Shall We Dance?

Shall We Dance?

He lights are out as he waits in a corner of the studio,straining to check his image in the mirrored wall.

He lights are out as he waits in a corner of the studio,straining to check his image in the mirrored wall. After adjusting the length of the red choga — which,along with a pair of leggings and a beaded belt,completes the ensemble — he pulls his curls back. The spotlight comes on and taking that as cue,Anurag Upadhyay steps into it,accompanied by two female colleagues in similar ensembles. Soon,the trio begins to move in tandem with the instrumental piece. Their red outfits swish in the dark room as the dancers combine a series of sharp yet elegant jumps,twirls and mudras,with complicated footwork,to deliver a contemporary dance performance.

An engineering graduate from NIT Warangal,Upadhyay was earning a five-figure salary at a multinational company in Bangalore until two years ago. However,this Ujjain resident had always nursed the dream to make it big in Mumbai’s glamour world,which the promising career in engineering did little to quell. So he gave up that life and is currently pursuing a diploma course in contemporary dance with Sumeet Nagdev Dance Arts (SNDA),Mumbai,while simultaneously training students of other batches in the discipline. It earns him his monthly salary,though it does not compare with what he took back home as an engineer.

In small towns and big cities across the country,youngsters are dreaming of a career that gives wings to their dreams. On the dance floor,they are no longer the young girl or boy who doesn’t have the new iPhone 4 or hasn’t gone to a “posh” school. They are not even the “extras”,who get overshadowed by the star they are performing with. Instead,under the spotlights,they transform themselves into divas and demigods,swirling expertly to the lively beat of salsa or doing the cha cha cha with perfect composure. Their lithe movements make every minute a visual treat,and speak of their professional acumen in pursuing a vocation whose scope has increased exponentially.

Upadhyay,26,for instance,is currently focussing on a career as a performing artiste. “I had no idea that my hobby could be turned into a lucrative career option,especially since government institutions do not offer any recognised course in western forms of dance,” he says. Like Upadhyay,many youngsters across the country are waking up to the opportunities that western forms of dance offer. Delhi-based Priyanka Valecha joined the Banjara School of Dance in the city four years ago to learn belly dancing. Today,a trainer with the dance school,she has evolved her own style of belly dancing,infusing it with other forms,including the Indian classical Bharatnatyam.


Damini Tiwari and Sudesh Nair competed at the Asian Dance Championship in Macau last week whereas Preeti Gupta and Shannon Benjamin represented India at the Asian Games in 2010. The couples have been training professionally for over four years under popular ballroom dancer Sandip Soparrkar. “When I started my classes a decade ago,people misunderstood it for a dating club. The only students who underwent training at advanced levels were those who wanted to join the film industry or perform with dance companies like mine,” recounts Soparrkar.

Much of the rising interest in western dance forms can be attributed to dance reality shows,such as Boogie Woogie,Dance India Dance,Chak Dhoom Dhoom and Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa,where nimble footwork and a sense of rhythm has brought success to many participants. According to choreographer Terence Lewis,it has made people realise that dancing is not only about balle balle or the mishmash that Bollywood offers. “People are now aware that forms such as salsa,ballet,popping and locking are distinct,and therefore there is a sudden surge in demand to learn these forms,” he says. So much so,Lewis is planning to introduce a new four-month course for aspirants at his studio,which will acquaint them with the basics of each dance form.

The result is yet another career possibility — teaching — a far more dependable source of income for dancers. Most noted choreographers,including Geeta Kapoor and Saroj Khan,consider their dance schools across metropolitan cities as steady businesses which they run by remote control while working on freelance assignments. “Several members of my dance company are pursuing a one-year diploma at my school on scholarship by simultaneously teaching our regular batches,” says contemporary performing artiste Sumeet Nagdev who owns SNDA. With fees as high as Rs 2,000-Rs 10,000 per month,depending on the level,the opportunity to teach in exchange for a scholarship is a lucrative option that most dance schools with professional courses offer.

With the spurt in interest,students are beginning to start their own dance schools after completing their training at these specialised centres. Preeti Gupta and Shannon Benjamin,for example,now run Dance Sport India in Mumbai. Twenty-one-year-old Akshay Unecha,a student at Rocky Poonawala Dance School,one of the oldest schools in Pune for Latin American dance forms,plans to launch his own dance academy, after having won the Australian Salsa Championship in June.

Soparrkar says the professional dance industry was,until a decade ago,chiefly driven by films and other star events,such as award nights. Either way,dancers hoped to be a part of the background,schooled into perfection under the tutelage of famous choreographers such as Saroj Khan and Ganesh Hegde or Shiamak Dawar. “That was the only way to eventually become a choreographer,” says choreographer Terence Lewis. He,like Dawar,trained in contemporary dance and chose to remain at the fringes of the film industry,choreographing and performing with his troupe at corporate events and festivals.

The trend is even more prominent among students from smaller towns and satellite cities. Soparrkar,Nagdev and Lewis admit that they get several students from cities such as Nashik,Surat,Udaipur,Ludhiana,Amritsar,who join their courses only so that they can return to their home towns where they start their own schools.

