The classical Indian dance of Kathak was historically an all-male dance, where the male dancer played the male and female roles.
Nonetheless, unlike other male dance traditions, in Kathak, the male dancer impersonates the female with the audience’s absolute awareness and in full view of his natural male appearance. The Kathak dancer does not perform his female role through “feminized” movements or makeup or costume.
Instead, he conveys his gender through facial expressions—but not stereotypically feminine ones—imagining his character’s reaction to her particular context. Here is a recognition of the fact that all human beings contain within them male and female principles. In this way, the Kathak dancer transcends gender.1
To see a dancer like Askash Odedra, a British-Asian classically trained Kathak dancer who now experiments with modern dance, is to see grace in motion. Grace is a quality we typically associate with women, but few women could ever touch Odedra’s grace.
But when did grace become exclusively feminine?
In the Western balletic tradition, the Romantic era marked the transition of dance from a means of moral instruction (where men had much to offer) to a display of technical virtuosity. Dance became a spectacle, consisting “of nothing more than the art of displaying beautiful shapes [the ballerina en pointe] in graceful positions and the development from them of lines agreeable to the eye.”2
In other words, the beautiful female dancer was offering herself up for erotic consumption by the lascivious male. What role could a virile man possibly have in such a passive art form?
The rhetoric turned in the 1970s, when hyper-masculine dancers like Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov rose to prominence. Suddenly, journalists and critics were extolling the athleticism and strength required to be a dancer of the highest rank.
Outside the classical tradition, Hollywood produced dancing stars like Gene Kelly, but he “wore a shirt, pants, and a tie and danced like a man!”3
According to the anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, human beings are a weakly dimorphic species—that is, there isn’t much visible differentiation between the male and the female of the species—and so we invent and adopt values, movements and mannerisms to gender ourselves.4
The dancer/ choreographer Mandeep Raikhy, brings home the absurdity of the gendering process through his work A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae. It is through the repetition of certain actions that we signal to the world our gender alignment, but really, who gets to say what those actions must be? It’s pretty much true that gender roles are for the most part, compulsory performances, ones that none of us choose, but which each of us is forced to negotiate.5
Gendering leads to the division of labour, and in the world of dance, this translates into the female dancer whose (softly yielding) body is on display while the assertive male is a doer: a choreographer, a manager or an artistic director.
Coming back to Kathak, it’s not surprising that when a dance form no longer centers on the female body on display, it opens up other avenues for exploration of the feminine.
As for myself, I want my son to dance, but I’m not progressive enough to go the distance. I’m trying to convince him to take up Kathakali instead.