From performing solo routines in her parents’ living room at the age of three to now exhibiting her dance skills worldwide, Tara Catherine Pandeya has certainly come a long way.
Born to an Indian American father from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, and a German American mother from Marin County, Calif., Pandeya is a second-generation dancer, teacher and choreographer who hypnotizes spectators at every venue with her flawless movements and graceful twirls.
Pandeya, a trained dancer in many forms, including Bharatanatyam, traditional Middle Eastern, modern, tap and ethno-contemporary, now specializes in dance from the regions of Central Asia: Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, East Turkestan, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
The Indian American danseuse, who toured the world dancing for Cirque du Soleil, has choreographed solo works as well as numerous group pieces as a guest choreographer for several dance companies based in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Ballet Afsaneh, the Presidio Performing Arts Foundation, Danceversity, and the Tajikistan-based dance company, Padida Theater.
Her solo work was commissioned by the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 2010 and 2015, and in 2016, UNESCO commissioned another of her solo cross-cultural piece in Tajikistan. Needless to say, glowing reviews followed.
Pandeya wants to employ dance as a tool to build dialogue, interest, tolerance and mutual understanding between the Eastern and Western cultures.
The mission of her life, she said, is to expose broader audiences to these art forms and make them appreciate them.
“The stories that are being told are being filtered through one lens,” Pandeya told India-West. “Although I’m an outsider to the region, sometimes it’s also a double-sided education: educating western audiences that there are classical forms, and audiences of the diaspora from Central Asia that these dance forms and art traditions are worth saving.”
Pandeya noted that since a majority of these dance forms are in “Islamic countries,” people either don’t see any value in patronizing them or haven’t seen them in very high-level productions.
“It’s like a beautiful visual textbook for cultural heritage and collective world heritage that is vital and crucial,” she said, “especially now with the xenophobia and Islamophobia, for people to be educated inside their own community and outside of it.”
Having practiced the Indian dance forms for a considerable period, Pandeya also believes that there is so much artistic and cultural overlap between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, an area that has never been explored. She said at some point she plans to pursue a Ph.D. to look into these cross-cultural roots.
“Not only because I’m obsessed with the styles, and artistically they are interesting, but also because I feel finding a part of our collective history and finding these shared intersecting points also builds cultural bridges, and tolerance, that when people get too pundit about classical forms or they are unaware of other countries and regions which have very sophisticated, highly technical classical forms,” Pandeya told India-West.
Pandeya toured the world as a principal dancer for Cirque du Soleil for five years, beginning in 2010, a feat not many can boast of. Jumping on a plane every Sunday since she was discovered online, she went on to deliver a whopping 1,500 blockbuster performances that spanned across five continents and 170 cities.
While in the beginning she was cast in the role of “Oceane” (the goddess of water) in the company’s production, “Dralion,” where she performed a mix of modern and contemporary dance with flourishes of Indian dance, over the course of her journey, she quickly rose through the ranks.
She stepped up to assume the role of the tour’s dance captain, created choreography, ran rehearsals, and became the key Pilates instructor for the injured acrobats. Not just that, Pandeya also organized dance workshops in South Africa where she worked with children with HIV, and also spent time in Lebanon, working with Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Undertaking these trips as the tour’s social outreach liaison, she said, was very fulfilling and made her realize her true calling.
Though she loved performing for Cirque du Soleil, Pandeya said, she dances to connect with the people around her, but felt very “disconnected and insular” in that position, and realized it was time to move on.
And she would know, since dancing flows in her veins. Her mother, she said, had a great love and obsession for India.
“She did a Sanskrit degree at UC Berkeley and my grandfather thought that she was insane,” quipped Pandeya. “He didn’t relate to it but she has dedicated 45 years of her life to Bharatanatyam.”
Her father worked with BBC and later as an advisor to the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He met her mother – a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, who now runs a dance school, Saraswati Kala Nilaya School of Indian Dance, in Marin County – in Los Angeles.
And Pandeya has literally been dancing since she was in her mother’s womb, who danced until she was six or seven months pregnant with Tara.
“When people ask me when I started dancing, I don’t have a memory of not being in movement,” Pandeya told India-West. “People would ask my parents, ‘What do you plan to do tonight? They would say, ‘We are going to stay home and watch Tara.’”
Her first Indian classical dance lessons begun at the age of three. She continued with the dance form but later switched to tap and contemporary.
“My body was right for the style of Indian dancing, very flexible, but somehow my heart wasn’t in it,” recalled Pandeya. “I think it is a gorgeous style.”
When she was 14, Pandeya said, she became fascinated with the miniature paintings of Central Asian dancers she saw in museums and so she started seeking out musicians and artists of the diaspora. But to immerse herself in the actual environment that these art forms have sprung from, she traveled to Tajikistan. The plan was to stay for a month, but at her teacher’s insistence, she ended up staying for a whole year.
During her time in Tajikistan in 2015, Pandeya participated in a televised dance competition and won the title of “Queen of Tajik Dance.” She also became the first Westerner to ever perform with the country’s National Ensemble.
In 2017, Pandeya was selected by the Forecast Forum – an international platform for pioneering ideas – to produce a one-woman piece that will premiere in October in Berlin, Germany. She was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller’s Asian Cultural Council for a cross-cultural dance project in Pakistan.
Her new piece in Berlin, in which she collaborates with Paradise Sorouri, Afghanistan’s first female rapper, centers around issues like gender inequality.
“Things that I’ve faced first hand as a single foreign woman living alone and pursuing my dance career,” Pandeya told India-West. “I have always been interested in promoting the visibility of the region but I haven’t always been as upfront about behind the hardships as a woman navigating some of that culturally…Also facing the feeling of being the ‘other.’”
Pandeya excitedly also shared that a Bollywood filmmaker has approached her to provide choreography for a film that will be based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She added that it was too early to share the details.
But life in the dance world hasn’t always been so rosy for her. Pandeya recalled the time when she was disenchanted and had almost given up on dance.
“I felt disillusioned by the politics and the cattiness of the dance world and the competitiveness,” she told India-West. “It was very toxic and it wasn’t a very good thing for my self-esteem.”
But her 65-year-old teacher in Tajikistan steered her strongly back on the path of dance.
“She didn’t speak English but what she said translates to, ‘You are spitting in God’s face if you are rejecting the gift he has given you, if you abandon your dancing,’” Pandeya stated.
Pandeya said she understands that dancing is an unstable career path but she has danced her whole life and would continue to do so.