Asian Music and Dance

Exams on the Menu

Champion exam-taker Parbati Chaudhury shares her experience of dance exams from first grades up to the most advanced professional qualification offered by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD). 

Through childhood tears to adult enjoyment of working with musicians in the course of being examined, Parbati affirms that ultimately, the ISTD syllabus and examination system is empowering. 

When one pictures a dance audition, the tail-end scenes from films such as Flashdance and Save the Last Dance come to mind: the dancer’s virtuosity jolts the bored-stiff panellists, leading to inspired head-bopping and quietly impressed smiles. Dance exams, on the other hand, hardly conjure up that same life-changing sense of occasion. However, as someone who recently completed the final Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing’s Vocational Graded Examination in Kathak (yes, quite the mouthful), I can assure you that the experience is actually quite exhilarating.

“…I needed further persuasion…”

My teacher, Urja Desai Thakore, encouraged me to take the ISTD exams when I first started training with her. Initially I was not keen, having completed the three-year Diploma and two-year Post-Diploma at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I fared well in those exams but remembered, as a child, how my nerves led me to choke and cry; and then as a complacent teenager revising my theory notes while my parents drove me across town to the Bhavan, asking if I felt ‘well-prepared’. Now as an adult and without the compulsion of parental pressure, I needed further persuasion to take even more exams.  

Fast-forward four years and to the blank page of my emergent professional dance career: my teacher becomes pregnant and needs a teaching assistant. I have an appetite for teaching, having volunteered at a first-aid charity in my late teens, and had looked into secondary school-teaching as a career option. So when Urja asked whether I wanted to develop this side of my new-born career, I was genuinely drawn to her proposition. 

I initially shadowed and learned an invaluable amount from just observing Urja’s sharp eye. I quickly felt the need to re-examine my dance, becoming far more mindful of the reasoning and consistency of my technique and of the layers that can be explored in any particular movement. As I began actively assisting and eventually covering, I realised the weight of responsibility attached to the role. This sense of duty motivated me to look more closely into the examination system through which a majority of these students wanted to pass. I then reconsidered the exams and began the process of dusting off those old theory notes.

The Vocational Graded Examinations in Kathak comprise Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2 (and are preceded by Grades 1‒6). For comparison, these qualifications range from the equivalent of a GCSE (Intermediate) up to a higher level 4 Diploma – the first year of an undergraduate degree (Advanced 2). The accreditation of the final two vocational grades can be used to attain professional qualifications such as the Diploma in Dance Instruction (DDI) and the Diploma in Dance Education (DDE) that can be delivered by Approved Dance Centres (ADCs) or academic qualifications such as the BA (Hons) in Professional Practice in the Arts (BAPP) affiliated with Middlesex University. I was allowed to enter this series at the Intermediate grade, progressing onto Advanced 1 and finally Advanced 2. I feel that I have been able to proficiently consolidate my practical and theoretical knowledge as both a young dancer and junior teacher. 

The syllabus is well thought through, with a logical progression of knowledge, understanding and application over both artistic and physical capabilities. I particularly like the emphasis on safe dance practice and the specified ancillary skills that take one out of their comfort zone – I can now just about play theka (the accompaniment pattern) on tabla!

“These exams are the closest I have come to a live solo recital.”

The aspect I actually relished during the exam series was the live musical accompaniment. These exams are the closest I have come to a live solo recital. From Grade 5 onwards, a tabla player and a lehra (musical phrase) keeper – sitar, harmonium or sarangi player – need to be organised by the candidates or their teachers and marks are awarded for presentation, enjoyment and rapport with the musicians, demonstrating (to myself also) that I can confidently develop and play within this relationship. The energy created is wonderfully stimulating. Finding these ‘energisers’, however, is, ironically, draining. There seems to be quite the pay gap between professional dancers and musicians (lucky them!), so it is difficult to cover their fees at a rate that is both affordable and fair. I have been turned down by many because the fees have been too low, despite meeting Equity standards, but have also been able to work with some very talented, understanding and supportive players. 

Grumbles among teachers are common with regard to particular specifications not seeming necessary and qualms about a lack of coverage of other features of the form. This is understandable but expected, considering the breadth of gharana practised in kathak, with further variations as dancer-teachers tend to gradually develop their individual style and interests. Ultimately, I feel that the existence of the syllabus is empowering and that it offers a pathway towards somehow emulating our own dear and respected teachers. 

Now, for any potential eager exam beavers, here’s some advice:

Become very familiar with the syllabus:

  • This seems obvious but too many candidates do not spend enough time on this.
  • Pay attention to the language used in the specifications from one grade or level to the next to understand the progression.

It is easier said than done, especially with various competing commitments, but do prepare as much as possible. The reward is definitely in the practice and research.

Good luck!



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