Picture the setting. A studio, mirrors on one wall, a sound system playing the track Om Shanti Om whilst ten females concentrate on their dance moves, keeping to the words of the song. Was your first thought: “a dance studio, ten dancers, barefoot, performing a classical Indian piece of invocation”? Or was it: “a fitness studio, ten women – all non-dancers, in trainers, executing dance-fitness moves to the Bollywood song Om Shanti Om”?
My journey has taken me from the first scenario to the second, from Kenya to the UK, from the classical to the popular dance genres. It has been a journey of discovery, innovation, rejection and adaptation – of dance styles that have touched my life – whether compelled on me as a child or adopted out of freedom in my adult life.
My mother took me to my first dance class in Nairobi when I was three years old. As a child she had always wanted to learn Indian dancing, but coming from a big family with not much money to spare, had never been given the opportunity. So, she fulfilled her desire through her first-born – me. I have photographs of me on stage at a very young age – surrounded by older girls attempting an Alarippu and barely being able to keep my balance. I was always seen as having talent when it came to dance, and more often then not cast as the leading child dancer in dance and dance-drama shows. Most of the dance training at this time focussed on Indian folk styles with the token foray into the classical styles of Kathak and Bharata Natyam.
When I was twelve, my mother decided that it was time to get serious about learning dance. She felt that it was necessary to now focus on a classical style – a more elitist take on dancing. Folk dancing would no longer cut it! And so I was enrolled into a Bharata Natyam class run by a teacher who had studied dance in Bombay and had emigrated to Kenya with her husband. She had started by teaching the daughters of her friend, and as one of the first Bharata Natyam dance teachers in Nairobi, her classes got bigger the more popular she became. She was my first Guru. At sixteen I had my Arangetram – my maiden performance. No expense was spared. This was the largest, most extravagant Arangetram seen in Kenya to date. Musicians were specially flown out for the big day, outfits and jewellery specifically made – even flowers were flown in from India on the day itself. Nairobi had never seen anything like it! I was featured in all the daily papers, magazines and even on the national television. In front of an audience of 450 invited guests I performed for three hours. I had proved to the Indian diasporic society and the local dance world that not only was I an accomplished dancer, but well-versed in Hindu mythology and culture. I was truly a “good Indian girl”.
When I look back on that time, I realise that unknowingly I was struggling with my identity, leading a life of negotiation and compromise. I was constantly straddling two worlds – the traditional dance world with its cultural and time-honoured ritualistic practices and the other my school life with fashionable, MTV watching, disco-going school friends – sometimes finding that my foot was more in one of the worlds and other times more in the other. It was the classic case of being shunted between tradition and modernity. The challenge was to make this negotiation not just bearable but to work well – and I suppose to embrace both the traditional and the modern when it suited me. It is perhaps this negotiation that prepared me for similar experiences later in my dancing career.
After finishing my secondary school I went to Chennai to study Bharata Natyam with the late Guru J Venkatachalapathy, a product of Kalakshetra, and thereafter with Guru Sucheta Bhide Chapekar in Pune.
It was when I came to the UK in my early twenties that I became involved with teaching Indian dance in schools. At first, I tried to stick rigidly to my Bharata Natyam training – but I soon realised that this was not going to work. Given the fact that I only every had one to two hours contact time with any one group, and that they wanted to be able to learn, retain and perform a dance in that time, I began to create very simple dances using Indian folk moves with the occasional classical hand gesture thrown in for good measure. In the early days I would try to stick to classical dance music, which was gradually replaced by folk music, and then rapidly, as it became more available, Bollywood film tracks. The first time I used a Bollywood song, Bhumbro from the film Mission Kashmir (2000), I felt a distinct unease at having sold myself out. Here was a track that was easy to choreograph folk steps to, told a story about a bumblebee – great for children – and easy to incorporate hand gestures from Bharata Natyam and yet I felt that perhaps I was taking the easy option with not using more traditional sounding tracks.
