learning experience. Also, I have been performing extensively with the Katha Dance Theatre’s home productions locally, nationally and internationally since 2005.

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to tour and perform in a Kathak Ballet – Romeo & Juliet – with Pandit Birju Maharaj’s Dance Company in Wisconsin, Chicago and New York’s Madison Square Garden! In February 2017, I performed as a lead dancer in a dance opera titled Karna – The Abandoned Hero, one of Rita Mustaphi’s many creative works, at the prestigious Khajuraho Dance Festival in India. It was an exhilarating experience to perform at such a famous and historical monument from the 12th century.

There is so much to learn and achieve, but I have been fortunate to work with some prominent organizations & Gurus in my artistic experience. I performed as a guest artist in Anila Sinha Foundation productions of  Kumar Sambhav & Rajnartaki with Kiran Chauhan in Chicago (2007 & 2009); North American Bengali Conference (NABC) in Toronto, Canada (2013) with KDT; with Rita Mustaphi at the India Dance Festival organized by Indian Classical Music Circle (ICMC) in Dallas, Texas (2013); and with Saveeta Sharma of Upasna Dance Company at Pandit Birju Maharaj’s 80th birthday tribute concert Aashirwad in Ottawa, Canada (2017). In October 2017, with the blessings of my Gurus Rita Mustaphi and Pandit Birju Maharaj, I performed a solo Kathak recital – Rangmanch Pravesh – in Minneapolis.

All these opportunities would have not been possible for me without Rita Mustaphi’s constant guidance, support and encouragement.

When and why did you begin teaching?  

I assisted Rita Mustaphi and completed my teacher training for one year before starting to teach for KDT in 2009. I love sharing the craft that I have acquired by observing my gurus. My ultimate goal in teaching Kathak dance is to cultivate inner peace, a positive attitude and composure through expressions. I feel blessed to practice and share various aspects of a ‘Kathakaar’ – a storyteller – by expressional and rhythmic Kathak compositions with my students.

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher?  

Indubitably, Rita Mustaphi inspires me, as she was my first Kathak Guru/teacher. Not only has she mastered the dance style, but she is also very patient with students at all levels. My students inspire and teach me something new every week. Their unmatched energy gives me the utmost joy. My other teaching inspirations come from the Kathak Maestro himself, Pandit Birju Maharaj, and Vidushi Saswati Sen. I had the good fortune to observe and sometimes assist Pandit Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen in their classes and workshops during my Kathak training in India. Pandit Birju Maharaj’s perseverance, sincerity, passion for teaching, and incorporation of daily life examples into his teaching are admirable. I believe teaching is a continuous learning process for a teacher.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I would say my teaching style is a mix of being both warm and demanding. My love and passion for dance reflect in my teaching style. I provide caring and emotional support but also have high expectations from my students. Having said that, I make sure my students are having fun in the classroom by finding the right balance between their artistic development and enjoyment. I try to be a positive role model so my students not only learn this beautiful form of Indian classical dance but also use discipline and practice in their lifestyles.

What do you hope your students take away from your class?

I hope when my students leave the classroom they feel energized and eager to come back to the next class. I also hope every dance practice session is a stress reliever for my students after their busy day at school or at work. Finally, my hope is that they take away a joy and happiness from dance that will ultimately provide a more focused approach in whatever they choose to do.

“I make sure my students are having fun in the classroom by finding the right balance between their artistic development and enjoyment.”

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes?

I use many phrases, for example: “follow your hands,” “use a lot of wrist for all hand movements,” “relax and smile,” “understand the meaning of each word for the expressional dances so you can emote and perform them properly,” and “you have to enjoy the dance, only then audience will enjoy your performance.”

What do you love most about teaching? What’s the hardest part of your job?

Teaching has been a sacred and elating experience for me. Thanks to Rita Mustaphi for trusting me all these years and providing me the opportunity to share my learnings with others. By teaching, I learn and by learning, I get inspired to teach more. I would say the hardest part of my job is to learn and try to understand different students’ perspectives. It is definitely hard to match kids’ exuberant energy!

