My top 10 dance moments – Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

10. Meeting my Guruji, Pandit Chitresh Das: As an 18-year-old who took her first Kathak class in San Francisco in 1996, I knew within a few months that this art form would play a significant part in my life. I am certain that it is his guidance and teaching style that attracted me to the dance form. This was the start of almost 20 years of intense training with him, on and off the dance floor.

9. Receiving my ghungroo: About a year into my study and training of Kathak, I achieved a first milestone when my Guruji determined I was ready to receive my bells. I strung them on my own and prepared additional components as part of the ceremony, as tradition my Guruji had partaken in when he began studying. My family and friends were present. My Guruji even asked my father to read something from the Quran as I was the first Muslim student to receive bells from him, and he wanted to acknowledge this in a meaningful way.

8. First India tour with the Chitresh Das Dance Company: A few years into my training, I joined my Guruji as a member of his Chitresh Das Dance Company, on a multi-city tour in India, beginning in Kolkata, his birthplace. Going there to perform and assist him in teaching was an experience that I will never forget – from being in communities of artists, interacting with students of various economic backgrounds to the way audiences received us with such respect, love and enthusiasm. I continued going to India as often as possible, with each experience offering me new lessons, challenges and immense rewards.

7. The proposal: Being connected to Kathak, one becomes a part of a community, which extends to our closest friends and family. When my then boyfriend wanted to ask me to marry him, who did he call to coordinate the proposal with, my Guruji! My husband Salim snuck into my Kathak class and came up behind me while I was immersed in dancing. When I finally realised he was there, he took my hand and proposed in a setting with my two loves – my now husband of 20 years and dance.

6. Debut Kathak solo performance: After about 10 years of deep study, training and systematic practice, I performed my first full-length solo performance. I had live musical accompaniment and worked on much of the content on my own, with initial direction given by Guruji. I had to exemplify each aspect of the form, from strength, awareness of rhythm and melody to grace and expressiveness. I had to be able to recite everything I was dancing and keep an audience captivated for an hour and a half.

5. Aziza Noor enters the dance room: Aziza Noor, my nine-year-old daughter, says she’s been dancing since being in my tummy, which is true. But she officially began her Kathak training with me when she was two-years-old. The dual relationship of being mother and teacher continues to bring me great joy, and challenges me as well. I love dancing with Aziza Noor, and the handful of times we have performed together has made my heart just want to jump out of my chest. I truly hope this becomes a lifetime of shared moments, but only the future will tell.

4. The Empress is remembered: In 2014, an idea was born – to create a dance drama based on the life of Mughal Empress Noor Jahan, exploring her influence on the empire, though she was dismissed in the latter years of her life and in death. Titled The Forgotten Empress, I performed all of the characters through Kathak, accompanied by amazing musicians, an actress, and led by a brilliant playwright-director and production team. We’ve performed throughout the US and Pakistan, and are committed to delivering a spectrum of emotions, relationships and occurrences surrounding this powerful woman. And to tell stories that accurately portray our history.

3. Noorani Dance is born: As I ventured out on my own to perform and teach, I wanted to create a community that wasn’t only tied to me in name, thus Noorani Dance was born. Noorani means bright or luminous, with a dual meaning of enlightenment. US-based non-profit organisation Noorani Dance is committed to enlightening minds and hearts through the arts, offering traditional and innovative Kathak training and performances, and collaborative partnerships across the performing arts. Fun fact: Noorani is my birth name, so a perfect tribute to my parents for all they have done to support and enlighten me.

2. The Partition Project: In 2018, I achieved a long-term goal of mine – to create work on the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Noorani Dance, in collaboration with EnActe Arts, premiered the first phase The Partition Project – a multi-layered production of dance, theatre, music and multimedia. With the goal of provoking dialogue to learn from our past, inform our present and change the future, this is a provocative and compelling performance. It weaves true-life accounts through a retrospective lens, into the greatest mass displacement in human history. Phase two will launch in 2021, as we approach 75 years since Partition.

1. Dancing in Pakistan: The most celebrated aspect of my life as a Kathak artist has been the opportunity to fulfil my desire to dance in Pakistan. Since 2015, I’ve been going multiple times each year to teach and perform throughout the country. Consistently welcomed into the beautiful cultural arts landscape of Pakistan, I hope to encourage an openness to dance, and Kathak, specifically, to bridge the divide between India and Pakistan through the arts. Also, to change the perception of Pakistanis in the US and elsewhere, by sharing my wonderful experiences, and continue to bring peace and light through my artistic efforts.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh is an internationally renowned performer, choreographer, instructor, and founder & artistic director of Noorani Dance. She is also a TEDx speaker, and host of her own podcast Heartistry.

Instagram: @farahyasmeenshaikh, Facebook: @ farahyasmeenshaikh & Twitter: @farahyshaikh