Allahabad-based Atamjeet Singh is one such entrepreneur. Not willing to follow his father into the family business of wholesale general merchant items,Singh — encouraged by the the appreciation of his dance moves during school and college years — decided in 2010 to spend a year in Mumbai learning ballroom dance. However,due to family pressure,he was forced to cut short his trip. “So I enrolled in various classes to learn multiple disciplines,such as hip-hop,ballroom and contemporary,over three months. I returned home and started my own academy,Atamjeet Dance,” says the 28-year-old.

Success was instant with several children and youngsters enrolling for choreographed dance classes. Singh soon found himself in the top 40 category (the first level of auditions selects the top 40 contestants who then compete for the top 20 slot) on Dance India Dance,followed by a stint in the top 10 of Dance Sangram,a dance reality show on Mahua channel. A brief stint at assisting Saroj Khan for Agent Vinod and Prabhudheva for Rowdy Rathore followed. Cumulatively,the fame provided ample impetus to make Singh a semi-celebrity in Allahabad. He has over 60 students from different age groups and three trainers working under him. Additionally,Singh choreographs shows for schools and colleges and various events as well as sangeets in his city,earning upwards of Rs 70,000 a month. “Dance skills alone are not enough,business acumen helps if you wish to make money while pursuing your passion as a profession,” he says.

Far from viewing these people as competition,the bigger players are encouraging the trend,hopeful that it will make dancing more acceptable as a career among Indians. Lewis has introduced a course especially for those who wish to open their own schools. “There is enough work for everyone,” he says.

Mumbai-based Kiran Shah,who runs his weekend classes out of rented community halls,seconds Lewis. The 35-year-old began his career in 1999 by launching a group with a handful of friends soon after graduation. With Rajasthani,Punjabi and Gujarati folk dances as his specialisation,Shah performs with his troupe at sangeets and events,especially garba and dandiya nights during Navratri. He has also performed at various dance reality shows as well as at events in Dubai and Doha. “There are so many other groups like ours in the city,yet we get called by film choreographers who are looking to lend a folk touch to their choreography,” says Shah,who is currently assisting a song shoot for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s next film,Ram Leela. While he makes upwards of Rs 50,000 a month,Shah had no formal training until two years ago when he decided to learn ballroom disciplines and contemporary dance “in order to keep himself updated with current trends”. His classes are a big draw for children and adolescents.

Despite the opportunities,contemporary dance is still not looked at as a “serious profession”. Most parents insist that their children do not neglect studies and keep a “stable career” as a fallback option. Despite the progress Upadhyay is making at SNDA,he has been given a deadline of 2013 to establish himself as a dancer by his parents,failing which he has to go back to being an engineer. A lawyer by the day,Mumbai-based Bhagyashree Wavikar spends her evenings practising her moves and weekends as a trainer with Sandip Soparrkar’s dance classes. While her parents are floored by the recognition dance has got her,Valecha too has been told that a long-term career may not be possible if her future husband and in-laws oppose it.

“It doesn’t help that training in dance is expensive,with a minimum of Rs 2,000 per month as fees. To continue training and to stay fit requires both time and money. Participation in international competitions needs constant expenditure on costumes,shoes and air tickets,things not everyone can afford,” says Soparrkar,who in the past had Amitabh Bachchan as a sponsor for his competition-level students.

But this attitude is slowly changing. Several schools across major cities have included western dance forms as part of the curriculum. Rekha Choudhary recognised her daughter Kavya’s “natural talent” for dance early and enrolled her for formal training when she was eight years old. At 11,she has already featured in the top 40 in Dance India Dance and has also won several local championships. Kavya hopes to be a professional dancer in the future,with her mother supporting and encouraging her. “If her passion can be her profession,what else would we want,’’ says Rekha.

Contrary to popular belief,a career in Bollywood as a dancer is neither lucrative nor easy. All background dancers need to have a union card,which costs over Rs 2 lakh. Although a one-time expenditure,it is not a small amount,and can take several years to recover. Regular dancers rarely work for more than 15 days a month,earning only Rs 3,500 per day when they are shooting for films or television. Days spent at rehearsals fetch a mere Rs 500.

Freelance dancer Vernon Ethiado — Gauhar Khan’s partner in the item song Parda parda in Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai and who recently shot for Ek Tha Tiger’s song Mashallah — therefore,chooses to supplement his film work with choreographing live shows,such as the recent India International Jewellery Week in Mumbai. “The competition is tough and choreographers often prefer to hire foreign dancers over Indians for their looks,skills and fitness. One needs to build contacts and stay visible,taking up whatever work comes one’s way. People forget you easily,so getting too picky can cause one to fall out of favour,” he says.


Bollywood too,continues to be a dominant influence,sometimes in a not-so-favourable-manner. Professionals like Lewis,Soparrkar and Nagdev rue there is little acceptance of the purer forms of western dance forms. “Despite our extensive training in different disciplines,people demand that we choreograph Bollywood numbers,” says Soparrkar. While they sometimes relent as far as corporate events and shows are concerned,the professionals refuse to teach their students anything but the authentic forms of their disciplines. “It is for us to provide the right knowledge and keep the traditional forms alive. If our students take this knowledge and use it any other way,it is their prerogative — we view it as furthering the cause of dance,” says Lewis.

(With inputs by Debjani Paul,Pallavi Pundir and Parul)