But, with each workshop that I used the track, the guilt began to slip away and I began to incorporate more and more Bollywood tracks into my repertoire. However, the one place I still refused to use Bollywood music was in my performances. Whenever I was asked to perform at community events I stuck rigidly to the classical form. Bollywood dance? Me? No way! I was a serious Bharata Natyam performer who had taken years learning my craft and I was not going to sully my performance or my name with this so called Bollywood dancing! Besides, why would I want to be part of a dance style that anyone could do by copying dances from Indian films, and anyone it seems, without formal training or qualifications, could teach. I had watched Indian films in Kenya as a child with my parents, and still remember watching Love Story (1986) and having romantic notions of running away with the man of my dreams and singing and dancing in the hills or of being the Ek, Do Teen girl that was Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (1988). I wanted to dress like her, talk like her, dance like her. I remember watching Sridevi in Chandni (1988) and learning how to do my eye make-up like she did. So, in effect, these screen actresses became my role models for fashion, etiquette and dance. Bollywood films were influencing my behaviour. But never had I though about dancing in that ‘filmi’ style on stage. That was for girls who had not trained in the classical styles – those who had not put in the hours of dedication and sacrifice that was required to learn a style like Bharata Natyam. ‘Filmi’ style dance was for a night out, at a wedding or a party – never on stage.
Equally significant here is that I would never have admitted to watching Bollywood films as a teenager. If I watched them it was “because my parents wanted to watch them”. It was not seen as the done thing. Interestingly Mihir Bose in his book Bollywood – A History talks of a similar situation during his years as a youth. Only those who didn’t speak English went to watch Hindi films – educated and literate people did not watch Bollywood – they watched Hollywood films.
And so the internal conflict, some would say snobbery, between the classical and the popular form persisted. Until I began an MA in South Asian Dance at Roehampton University and I began to challenge these thoughts. I began to study Bollywood dancing and its history in films in more detail. I began to look at its transition from a dance style born in films, brought to the stage by film celebrities and then taken to communities by pioneers of the form. And, more importantly, I started a Bollywood dance class for adults in the Surrey village where I lived.
I can honestly say that I have never looked back. From one class a week I now teach ten classes in various locations around Surrey. Together with a team of dancers I have performed at weddings and charity galas; I have conducted Bollywood dance workshops from London to Edinburgh for young and old alike; I have been instrumental in setting up two dance companies – one for adults and one for youth and have choreographed, produced and performed in a show for the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival entitled asmākam – the quest which incorporated both Bharata Natyam and Bollywood dance.
What defines Bollywood dancing? My understanding of the term is that it is dance movement choreographed to songs from Bollywood films. The movement style varies depending on who is creating the dance and what their preferred movement vocabulary is. In my case, Indian folk dance styles (namely Garba and Bhangra) and Bharata Natyam are the movement vocabulary I turn to. However, over time I have borrowed from African contemporary, jazz, jive, flamenco and even Morris Dancing to enhance my choreography!
The dance style is accessible for people of all ages and from all walks of life. With Bollywood films increasing in popularity in the West, people are able to relate to this dance form. Those from the Indian diaspora can understand the songs – they listen to them on a daily basis and play them at parties and weddings. So, almost immediately there is a sense of familiarity with the dance style. With the release of the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) it seemed that the whole world had gone Bollywood crazy – especially in the UK – even though the film was not a Bollywood production! But even before this, Bollywood had been infiltrating the UK psyche slowly and stealthily with shows like Bombay Dreams and Channel 4’s regular televising of Bollywood films. In cities like London, Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester it was not difficult to find a Bollywood class at some community hall or dance studio. Bollywood dancing as a genre was beginning to take hold.
But, when did Bollywood dance begin to become a genre in its own right? The 1980s is seen as a turning point when it began to be seen as a new emerging genre. With Bollywood actors and actresses now beginning to visit countries outside of India and holding stage shows which involved music and dance, the form was brought from the screen to the stage, and then more recently to the community halls and dance studios for the general public to participate in. Even more recently, was the move from dance studio to fitness studio, in the form of Bollywood aerobics and exercise to music.
