Beacon Hill Dance Studio Fosters Safe Space for Diversity

by Brynn Tweeddale

Behind an inconspicuous white door on the top floor of El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill resides Culture Shakti.

Inside the studio, the traditional wooden floors and mirrors of a dance studio are accented by racks filled with dance costumes, Indian puppets or “kathputli” hanging from the walls, and an oil lamp or “diya” sometimes used for prayers in Hinduism.

A rack in the studio filled with dance costumes for Indian dance styles such as Bollywood and Belly Dance (Photo: Brynn Tweeddale)

Katrina Ji, the owner of Culture Shakti and Artistic Director of Rajasthani Gypsy Caravan, started the studio with the goal of making dance accessible to all types of people.

The studio, which just celebrated its ninth anniversary, offers classes in Bollywood, a form of dance most commonly known from Hindi films that combines classical Indian dance with hip hop, jazz, Latin dance, and other influences. They also teach more traditional forms of Indian dance such as Bhangra, a folk dance that celebrates the harvest festival in Punjab, the northern state of India, and belly dance, a style of dance that evolved as Gypsies traveled through India, Central, Asia, and the Middle East. A class in flamenco, a folk dance from southern Spain, is also offered.

Kathputli hanging on the walls of the Culture Shakti studio. These puppets are a tradition from Rajasthan, India (Photo: Brynn Tweeddale)

When Ji first opened the studio, there was confusion about how she knew and taught these dance styles even though she was not Indian.

“Dance is dance. It doesn’t matter what color you are to be able to dance,” she says. She fell in love with Bollywood through watching Indian films and has since immersed herself in Indian dance culture through traveling to India, training under Bollywood experts, and performing internationally with the Rajasthani Gypsy Caravan.

“The love for India and Indian culture is so clear in Katrina Ji’s lifestyle that it is touching,” said Sandip Soparrkar, a Bollywood choreographer who met Ji when she performed in a piece of his in Seattle, in a column he wrote about Ji. “She leaves no stone unturned for people to come to class so that she can spread the Indian culture into their lives.”

The name Culture Shakti acts as a play-on-words of “culture shock,” using the word “shakti,” meaning power or energy, as symbolism of what she hopes her studio can bring to others, she said.

Her goal is to break the common barriers people have about dance. A lot of people are afraid to start a dance class because they are not in shape or they do not know how to dance already, Ji said.

Students follow choreography during a dance class at Culture Shakti (Photo: Brynn Tweeddale)

“I want people to come as they are,” she says. “There isn’t really a look or a body type or anything that’s the right way to represent dance.”

Though having a welcoming space is important, the teachers who share Ji’s vision are equally important, as well. Gayle Staker, one of Culture Shakti’s teachers, has been exploring Bollywood for about 10 years. She began studying Bollywood dance because of a fascination with East Indian culture and has continued to spread her interest to others through teaching.

She teaches BollyHop, a fusion between Bollywood and hip hop dance, one of the most popular classes at the studio. Her BollyHop class incorporates warm up, technique, and aerobic movements with upbeat choreography tailored to her students.

“I try to have people think more about fun than learning something new,” she says. “I want people to enjoy moving their bodies and connecting with the music.”

She has been amazed by the diversity of people who have come to her class. She has had dancers as young as 14 as well as older grandparents, too. Lisa Manuel, one of the dancers in Staker’s class, tells me that her interest in Indian culture brought her to Culture Shakti. However, after spending two years at the studio, what kept her there is the people.

“It has become a community for me,” Manuel says. That’s what Ji said she was trying to accomplish.

“I’ve watched many friendships develop from here,” Ji says. “People have said when they come they just naturally feel at home.”

Lisa Manuel follows along during the intro of BollyHop. She has been attending Culture Shakti for about two years. (Photo: Brynn Tweeddale)

Another Culture Shakti student, Diane Knoll, described the studio as a safe space. She works three jobs and she described dancing as a form of self-care after a long workday. Many other Culture Shakti students come to the studio after work in order to relax.

While people come to Culture Shakti to dance, as Ji says, “It’s more than dance here.”

Video of Culture Shakti dance classes can be viewed here.

Culture Shakti (El Centro de la Raza, 2524 16th Ave S #311) offers regular classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights as well as Saturday mornings. They also hold two monthly events, one for Bollywood and one for belly dance. Additionally they have a performing group that attends community and corporate events in the Seattle area. Staker will be holding a Bollywood Ballroom Social Dance workshop on February 10 that is open to anyone interested in learning.

Featured image: Culture Shakti teacher Gayle Staker leads her BollyHop class in a warm up. Her class is held every Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. (Photo: Brynn Tweeddale)

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