Culture

Why isn't ballet considered a legitimate career in India?

Ballet is still seen as an elitist indulgence, not to be taken seriously.

I remember walking out of the movie theatre with my mother, at age five, dumbstruck after watching Billy Elliot (2000). It was my introduction to ballet and made me believe you could dare to dream outside the box. Or better yet, that there was no box. Unlike Billy, who had nothing but his own sheer will, my twin sister, Tara, and I had incredibly supportive parents who believed strongly in the power of the arts. We grew up in an atmosphere of song and dance, and regularly accompanied them to concerts and choir rehearsals from a young age. Classical ballet was the first dance form I was exposed to—I felt transported to a realm where the unreal seemed possible.

There is nothing natural or intuitive about ballet. Your body is expected to go against its very nature. The first thing you learn to do is turn your hips and feet outward to create a more pleasing alignment. Then you learn to defy gravity by leaping through the air and pirouetting. Most people, when they learn you do ballet, will say, “Ooh, stand on your toes!” But going ‘en pointe’—balancing the weight of your body on your toes—takes years of training, lots of blisters and perpetually bleeding feet. I understood very early on that choosing this life would also mean choosing to live with constant aches and pains.

I started learning ballet at five, at Tushna Dallas’ The School of Classical Ballet & Western Dance in Mumbai. Mrs Dallas, now 75, is a renowned ballet teacher and the woman who single-handedly shaped my future in dance. With her I studied ballet, modern dance and ballroom. I became convinced that classical ballet would be my future and gave all my Royal Academy of Dance (London) exams through her school. At 16, I was ready to start training professionally. I had no idea what was coming.

Because I grew up in an arts-loving environment, I had never realised how little support there is for them in this country. We do not have a Bachelors’ degree in performing arts because we simply don’t have enough people who are qualified to teach and educate at that level. This is because there is virtually no funding from the government for people who want to pursue western dance in India. As a result, we can’t keep the few who do make it through these odds: talented dancers aim to go abroad because they crave to be pushed further to compete with dancers in their league. Other than teaching, there is no opportunity for Indian ballet dancers to perform in a large-scale production here.

When I approached prospective sponsors for scholarships to study, all I faced was rejection. I was hurt and humiliated, for I had mistakenly assumed that we would be appreciated and acknowledged—but ballet is still seen as an elitist indulgence, not to be taken so seriously and definitely not as a career.

But I didn’t want to give up, so I joined Danceworx Performing Arts Academy in Mumbai. By 17, I was teaching jazz full-time, but I missed ballet. So in 2014, I joined Navdhara India Dance Theatre, the first Indian contemporary dance repertory to tour nationally and internationally. Training days always began with ballet [because it enhances technique and realigns the body] and we had the incredible Israeli ballet master Yehuda Maor teach us. We would keep 14-hour days on an average, sometimes rehearsing past midnight only to return to practise by 7am the next day. Life on tour is exhilarating but also exhausting. We’ve been on tours doing two, sometimes even three performances in a day, for 12 days straight. It was my first real taste of what a professional dancer’s life is like.

But life has a way of crashing down on you just as you start to get comfortable. The true test of my grit came just a few weeks before our first international tour to America. I was stretching in class when my shoulder popped out of its socket. I didn’t know what was happening—I just remember screaming in pain as I stared at my shoulder, which was three inches below where it should’ve been. At the hospital, I found out I had hyperlaxity—hyper flexible joints, meaning it could happen anytime, anywhere.

I was terrified. I knew no dance company wanted the liability of an injured dancer, especially on tour. I was advised to take a long break and get surgery, but ballet is such that every day you don’t dance, you go back three steps. I had worked so hard to get there and I was facing the end of a career that hadn’t even begun. I decided—quite foolishly—to get back to rehearsals and go on tour, once the swelling subsided.

My shoulder popped out thrice after, twice before a big performance and once during a show. But I kept going from rage and hate. Each time, I’d go back to the studio before I fully healed, only to get injured again and again. Eventually, the pain was so great that I found myself physically unable to go on. I had to stop, and finally agreed to get surgery last March. It took three months before I could hold my arm up without help, and I’m only just finishing 10 months of my stipulated recovery period. Sometimes I thought of letting go and moving on to something else. When you pursue something for so long, you tend to forget you have that option. I asked myself, “Is this what you really want to do with your life, or are you doing it because it’s the only thing you’ve ever known?”

My answer came back loud and clear. I loved dance with all my heart. Nothing made me feel as alive. The music, the rigour, the feeling I get when I do my first plié every morning—nothing can replace it. I realised I’d have to change. I began to accept that I had an injury and my body was compromised. So I started to change the way I expressed to accommodate it. I came back with more ferocity. I moved like I had nothing to lose. I remembered what Mrs Dallas once told me when I was seven, “Every time you step into a studio, dance like it’s your first and last chance.”

I’ve been teaching dance for the past five years and recently worked with two incredible young boys, Amiruddin Shah and Manish Chauhan, who came to train with Yehuda. They were an inspiration to us all with their immense commitment and refusal to be limited by their circumstances (they were both from low-income backgrounds) or gender (ballet tends to be perceived as a feminine dance form, especially in India. But the truth is, the world over, male footballers and body builders take ballet lessons because it improves posture and strengthens the core). The two of them were awarded scholarships to the Oregon Ballet Theatre in America and are now pursuing professional careers.

They took me back to the story of  Billy Elliot, to why I fell in love with ballet. I think we—Amir, Manish, myself—were the lucky ones, to have our skill recognised and to have the support system to help us flourish. But for most aspiring dancers, their passion will remain a pipe dream. In India, a good ballet education up to an intermediate level is now available, but it is very expensive. And courses abroad could set you back ` 70 to ` 90 lakh at a university like the Royal Academy of Dance.

I want to change this. I want there to be a future for ballet dancers in India because to this day when I tell people I’m a dancer, I still get, “Wonderful, but what do you actually do?” I want The Nutcracker to be performed at the NCPA by an Indian ballet company.

I am determined to keep pushing myself like Amir and Manish did. I’ve been training full-time in ballet, jazz and contemporary, with ballet as my focus. This year, I hope to further my training at the Royal Academy of Dance. I dream of becoming an integral part of a dance company and giving back to this art form everything it has given me.