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students?

Set clear goals and expectations with your students.

Photo: Anjana Nair

Spotlight on the Teacher: Mukta Sathe

Katha Dance Theatre (KDT) is a dance company and school run by some of the country’s finest Kathak artists. Our instructors are passionate about Kathak tradition and have worked hard to reach their level of expertise, practicing daily in order to develop their skills. But apart from regular practice, what does it take to make a dancer? In our dancers’ experience, learning from inspiring teachers plays a huge role in helping artists achieve their professional goals.

In our series Spotlight on the Teacher, we’re checking in with our talented dance teachers – learning about their origins, the development of their teaching style, their goals for their students, and more – in order to better understand their individual approaches to teaching, dancing, and practicing their art. This month, our spotlight shines on longtime KDT instructor Ms. Mukta Sathe.

What is your dance background, both in terms of your training and your professional experience?

I earned a Visharad degree in dance from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya [in New Delhi]. Since then, I have performed in dance ballets like “Ganga,” “Krishna Katha,” and “Taal Chakra” in India. I have also performed with KDT in many shows since 2004, some of which are “Ramayana,” “Dots and Feathers,” “Sundari aur Nag,” “Ekam,” “Black Candle,” “Soul to Sole,” “Retrospect,” “Karna,” “Pourush,” “Rubaiyat,” “Sufiyana,” “Ritusamhara,” and “The Hungry Stones.” I’ve attended workshops held by Pandit Birju Maharaj, Saswati Sen and Kumudini Lakhia, both here in the Twin Cities and in India. All these have been very enriching experiences for me.

When and why did you begin teaching?

I briefly taught in India from 1997-1999. I started teaching for KDT in 2007. With the growing population of Indians in Minnesota, the interest and demand for Kathak grew in the community and that is when we decided to start a branch of KDT in Shakopee. It was Rita Mustaphi’s confidence in me that made me a teacher. I started teaching in Shakopee soon after and have continued to do so for the past 10 years now.

Who and/or what have been your biggest inspirations as a teacher?  

Undoubtedly, Rita Mustaphi is my biggest inspiration. I blossomed into a confident dancer and performer under her tutelage. Her welcoming, nurturing and patient style of teaching helped me overcome my inhibitions, gain confidence and try new things. Her belief that anyone can do anything is her most enduring quality. I am working toward this belief under her guidance. My first Guru, Sanjeevani Kulkarni, also has been a great role model and a big influence. Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj’s style of teaching, where he relates every movement to everyday things, is so easy to understand and relatable. He makes Kathak accessible to a layperson. There is still so much to learn.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I think I am a strict but a nurturing teacher. I am bit of a disciplinarian as well. Becoming a teacher has taught me patience, which I previously lacked. I hope to be a teacher like Rita Mustaphi. How I do as a teacher is something only my students can speak to.

“I want my students to know that you do not need words to express, that your movements can do that for you.”

What do you hope your students take away from your class?

I want all my students to enjoy dance. I want them to know that you do not need words to express, that your movements can do that for you. I want them to experience the same joy I feel when we end a tukda or tihayee on the Sam. Kathak is a challenging dance form with all its techniques, movements and Abhinaya…I want to help students achieve excellence in all of these areas.

Do you have any key phrases or expressions you often use in your classes?

I frequently use motivational phrases like “good job,” ”excellent,” “nice tap,” and “beautiful.” But you will also hear me say things like “Uttpatti fingers,” “listen to the music,” and “pay attention.” I also use a fun term to teach Tatkaar to beginners: “I like ice cream…every time you hear a cream, it’s your heel.” I also use the word “honey” after a student’s name when I am correcting them.

What do you love most about teaching? What’s the hardest part about your job?

Teaching has taught me patience. Students’ energy is infectious! They all come in happy, so it is very easy to slip into happiness right away when I start to teach. It’s fun to watch how different kids react or perceive things differently. It shows me that there is more than one way of doing or learning things. The hardest part of my job is matching their energy!

What advice do you have for other dance teachers who wish to make an impression on their students?

Do not give up on anyone…ever!