Known for her technical expertise, captivating expressions, and keen ability for storytelling through dance, Kanika Chadda Gupta began training in both Hindustani vocal music (under Smt. Shashi Verma) and Kuchipudi Indian classical dance at the Kalinidhi Dance School (under Smt. Anuradha Nehru, disciple of Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam) at age five. She was a member of Pooja Narang’s Bollywood Axion troupe and performed aboard Masala cruises where she journeyed to Nova Scotia, Europe, and the Caribbean. While living in India, Kanika trained in Bollywood, contemporary, and hip-hop at Shiamak Davar International. She has performed in dance dramas including Rabindranath Tagore’s “Chandalika” and “Ramayana” and has graced the stage at the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, National Geographic Museum, Alvin Ailey, and Museum of Art and Design.
We Interviewed Kanika
1. What is your dance background?
I trained in Kuchipudi Indian classical dance for 15 years. There’s actually an interesting story about how I started. When I was five years old (and to this day!), my mom helped run India School, a hub for language arts, dance, and music in our hometown in Maryland. She couldn’t help but notice that parents were enrolling their young girls in more popular dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathak, not Kuchipudi. She felt sorry for my Guruji and reassured her, “Don’t worry. My daughter will be your first student.” I’m so glad she encouraged me to be different since I grew to love the art form for its expressive nature and fluidity.
Post-college, I was inspired to travel and experimented with new styles including Kathak, Bollywood fusion, salsa, and hip-hop. I had the opportunity to work in India for a few years where I took classes at Bollywood choreographer Shiamak Davar’s academy. I often found myself comparing my traditional classical training to commercially driven Bollywood choreography and have come to realize that I enjoy embracing the best of both worlds!
2. Tell us about your first dance performance.
I remember that day vividly. It was my first recital at India School and I was six at the time. I had already read poems with my Hindi class and sang patriotic songs with my vocal music class. My parents knew I was most excited about my dance performance. I wore a red costume with a gold border, temple jewelry, and fresh flowers in my hair. I was the youngest and shortest in my class so I was first in line when we arranged ourselves by height order backstage (needless to say, things have changed!) I said a prayer silently to myself, and once I took the stage, sheer excitement came over me. I was smiling ear to ear the whole time. My Guruji was especially proud since she knew me as this reticent child in class, and I had completely transformed in front of an audience. I still pray before each performance. It helps me find my center and gives me a sense of peace.
3. Why SA?
Sa is such a special part of my week, my heart, and my life. Though all the dancers have careers and families and other commitments, we are devoted to dance. We value what dance has given us and we want to impart that with the world. I love the unique bond we share and I especially appreciate that we represent various dance backgrounds. This allows us to challenge each other to learn new nritta [rhythmic variations], nritya [mudras (hand gestures) and abhinaya (expressions)], and natya [the story behind each performance] at each rehearsal. The amalgamation is absolutely magical.
My mother is the most selfless woman I know, and without her, I wouldn’t have been exposed to dance and the arts. It’s as though she knew all along that these passions would sustain through my adulthood. My nani taught me to appreciate storytelling. I would listen attentively when she told me tales about Krishna or her personal accounts about Partition. I think she had a hunch that I’d grow up to pursue journalism.
5. Will you be dancing at 80?
I hope to be teaching at that age. I had the opportunity to train with revered Kuchipudi maestro Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. He sadly passed away two years ago at age 82; he taught until his last breath.
6. If you were stuck in a room and could only do one dance move over and over again what would it be?
I wouldn’t be able to stick to just one move. I’d be singing and choreographing and spinning, until I’d tire myself out. Then I’d take a nap!
7. One word that describes dance to you.
Compassion. I’m very empathetic and care so much about the people in my life. When they feel pain, I end up crying. When they feel joy, I’m laughing along with them. Dance is a means to express these raw emotions; they’re what make us human.