Asian Music and Dance

What is Riyaaz? Part 1

Kathak dancer and choreographer Sonia Sabri opens her new series for Young Pulse.

All students training in dance or music are always told by their respective teachers or gurus: “You must do your riyaaz!” I have been and continue to be on the receiving end of such passionate teachers and gurus and now I am also the one who exclaims at her students to do the same. Now as I teach a growing number of younger students from an evolving British Asian culture, I have to remind myself to check whether students actually understand what riyaaz is.

Riyaaz means to practise and is derived from the Urdu word riyaazat which means to dedicate oneself physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally to achieving a goal. It is not only applied to dance or music but to any subject. This is the equivalent of the Sanskrit term sadhana. In order to do anything well, one must do riyaaz; whether it is boxing, drawing, cooking, driving a car or meditating. It is to dedicate time, energy and a carefully-considered approach, aiming towards perfection (fulfilling the vision of one’s guru). 

I think occasionally this can be muddled with rehearsal or simply doing an item ten times over. Riyaaz and rehearsal are actually two ends of the spectrum. 

Riyaaz is the focus on development and rehearsal is the focus on the planning and delivery of what one has developed. In dance and music terms, it is about learning and executing the technique of a subject. For example, in kathak the first goal of footwork is to stamp the feet to achieve a tap-like sound. One’s guru will teach the method and the student will need to practise/riyaaz the method many times until the sound is achieved and the technique fully understood. The attitude during this phase is crucial: there’s no point in trying to do footwork while texting on the phone or watching TV! 

The rehearsal phase would be about the use of the footwork – for example, as part of a composition or group dance – and how to illustrate it, potentially for an audience.

I think my riyaaz these days consists of nagging others to do it! 

In the next issue we’ll look at the importance of riyaaz and what it could include.



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