What Does Ballet and Indian Classical Dance Have in Common?

As an Indian woman that grew up in Canada, I often imagined the lives of my ancestors and their faraway land full of majestic tigers, luscious mangoes and mouthwatering spices. Therefore, it was a heart-warming experience to speak with fellow Hamilton-born Indian classical and modern Dance Artist and Choreographer, Sumona Roy. Roy’s formal training is in Odissi Dance but it also encompasses the styles of Bharatnatyam, Manipuri, Kathak, Flamenco and Ballet. She has performed throughout North America and India and is the Dance Director and Choreographer of Shakti Fine Arts.

Mander: So I’m curious, why the Interest in Classical Indian dance, can you tell me about how that began?

Roy: I actually first started out as a ballerina. I started taking lessons when I was 3 ½ years old. When I was 8, my mom and dad thought I should do something a little more cultural but living in Hamilton back then there weren’t very many opportunities. Instead of driving all the way to Toronto, my parents found a local teacher in Burlington and so I started taking Indian dance classes with her. After a few months, she suggested I should try an Indian dance style called Odissi which is very related to ballet. A lot of the positioning and the physique of Odissi reflects ballet and because of my previous training in ballet, that’s how I got started.

Mander: It’s interesting that you got to combine two cultures that appear so different on the surface.

Roy: Haha yes, I was very upset when I had to quit ballet because my mom and dad said you can’t do everything. So after 6 months of Indian dancing and ballet as well as piano (she is also a classically trained pianist!) I ended up having to quit ballet. But it’s funny because within a year I totally forgot about it because I was so involved with the Indian dancing.

Mander: So now, how do you see Classical Indian dance fitting in with Hamilton’s diverse artistic landscape?

Roy: Throughout the years I’ve always presented Indian classical dance in Hamilton, but it’s one of those things that you present and it’s there but because the pieces are so long and intense it’s hard for an audience to take it in large doses. I think it’s gotten better over the years but I’ve also learned to transform it. I have now started doing improvisations of Canadian songs or songs that people recognize. For example this past July for Canada Day celebrations, I picked artists like Leonard Cohen, Rush, Sarah Mclaughlin and all these different types of Jazz artists. I choreographed pieces in classical dance forms to music by Canadian artists. So what I’ve been trying to do is expose people to classical Indian dance through non-traditional music. Also when I’m doing Indian classical dance it’s very important to claim where it comes from, and I think over the years, since the population is changing and it’s become very diverse in Hamilton, the classical dance form has sustained itself. When I grew up in Hamilton there wasn’t diversity. I went to a school where you could count the number of people of racialized backgrounds, and there were only a handful of us. Now there is such a huge presence, so I think any cultural dance can survive because we have the people here now.

Mander: Related to that, is there anything you’d like to share about the evolution of your work? Roy: My work is meant to connect to my family, friends and audience in a global sense. My focus is “Unity in Diversity”, the idea that we as humanity need to unite to become compassionate and empathetic as well as take the role of human developers.   As for why “Shakti” Fine Arts… SHAKTI symbolises the feminine principle, the activating power and energy. SHAKTI means energy, power, movement, change, and nature. Shakti Indian philosophy states that creative power has three parts: the power to know, willpower and the power to act. These three Shaktis can be thought of as intention, formulation and expression. In its essence, Shakti is the creative energy of the universe.

Mander: My last question is about your personal goals for the coming year related to you or your dance company?

Roy: In the next year, I would like to do more collaborations. I am very interested in dance dramas, so the acting and dancing perspective combined together which is a very popular Indian form of doing things. It involves telling a story through dance, kind of like a ballet, but with more dramatic acting. So hopefully more of that and collaborating with people in other fields, and disciplines of the arts.

I would also really like Hamilton to keep on growing, so I’m hoping to get more involved in Hamilton’s dance scene. Even though I was born and raised in Hamilton, right now I consider myself more of a Toronto-based Dance Artist but that’s because it’s basically where most of the opportunities are. I would love to see more opportunities in Hamilton and to be a part of that because I feel that there are so many people that I can help and reach through my art form to share information about social issues, social emotional intelligence, or just global messages of inclusiveness.

Mander: So let’s keep working to build the dance scene in Hamilton and hopefully we get there soon!

Picture: Jeremy Chan Photography

By: Jasmine Mander

Contact Sumona Roy: 

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