Kathak Dancer, Educator, Arts Activist
RACHNA NIVAS (@rachnanivas) is an artist, choreographer, educator, and activist in Indian classical dance, bringing a relevant voice to kathak. Deemed “charismatic” and “revelatory” by the San Francisco Chronicle and featured in 2021 by Dance Magazine, she is one of the most sought-after kathak artists and educators of her generation. A distinguished torchbearer of legendary master Pandit Chitresh Das’ treasured lineage .Rachna is a fierce and passionate performer, a technical powerhouse with masterful creativity and infectious charm. She is a founding artist and artistic director of Leela Dance Collective, a nationally-based women-led and artist-led collective, producing powerful works by forward-thinking trailblazers in kathak dance.
Rachna’s original works include her collaboration SPEAK, which brings together leading women in kathak and tap, bridging Indian and African-American art and heritage along with co-creators Rina Mehta, Michelle Dorrance, and Dormeshia. Some notable SPEAK tour stops have been Broad Stage in Los Angeles, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Mumbai Royal Opera House in India, Maui Arts and Cultural Center and University of Hawaii. Rachna is also co-creator of the large scale dance ballad, Son of the Wind, featuring 20 dancers and a live orchestra. Tour highlights include Ford Theater in Los Angeles, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and Bhramara Festival in Mumba, India. Her original solo work, Meera, was featured at the ODC Walking Distance Festival in San Francisco and at Salvatore Capezio Theater in New York City. Her original work Stir, choreographed for Leela Youth Dance Company, was featured at the WorldWideWomen’s Girls Festival. Her works have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, California Arts Council, and Zellerbach Family Foundation.
Prior to work with Leela Dance Collective, Rachna was principal dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company for 15 years and received two nominations for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award while performing worldwide in productions such as Shiva, Sita Haran, Pancha Jati, Darbar, Shabd and many more. Some notable venues she performed at with CDDC, include Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater in Los Angeles, Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts in Arizona, National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai, Birla Sabhagar in Kolkata, National Institute of Kathak Dance in New Delhi, and Shaniwarwada Festival in Pune, India.
Rachna was also instrumental in building the Chhandam School of Kathak in San Francisco (founded by Pandit Chitresh Das in 1980). Pandit Das himself appointed Rachna to be Co-Director of the Chhandam School in 2009 (along with Seibi Lee). Rachna worked tirelessly under Pandit Das to institutionalize curriculum, build infrastructure, train teachers, direct school-wide dance dramas, and flourish the school into one of the world’s leading and most influential academies of North Indian classical dance. Her passion and commitment to her own journey of the art and to building pride of Indian classical art amongst the South Asian community led her to emerge as a powerful role model amongst the Indian diaspora. In particular, Rachna has exceptional talent in teaching and training youth, making the art relevant, inspiring, and empowering to girls. Rachna was the successor to Pandit Das as Co-Artistic Director of the Chhandam School and Artistic Director of the Chhandam Youth Dance Company (now the Leela Youth Dance Company), shepherding excellence, leadership, and creative discovery amongst teens. Rachna has also taught numerous kathak workshops, after-school programs, and outreach events/residencies to communities of all backgrounds, including at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Treme Center of New Orleans, Conservatory of Arts in Miami, Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, LA Tap Fest at Debbie Allen Dance Academy, National Center for Kathak Dance in New Delhi, and many more.
Currently, Rachna is leading and directing Leela New York, the newest chapter of Leela Institute of Kathak, bringing the teachings of her lineage for the first time to the greater New York Metro area.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rachna is an Indian-American who always felt a deep connection and pride to her Indian roots, but not fully understanding its significance in early life. Her parents, Yogesh and Bina Nivas, both immigrants from India in the 1960s, raised her to follow her passions and believe in her convictions. She studied Environmental Biology and South Asian Studies at UC Berkeley and went on to pursue her Masters in Public Health. But it wasn’t until she stumbled upon a class of Pandit Chitresh Das, that she found her true calling in life and eventually decided to devote her full-time career as a dancer, performer, and educator. Today, her vision is to raise awareness of the rich history and philosophy of India through the art of kathak and for it to be a tool for empowerment, self-actualization, and joy.