Fall down seven times, get up eight.’ Nobody knows this better than a dancer who is trying to perform a step that they just can’t get. But with perseverance, practice and patience, even Johnny and Baby could execute the elusive lift amidst their dirty dancing. Did you see what I did there? I slipped in a reference from the 1987 classic dance film Dirty Dancing. The point I’m making is that reel-life dancers (or rather characters who dance) have been inspiring real-life dancers ever since, well, people started dancing in movies.
But it also works the other way around — choreographers work hard to come up with original routines that actors are made to follow. And even the best of the best cannot escape the struggle to perfection. On Dance Day today, we speak to a few talented dancers and choreographers to find out what moves put them in a tight spot and got them frustrated, and how they eventually pulled it off. On the side, we also find out about their favourite dance movies and whether the genre is being explored enough in Bollywood.
Learning a dance form: Terence Lewis
He has a one-word answer to the question he is asked most of the time — What is dance? “Life,” says Terence Lewis, adding, “I think we are all dancing in certain ways, so why not be able to dance more efficiently through life! You might as well enjoy the dancing instead of cribbing about it, no?”
You’d think the 43-year-old choreographer has no weak spots, but it turns out that he had. No, you didn’t read that wrong, the tense was past because he doesn’t have that weak spot anymore. He worked on it and got better, in fact, became one of the best. “I always struggle when I’m learning a new style of dance,” says Terence. Having been trained in jazz and ballet, he had to recondition himself to learn the art of contemporary dance. But when it came to learning Indian dance forms, he sure had a tough time. “Learning Kathak is so complex. It is so challenging to coordinate the moves,” says Terence, adding that it is only hard work that can fix a dancer’s problems.
But picking up a new genre is just one of the things a dancer needs to deal with. Ask him about his struggles when he started out as a newbie on the scene and he says, “I don’t know about struggle. I was happy doing what I was doing. Probably because I had very little expectations from life. I was happy as long as I was doing my job, did not compare my skill or talent to anyone else’s. I knew I was talented and deserving, and never complained probably because I never felt life was unfair to me,” says Terence, who certainly makes his early days sound like a bed of roses because of his positive attitude towards his work and towards life in general.
But is a happy-go-lucky attitude enough to sustain yourself as a freelance dancer-choreographer? “I used to go house-to-house to conduct dance classes. But when I finally found a place and started a dance academy of my own, people didn’t want to come because they were used to the comfort of having a dance teacher come home and teach them. They found the timings and distance from the academy to be inconvenient. But eventually things worked out because they knew I was a good dancer and teacher,” says he. Unwavering belief in yourself is also an important tool you need, to be successful in the dance industry.
His favourite dance movies include Black Swan, Chicago and the classic West Side Story. Talking about whether the genre of dance movies will get some focus in Bollywood, he says that in his opinion all Bollywood movies are dance movies. “There is song-and-dance in every movie. But if the movie is themed on dance, the story should be original, not copied from a Hollywood movie, then it might resonate with the audience here,” he says.
Doing the moonwalk: Melvin Louis
Though Melvin Louis loved dancing since he was a kid, he never thought of taking it up as a career until he lost his job due to recession. “I was working for an investment bank which unfortunately declared bankruptcy in 2009. That’s how I lost my job and I started pursuing dance on weekends because it helped me deal with the stress I was going through at that time. It was then that I decided to make a career in dance. The era of social media was in full swing, so people started noticing me also. Everything happened so quickly, and my ambition regarding dance kept getting bigger,” he says.
When you think of making a career as a dancer or choreographer, you have a face-off with the reality of being broke. And in such times the universe decides to add a few more worries to all your woes to see whether you’re going to stick to your passion or abandon it. “Many people are casual about paying fees on time. Most dancers face this problem when they start out. Thankfully, I am no longer a newcomer, so I am firm about payments,” says Melvin.
The other real struggle was the moonwalk — a step that has fascinated (read: blew people’s minds!) dance enthusiasts and audiences alike since Michael Jackson performed it during his Billie Jean performance in his Motown 25 special in 1983. “When you first see the moonwalk, you think ‘Is this doable?’ and then you think, ‘But how?’ If you have to do a lift or a flip, you’re in the gymnastic headspace, and you can make your calculations and figure it out. But how do you do the moonwalk?” says Melvin, adding, “I used to put oil on the floor and sometimes talcum powder to see if that would help, but I only got frustrated. We didn’t have YouTube that time, so I kept rewinding the video on a China-made player to the exact second where MJ does the moonwalk and kept observing it till I got it,” he grins.