Young, modern, middle-class Indians, who had shunned Bollywood films, were now beginning to embrace them both in India and abroad. It was now okay to say that you had gone to watch the latest Bollywood film. But even more importantly, young people of Asian origin were looking to attend Bollywood dance classes and learn moves to the latest Bollywood soundtrack. Bollywood dance was being seen as cool and hip – a trendy export from India.
So, the genre can be considered to be a transnational, globalised commodity. In the first instance, Bollywood films have always been international. From the time that films were first made in India using international techniques, to the time that films were hugely popular abroad – one thinks of Raj Kapoor and his enormous popularity through Awara (1951), in the Middle East and the Soviet Union in the early 50s. (For an excellent account of this read Mihir Bose’s Bollywood – A History). And throughout the twentieth century, with the Indian diaspora settling all over the world, one of their links back to their homeland was through watching films. In these films there was always song and dance, reflecting a ubiquitous aspect of Indian culture whether at religious festivals, weddings or parties. Communication, media, travel have all made the world a smaller place – and cinema plays a part in this too. Through Bollywood films one can experience new locations, create new fashions, see alternative lifestyles – they give us that little bit of escapism, they entertain us, and yes, some would say they educate us too.
Song-dance sequences within films play their role in this too. Often they are seen as the epitome of modernity in what are sometimes considered traditional or unprogressive films. Whereas in the storyline a woman may be a harassed, put-upon mother and wife, conservatively dressed with staid thoughts, in her dreams she can be singing and dancing with her man, wearing skimpy outfits and letting us know of her innermost thoughts. This conflict between tradition and modernity can also be seen off-screen in the global arena in diasporic communities. Whereas traditionally, Asian parents want their children to have a good education and become doctors, lawyers and accountants – dance not being a suitable profession – they are still allowed to attend Bollywood dance classes and take part in shows – and be a part of this ever growing, trendy, high profile aspect of Indian culture.
A good illustration of the pull between modernity and tradition is seen every week at a class that I teach in a town in Surrey with a large Muslim community. Each week women from this community come to my class. They are conservatively dressed, most of them wearing the traditional head covering for Muslim women – the hijab. They enter the hall, draw the curtains, put a sheet over the glass door so that no one can peer inside, remove their shoes and hijabs and are then ready to take part in the class. And, for one hour, it is pure joy and abandonment on their part – they are allowed to be the Bollywood heroines that they see on the big screen – but in a safe, closed environment. At the end of the class they re-cover their heads, open the curtains and return to their lives as mothers and wives. A seamless transition from tradition to modernity, and back again.
So here I was, embracing this new, emerging, transnational dance genre that was now becoming a significant aspect of popular culture and Indian modernity. But, one thing kept bothering me – my lack of formal qualifications in the dance form.
As described above, my training in dance had been through Indian culture and training and mentoring of Gurus in India and Kenya rather than through set qualifications. In fact, Bharata Natyam didn’t have an industry recognised qualification in the UK until fairly recently when the ISTD implemented a South Asian strand.
I was aware that I needed to further my knowledge of dance – and although the MA at Roehampton University was challenging my theoretical and historical perspectives, I needed to enhance my practical knowledge. So I attended various courses on dance and teaching dance including dance in education workshops and dance in health workshops. I also embarked on a Pilates course to further my Anatomy and Physiology knowledge and achieved an Exercise to Music (ETM) qualification from the fitness industry.
At the same time I was becoming more interested in the fitness aspect of dance and with the government championing dance through initiatives like Dance4Life and Dance Champions as a great way to get fit and combat obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, I wondered how we could make Bollywood dancing a fun way to get fit – but also a safe way to get fit. So, on my quest I attended lots of Bollywood dance classes and spoke to many teachers. One thing that struck me was how different all the classes were – not always a bad thing. But, what also came out of the classes was the lack of training that many instructors had. Some classes were excellent – fun, energetic – and with all the safety aspects of warm-ups and cool-downs included. Some classes were not so good! Why was this? Well one of the reasons is that there is no one body to govern Bollywood dancing. In fact, there is no course in the UK that one can go on to become an accredited teacher. At least, I couldn’t find one.
