By Priyanka Jain, Toronto
Although De Souza was a Canadian born woman studying in India, she embraced her individuality. “I think I was respected and protected because I was in such an illustrious family.”
“I didn’t feel uncomfortable because I know I’ve been well trained, and I know I love doing what I do. A long time ago I decided I wasn’t going to dance Indian dance like an Indian,” said De Souza.
Renowned kathak dancer, teacher and choreographer Joanna De Souza was the first Canadian born artist to receive her Master’s degree in kathak dance through Prayag Sangit Samiti in Allahabad, India, and also placed top in the country. She now runs Chhandam Dance Company in her College St. studio located in the heart of Downtown Toronto.De Souza grew up in Whitby, Ontario, and started playing the piano, flute and guitar at a young age. “It was a pretty creative household. I have an aunt who’s an opera singer, and my mum is a really good painter, and she writes a lot,” said De Souza. Although De Souza did not dance as a child, she was a figure skater in her early teens.De Souza’s extra curricular activities ended when she left for Thunder Bay to study Forestry at Lakehead University. Although De Souza enjoyed the program, she felt “a little disillusioned”. After completing one year at Lakehead University, De Souza decided to move to British Columbia. Three years later, she took a trip to San Francisco with some friends from BC. De Souza was 21-years-old when she first discovered kathak. She stumbled upon a performance at Fisherman’s Wharf in Marine County, San Francisco. After the performance, De Souza spoke with the dancers, and they encouraged her to come and watch a class. The next day De Souza went to the class and the dance teacher, Pt. Chitresh Das told her to stand at the back and participate, instead of just watching.“It was everything I was looking for; it was very musical and rhythmic. I really toyed with the idea of studying dance, but I didn’t know what kind.”From that day, De Souza decided to stay in San Francisco, and pursue kathak under Pt. Chitresh Das, who remains her guru. “I planned a short trip to California, and ended up staying almost nine years,” said De Souza.Because De Souza was not an American citizen, she had to get an under-the-table job to support her dance. In 1981, De Souza married Pt. Chitresh Das’ brother, Ritesh Das. He was a tabla player who occasionally played for his brother’s company.As neither De Souza nor Das were American citizens, they both moved to India, and stayed with Das’ parents. De Souza’s mother-in-law encouraged De Souza to further pursue kathak in an academic form. “Ritesh’s mother said to me ‘you’re going to go back to Canada. You’re really good at what you do, but you’re not Indian. You need to build yourself some credentials so people take you seriously’,” said De Souza.From then, De Souza pursued her studies under the guidance of her guru, who was now her brother-in-law, and her father-in-law, who was well-educated in music theory. De Souza was part of a reputable family, as Das’ parents were well respected within the community. De Souza had a lot of support from Das’ family, and described the process as “almost being homeschooled.” She gained the practical experience from her guru, and learnt the theoretical aspect from her father-in-law.It was intense preparation for De Souza’s Master’s Degree final exam, and after months of practice, De Souza finally had her routine perfected, and to the criteria standards. However, just before De Souza was about to start her routine, the examiners told her to shorten it. “I had to speed everything up, follow the traditional form of a kathak solo, and still maintain codified form,” said De Souza. De Souza had to edit her routine within seconds, and make sure she still danced the correct kathak form.“They were asking me all this stuff and I was thinking in my mind that it was because I was doing so poorly. When I came out of the examination room I had a total meltdown,” said De Souza.One of the examiners came out and saw De Souza crying, and reassured her that the only reason the exam lasted three hours was because they enjoyed watching her so much.De Souza received her Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in kathak and stood first in all of India. “It was a bit of a challenge for me to put the stuff that I loved doing, and that I had a practical knowledge of, into something that gave me a little slip of paper. I did enjoy it though.”Although De Souza was a Canadian born woman studying in India, she embraced her individuality. “I think I was respected and protected because I was in such an illustrious family.”“I didn’t feel uncomfortable because I know I’ve been well trained, and I know I love doing what I do. A long time ago I decided I wasn’t going to dance Indian dance like an Indian,” said De Souza.After completely her Master’s degree, De Souza and Das decided to move to Toronto. “I was afraid to start teaching on a full time basis, because I thought it would become work for me, and kill my passion,” said De Souza.Upon arriving to Toronto, De Souza began teaching kathak once a week. Over time, word spread about De Souza, and soon she was in demand everywhere. “I loved it and still do. And that was something I was afraid about.”Seeing happiness in her dancers is what satisfies De Souza the most. “I think when people can feel good about themselves, and enjoy themselves, and feel a little release of pressure. I don’t care if you’re a student, a worker, a mother, a teenager; the amount of stress that is on people’s lives these days is really over the top,” said De Souza.De Souza said that although kathak is not at its prime in Toronto, it is definitely growing. “The thing about kathak that is so neat is that it is a solo form, and it’s improvised by the most part. It can be very interpretive.”De Souza continues to teach kathak at Chhandam Dance Company, located at 355A College St. “I hope to continue to bring a good level of kathak and good technique. I want to leave a mark where people feel kathak is a beautiful art form,” said De Souza.Chhandam Dance Company has performed at various Toronto events, and also collaborates with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.With her extensive kathak training, De Souza motivates her students, and passes on her knowledge with passion and dedication.“I remember what I got sitting on my father’s knee, and him just saying to me ‘you can be anything you want to be, you just have to want it and it will happen for you’.