Interview with Ajna Dance Company’s Minila Shah: “People feel very vulnerable when they dance”

On Wednesday (July 11th), we kick off our Waterside Summer Event Series with the riveting choreography of Ajna Dance Company.

Beautiful Indian Dancers in bright green skirts - Ajna Dance Company - Performs at Waterside in NYC July 11th

We spoke with Ajna’s Founder and Artistic Director, Minila Shah, about what to expect from the show!

We’re very excited about having you perform! Can you describe your style of dance?

What we do is a blend of classical Indian dance – there’s nine different styles of classical dance that come from India. We blend that with a number of different kinds of Indian folk dance. We also include Bollywood, which is really more the music that comes from the Indian film industry – it’s more mainstream and generally more upbeat. Our dance style is really a combination of classical, folk, and Bollywood.

That sounds amazing.

What do you think is the most intriguing aspect of your choreography?

That it blends a number of different styles – and that it’s very relatable. The music and the movement, it’s artistic, it’s graceful, it’s something that people who aren’t from the culture or don’t speak the language can still very much relate to.

Tell us what you’re  preparing for the Waterside show’s audience? I understand that it will include a chance for the audience to learn some steps and join in?

Yes – we’re going to offer our audience a glimpse of those three different styles, as they relate to Bollywood dance. We’ll start with a Rajasthan folk dance and we’ll include Garba, a Gujarati folk dance style.

Our second piece is semi-classical and more contemporary performance and so we’ll be drawing from a classical dance style called Kathak, and also including some Bharatnatyam, a South Indian classical dance, but it’s also Bollywood music, so it has a more contemporary feel to it.

Our final dance piece is a high energy Bollywood dance number that’s more typical of what you might think of when you think of Bollywood dancing: Lots of movement, music, hips, smiles, really upbeat tempo.

We’ll end with a bang! Then we’re going to teach our audience some steps.

And throughout this, we’re going to have a couple of sets of live Indian instrumental performances. We’ll have Tabla and the Sitar, a string instrument, and a big drum called a Dhol.

Wonderful!

Now, obviously, you’re a professional dancer – but what about people who are convinced they simply can’t dance or people who don’t often dance? You do teach dance, so how do you convey dance moves to people who don’t dance for a living?

So much of dance is confidence, and letting go – because people feel very vulnerable when they dance. If you’re not confident, you feel shy and you feel like you’re being judged. It’s partly a mindset. How I help as a teacher is really breaking things down so they’re simple and easy to understand and easy to follow, so all of a sudden it doesn’t feel so overwhelming.

You’re just bending your knees and you’re just moving your shoulders. The beauty of this music is it’s so intuitive and it’s so easy to connect to and it’s very uplifting. It makes people want to dance.

Even if you feel like you’re not good at it, if you’d like to dance, this is a great place to start. How we move feels very natural and easy.

What’s your particular strength as a teacher?

I think people should feel comfortable and connect with you as a teacher. It’s as much about your personality and how personable you are, as it is about how good of a dancer you are. You could be a great dancer, but it doesn’t mean you’re a great teacher. So connecting with your students, making them feel comfortable and they’re in a safe place. For me, explaining things verbally and really giving metaphors helps a lot.

For example, I might tell you to imagine you’re picking an apple off a tree or shoveling: Something that they can understand – an everyday activity. Breaking things down, being very detailed in terms of instructions, giving easy metaphors – and then just making people feel comfortable and allowing them to have a little fun with it.

What is your favorite part of entertaining?

It’s the energy, the connection with the people you’re dancing for. Once you’re on stage, it’s like you’re not thinking about anything else. You’re in the moment and you’re sharing your craft and you can see people watching you, really connecting with what you’re doing, whether they understand the words or not. It’s that human connection with people.

Have you ever been to Waterside?

We actually did a residency this spring and summer at the British International School of New York, so I have and it’s beautiful.

You perform in big spaces all the time, but have you ever performed right on the East River?

I think this is a first!

Let’s say I’d like to get in the mood for your show, listen to some songs… What would you recommend?

There’s a style of music called Bhangra, and that’s a folk dance from the north. The music has become really mainstream. It’s very popular in the United Kingdom and Canada and the US. It has a very similar backbeat to hip hop.

If you just type in Bhangra song on YouTube or Spotify or Apple music, you’ll come up with a whole host of songs.

As for Bollywood – to narrow it down, there’s lots of premade top “10 Bollywood songs of 2017” – searching for that would be a great place to start.

Perfect. We’ll get in the zone!

What do you love about New York? You weren’t born here, which is a lot of people’s experience of New York. What do you enjoy most?

The city just has an energy that’s unmatched. I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve lived in a lot of different places. The energy and the people of New York are incomparable. People say that New Yorkers aren’t friendly, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I think there’s a sense of community here. You see your neighbors, you see your local business people, you have relationships with them.

I think it’s a special place. It’s diverse in so many different ways. It’s the best city in the world.

What do you love about Indian dance and music? What inspires your passion for it?

My parents immigrated from India in the 70s. It’s a part of the culture that I really connected to, having been brought up in Canada and the US. It was an easy way to connect to my culture and as I got older. I realized how many other people not from the culture were inspired or interested, or thought it was really fun or beautiful.

For me, Indian dance was what I was trained in. It’s part of my heritage, so I feel a special connection to it. It transcends boundaries of culture and race and gender. Dance, in general, brings people together.

Register for Minila’s Waterside show with Ajna Dance Company on Eventbrite.

You can follow Ajna on social media on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube.

Ajna will be performing on the 11th with these musicians:

Table & Sitar (Musicians) from Taalim

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Jay Gandhi, a sitar player based in New York City, has been a disciple of Pandit Pushpinder Bhardwaj of the Maihar School popularized by Pandit Ravi Shankar for the last 11 years. Having performed musical fusions as well as Hindustani Classical renditions in India and the US, Jay is as much an advocate of cross-cultural collaboration as he is of musical traditionalism. When not playing music, Jay is a student and researcher at the at Columbia University’s Department of Psychology.

Musician Mike Lukshis - Performs at Waterside in NYC July 11th - with Ajna Dance Company

Mike Lukshis, a native resident of New Jersey, has dedicated his life to absorbing and spreading the art of tabla. For the last 10 years, he has been studying and living with Pt. Divyang Vakil in a Gurukul style of training. In addition to his accomplishments as a solo and accompanying tabla player in the US and abroad, Mike is a full time teacher and manager of the Taalim School of Indian Music in New Jersey and New York City.

Musician Mike Lukshis - Performs at Waterside in NYC July 11th - with Ajna Dance Company

Dholi (Drummer) – Raj Daffu
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Rajpal Daffu, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. He got his first dhol in 2000 and had the honor and privilege of learning from Ron Lotta. Raj moved to moved to New York City and and accompanied and played alongside Ustad Jarnail Singh, New York Based dhol player at countless events. Raj has successfully performed at events across the globe in Kenya, Jamaica, Mexico, The Bahamas, Chile and Belize.

Musician Rajpal Daffu - Performs at Waterside in NYC July 11th - with Ajna Dance Company