Also, whilst doing my ETM course, on the Training DVD I was sent, I was interested to see how an ETM routine could be adapted to make it “Indian”. Although it was interesting, I felt that it was not in keeping with the integrity of Indian dance and was a token effort. There is more to Indian dance then the odd hand gesture and hip wiggle thrown in – and done properly, themeing an ETM routine can be fun, challenging and add an extra dimension for the participants.
One aspect of my time at Roehampton University that had stayed with me was the study of Rukmini Devi and her institutionalisation of Bharata Natyam. By classicising it, codifying and renaming the dance form she was able to give it an international status – a dance form that is now performed and taught all over the world. The way I see it, from a modernist, globalised stance, Rukmini Devi took an already existing local product, repackaged and rebranded it and presented it to the world in an accessible and digestible way. I would suggest that she was futuristic in her thoughts and ahead of her time – and also great at branding!
Could a similar thing be done to Bollywood dancing. Could it be codified and institutionalised in any way? Also, in the way Devi had taken Bharata Natyam from the temples to the dance studio, thus modernising it, could I now take Bollywood dancing from the dance studio to the fitness studio.
So, in my quest to codify the form, get accreditation and re-locate it, I decided to collaborate with an ETM Instructor – Rebecca Matthews – and Just Jhoom! was born. Since our initial conversation in the summer of 2009, Rebecca and I have developed and trialled over one hundred steps and choreographed numerous routines. During the process we involved Sarra Whicheloe a professional Yoga teacher to expand the vocabulary to include strengthening and flexibility exercises. Together with Rebecca’s ETM knowledge, my Indian dance experience and Sarra’s Yoga expertise we came up with a fitness programme that we think is safe, fun and we know works!
In fact, we did a trial Just Jhoom! session in February 2010 and the comments included:
“Very uplifting, lots of fun, easy to pick up steps.”
“I felt the class catered for needs of everyone.”
“Good fun, aerobic workout, uplifting music.”
“Energising and challenging – great that we can adapt to our own fitness level.”
Could we now share this knowledge with other professionals in the fitness industry? We decided to come up with a movement syllabus that could be easily followed and used to create routines. It would be built on already existing ETM knowledge and Indian dance movement vocabulary. Bollywood music is a complete minefield with the industry churning out thousands of songs a year – we would help instructors with sourcing and choosing music. We also created a resource that gave more information about Bollywood dancing – talking about the history and the inspiration of the movement vocabulary. We felt that by having a story behind the fitness programme, behind every routine, behind every move, we were able to engage people’s bodies as well as minds.
In April 2010 we did a mock training course on a group of dance teachers and ETM instructors who gave us the opportunity to see what the two training days would be like and who also gave us a lot of useful feedback. Interestingly, the ETM Instructors found the hand gestures and arm movements the most difficult aspect, and the dance teachers found the layering and the continuous aerobic conditioning the most difficult aspect. Both the groups found the training course very informative, had learnt information that they had not known before and felt that they had been given enough information, knowledge and skills to go out and teach a Just Jhoom! class.
All participants really enjoyed the course and comments included:
“The course was better then expected and I would love to one day teach Just Jhoom!”
“Good mix of theory and practical – a great intro to Bollywood dance-fitness.”
“New form of dance that is suitable for the aerobic format.”
Finally, the course was ready to be sent to the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) to be evaluated. The course was submitted on Friday 30th April 2010. On Friday 9th July 2010, a result was delivered by email to Just Jhoom!
The Just Jhoom! Fitness Certification Course had been admitted into the REPs framework. This meant that any fitness professional with an ETM qualification could train with Just Jhoom! and receive 16 REPs CPD points after successfully completing the course. This was the first Bollywood Dance-Fitness course to be accredited by a nationally recognised professional body in the UK.
