“Art is what comes from within”

Imani Gaston is a solo dance artist, choreographer, fitness and dance instructor. She has danced with Taurus Broadhurst Dance Company, Bebe Miller, Sabela Grimes, Abby Zbikowski, in “Descent into the Water” choreographed by Dayton Contemporary Dance company's Crystal Perkins, and with Next Reflex Dance Company and Errant Dance Company. She has BFA in Dance from The Ohio State University after graduating from the Dance Department at Duke Ellington School for the Arts and City Dance Conservatory.

She has also trained at BalletMet, Jones Haywood Dance School, University of California Los Angeles, under the tutelage of Irene Tassadembo and others in Burkina Faso, and under the tutelage of Kaustavi Sarkar. Trained in Ballet, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Modern Dance (Horton technique), Contemporary and Odissi styles, she incorporates influences from the various genres in her teaching style and choreography.

She has taught to people of all ages at City Dance, Columbus Refugee and Immigration Services, King Arts Complex, The Phillips School, The Highwood Theatre, and Wuhan University (Wuhan, China). She has choreographed for musical productions Cabaret, Hairspray, and Musical of Musicals with The Highwood Theatre, for internationally competitive Bollywood team OSU Nashaa, and for her solo project Delineation in conjunction with The Ohio State University, which explored the influences of Odissi and Contemporary to create a new movement aesthetic.

How did dance become such an integral part of your life?

I started with step-dancing. I was on a Step Team in Middle School.  The teacher who taught step got broken leg so she couldn't teach any more. My mother and aunt put me in a dance class. I started with jazz and I instantly loved it.  The next year I added hip hop and ballet. I joined a junior company at City Dance.  There I got to study jazz, ballet, modern dance, and hip hop. That’s where I was introduced to Bollywood. We had a teacher (Vishal Kanoi) come in from India who gave workshops in the summer. I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where I intensively studied West African dance, Ballet, Pointe and Modern dance (Horton) technique. I auditioned for The Ohio State University Dance Department obtained my BFA.  While I was studying contemporary dance there I took a class called "Indian Classical Dance" which turned out to be Odissi. I loved it. The teacher was Kaustavi Sarkar and I have studied with her for three years.

What makes Odissi special?

It was so different. Odissi comes from a rich history, I enjoyed learning about all the stories, the Gita Govinda, the language of the actual dance was difficult and the technique is rigorous, but I love it.

What were the initial challenges?

The initial challenge was the technique. I have been brought up with ballet, modern dance, contemporary...all of these are very straight, aligned vertically. There is a language barrier while learning the songs that makes it a little difficult to learn. When I started learning the abhinaya, a lot of the facial expressions were/are culturally coded. Learning those was difficult.

Do you believe music/dancing connects with a higher being?

Definitely.  I had a moment while learning Odissi when it became spiritual for me. I was really intensively studying Odissi. It became a problem for my knees. I was doing ballet at the same time. My ballet teacher was concerned about me continuing to do Odissi because of my injuries. But I wouldn't stop. I had to explain the spiritual connection.

How do you see the Idea of fusing Indian and western dance forms?

It is a double edged sword. It can be beautiful but you have to intensely study. If you don’t know western techniques or Indian techniques, there's no point in using it. You can’t just throw things together. Otherwise you're pushing few different movements into the technique you are doing anyway. There has to be a thought process behind fusion. Having a thought process and being cognizant to culture is important. 

More and more foreigners are appreciating and learning India's classical dance forms and 'want to learn our Indian culture. What are your thoughts?

I see lot of European and Russian dancers learning Odissi dance. I don’t see too many Americans learning Odissi technique with the exception of Indian Americans.

Could you enlighten our readers about BollyX classes?

BollyX is a dance fitness class. It’s a 50 minute cardio class. The basic premise is to have fun while doing exercise. We incorporate Bhangra, Western Indian folk dances and Bollywood style. It mixes all the styles and brings it to an international audience.

Are more and more westerners taking interest in Bollywood dance?

Bollywood is not necessarily one thing in itself. Older Bollywood was a mixture of classical style...maybe some bhangra, hip movement and big facial expressions. Newer Bollywood has started to incorporate hip hop and jazz. In terms of westerners taking to Bollywood I think it is a double edged sword. It's good to become more worldly, but some people take to Bollywood as something exotic and they don’t delve into the deeper culture. They just want to learn superficially.

Please share about your experience in Kolkata?

The performance at the American Centre, Kolkata was amazing. Not just that show, but the workshops I got to teach  to do with Bouyant Arts at Sparsh Studio and  the workshops with ACCESS ( an underprivileged kids group) at the US Consulate was special. I got to collaborate with local Artists Snehasish Das, Sayan Debnath, and Dipanjana Dutta to create an hour long show. It was indeed a cultural collaboration! Meeting different people and being able to share ideas, dance and energy was an unforgettable experience!

Your upcoming projects?

I am doing some directing and choreographing for my theatre company Highwood theatre-I do kids productions, teenage productions and also do some outreach for them. I am also planning to choreograph with my company, Errant Movement. We're doing a show on the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, so I'm excited to have those conversations.

What advice would you give to other aspiring dancers?

Work hard! Work hard in terms of technique, body conditioning and listen to every single bit of advice. However, don’t lose yourself. Know who you are, know what you stand for and know that some advice not necessarily be the best advice for you. Art is what comes from within. The choices you make, finding your voice. These things make you an artist. Never let someone mute your voice.


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