If you learn the moonwalk, it can boost your self confidence. But that’s not all. “The moonwalk can be quite the ice-breaker. Just moonwalk into a party and voila! You know how impressed everyone’s going to be with those moves!” says Melvin, who is a big fan of the Step Up series, but feels that the second part is the best of the lot. (You can watch the blockbuster dance film Step Up tonight, at 10.45 am on Sony PIX.)
Coming to Bollywood, Melvin thinks that of late, it has been cutting down on dance sequences. “Earlier, there used to be grand sets, back-up dancers, the works! Now, there are songs shot like that in movies, but they are far and few,” he says. Could this be a step towards developing dance movies as a separate genre in Bollywood? We will have to wait and watch.
Little late for ballet: Ashley Lobo
Ashley Lobo believes that dancing is as natural as breathing for him. “Dance is life, and my life is all about dance. I cannot separate the two,” says he. Though it was a tough career to pick when he was 21, he shares that there were no two ways about it. “I started dancing at the age of 15. I would do amateur shows, get about a hundred bucks per performance. Then when I was 21, I was approached to do a choreography for a school in Delhi. I directed a rendition of the classic West Side Story. It became so popular that three-four newspapers wrote about me. I was over the moon. When I went to the school to collect my cheque, I got a lot of attention from the girls, that’s when I decided this is what I want to do,” laughs Ashley, who set up Navdhara India Dance Theatre (NIDT) in Mumbai.
Though ballet is his passion now, when he started learning it, he had a pretty tough time. “When I first left India to go to Australia to learn ballet, it was difficult for me. My peers there already started learning ballet from when they were about five. So when they had years of ballet behind them, I had only six months of training. But I worked hard,” says Ashley, adding, “It was a tough choice for a 15-year-old boy to choose to go to Australia. I was from a middle-class family, so I had to take a loan of $20,000. There were no schools for me to learn ballet here. It was the era of Doordarshan.” Even now his dance company hardly gets work in India; they are mostly employed abroad, in European counties.
One of his favourite dance films is All That Jazz, a 1979 American musical directed by Bob Fosse. “Everyone from hip-hop dancers, to modern contemporary choreographers have borrowed from Fosse’s work. His work has become a template of sorts,” says Ashley.
Balancing emotion and technique: Ganesh Hegde
It’s interesting how Michael Jackson’s Thriller successfully managed to thrill so many aspiring dancers. One of them is Ganesh Hegde. “The first time I saw MJ performing to Thriller, something in me got triggered. One body wave after another — his movements caught my eye, and I was infected. I started to imitate him and when I succeeded, it gave me confidence that I was on the right track,” says Ganesh adding that he wanted to use the moves to do something unique.
With a specialisation in Western dance, when Ganesh started touring with Bollywood stars, he was faced with a conundrum. “I had my Western dance on point; it was technical. But when we started touring, we had to dance to Sridevi’s Morni baga ma bole, Madhuri’s Ek do teen, Mr Bachchan’s songs and so on. It was then that I realised how expressive you have to be for Bollywood numbers. Just being good at the technical aspect of the choreography will not work, you have to bring those emotions on your face while you perform,” says Ganesh, adding how he admires those lads who specialise in highly expressive Indian dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and various folk dances.
“I underwent a full process of getting to know how expressive Indian dancing and folk dancing is. I found it rather challenging, but felt quite accomplished as I started learning and getting the hang of it. Slowly but steadily, I managed to master this art too. In fact, I was so glad when I shocked people with my rendition of Indian classical and folk dance on stage,” says he.
Ganesh, who also choreographs for Bollywood, believes that in a movie, dancing right is just not enough, you also need to capture the audience’s attention with your emotions. “You see all the Broadway musicals are so rich in content. Even in old classics, actors would tap dance while being so expressive. Dance was a part of their acting, and both were given the same level of attention by the actor,” he says.
Enthusiastic about dance movies, Ganesh feels that Bollywood should not be copying Hollywood but work on subjects that can be more relatable to audiences back home.