The evaluator’s comments were:
“Well done! I wish you every success with the programme. All the materials are professionally presented, informative and well thought out and considered. It would appear, to me, that the integrity of Bollywood and Indian dance has been respected and honoured and at the same time connected to a safe and effective ETM structure – this I congratulate! The option to use simple Yoga stretches integrated with regular stretches seems perfectly appropriate and you have clearly acknowledged the boundaries (not yoga teachers). All the very best success and again, well done!” SkillsActive Evaluator, 2010
A final word
Whilst developing Just Jhoom! I was hit with many doubts. Firstly, was I being true to Bollywood dancing. But, with an absence of a codified, accepted movement vocabulary how could I be betraying it? I had no Bollywood dance vocabulary to start off with in the first place – so my starting point really was from scratch. Similarly ‘borrowing’ from other established dance genres, especially Bharata Natyam and Bhangra, was I doing a disservice to those dance genres? Like all other Bollywood dance choreographers I had to have some inspiration and these dance genres were my inspiration – my foundation upon which to build a new aesthetic. Whilst developing the programme, at no point did I say I was teaching Bharata Natyam or Bhangra – I very clearly stated that I was using movement vocabulary that is from those genres. In fact, the Bhangra vocabulary is more of a ‘Bollywood Bhangra’ that has been made popular in films – a term I have borrowed from Roy (2010). (For a more detailed discussion of this see Anjai Roy’s essay, Is Everybody Saying Shava Shava to Bollywood Bhangra? 2010).
Finally, in my quest to further popularize and modernise this dance genre by institutionalising it and taking it from the dance arena to a fitness arena was I in danger of ‘Westernising’ it to suit the palate of the Western market to whom it would be sold? Using a Western fitness movement vocabulary (namely ETM) was I compromising the very basis of the genre? However, modernity to me does not imply Westernisation. Modernity to me implies creation, innovation, forward-thinking, improvisation. At first, I had to locate my creation in the local – where I am right now. But, always in my sight, is the expansion of this aesthetic on an international scale. So, the aesthetic had to speak to people from all cultures – not just to those in the West. To me, speaking to a global, international dance-fitness community is what I consider to be modernity.
Also, at no time in the process did I pretend to speak for all of Bollywood dancing. How could I? The genre is a huge, untameable, global beast. I don’t have the power, nor the authority to speak for it. But what I did have was my take on the genre – and in my small way I wanted to make a difference. Hence the fact that even before the aesthetic had been developed, we had already given it a name to brand it and identify it as a new aesthetic – albeit with its roots in Bollywood dancing.
I would be lying if I said that when I first started exploring this fusion of fitness and dance I wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t just concerned, I was terrified. But, I would not be the first person accused of “cultural hybridization” bearing in mind the advent of “bhangra-pop, dandiya-jazz, disco-kathak and kalari-breakdance” (Subramaniam, 2003). Also, I wondered if I would achieve what I had to set out to do – institutionalise, codify, modernize, popularise and in effect take responsibility and ownership of this aesthetic I was calling Just Jhoom! But, as we developed the movement vocabulary and merged Bharata Natyam hand gestures with ETM footwork and Bhangra shrugs, the result was a natural, fluid, flowing movement that sat beautifully with the Bollywood beat. This did not feel forced – it felt right, naturally evolving. That, therefore, became my justification in carrying on with the creation of the aesthetic.
I then relocated the aesthetic, taking it from the dance studio and placing it predominantly, but not exclusively, in the fitness studio. Once again, this felt right. The aesthetic felt at home in this new, contemporary urban setting.
As a dancer, with years of teaching and performing experience, I felt comfortable with bringing these two worlds together. It is inevitable that critics will say that is a clash of two worlds – but to me, it is the marriage of two worlds – the marriage of two cultures – the marriage of dance and fitness.
*Bose, Mihir (2007) Bollywood – A History, Stroud: Temple Publishing Ltd
*Roy, Anjali Gera (2010) ‘Is Everybody Saying Shava Shava to Bollywood Bhangra?’, in Mehta, Rini Bhattacharya and Pandharipande, Rajeshwari W., eds. Bollywood and Globalisation – Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora, London: Anthem Press, 35 – 49
*Subramaniam, Arundhathi (2003) ‘Dance in Films’ in Kothari, Sunil, ed. New Directions in Indian Dance, Mumbai: Marg Publications 132 – 145