ABCD - Anybody can dance

When I began to approach my 100th blog post, my thoughts turned to the primary subject of all the other 99 – dance – and my journey with it. I’ve never danced regularly, but I must have always had a fascination for it, because my mother put me into Gandharva Mahavidyalaya at a very young age. I don’t have any memory of how young I must have been, but too young to have made that choice. I distinctly remember those years of training under Sharmaji. I learnt Kathak for a few years and was quite regular with my classes. I remember going to class in heavy rain and losing my slipper on the way. Subsequently, on the recommendation of my school, I was admitted into a class for Rajasthani dance. Smt Sangeeta Bhardwaj was an excellent dancer and a teacher too. It was quite an experience training under her. Meanwhile, at school, I learnt bhangra for a school function. Then, we were trained in dandiya by Mr Sonar Chand. That experience of learning and then performing in an auditorium has stayed with me. It still is an exhilarating experience to dance dandiya.

But uppermost, even as a child, I danced during kirtan by my Guru Maa. Her words, her sweet voice, her expressions while singing and most of all, her bhavas and bhakti while singing made me dance. I would dance looking at her and then put my head in her lap and at times cry.
I still dance, but it is only to feel her presence all the time and win her appreciation or maybe just to let her know that she conveyed her emotions to me. It is only to make that connection.

Geeta Chandran (Pic by Anoop Arora)

I met Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran after a performance at the Old Fort for the Ananya dance festival some years ago. At that time, I had been freelancing as a writer for the Delhi Times. Geetaji talked very ardently about the thought process going into her performance. It was my first glimpse of her as a dancer, as a person and as an intellectual, and my first insight into dance reporting. Knowing her, writing about her, being invited to all that they organise, have all given me an opportunity to meet a galaxy of stars in the dance field. I thank her with all my heart, and dedicate this, my 100th blog post, to her.

I wanted to do something special for my 100th post on Kala Upasana, this blog, which celebrates my love of dance and music. And as I said, I started to think about dance, what it is, and what it means to the dancer.

Dance is a flight of the spirit. And I thought this spirit could be best captured in watching a child dance. I also wanted to do something different. You do come across children spoilt and pampered, dragged to hobby classes escorted by their well-meaning mothers, driven in chauffered cars. They might be good dancers, but they do not always embody that spirit of dance. So I thought of taking a few video clips of underprivileged children dancing.

I started doing it on a very basic level, but as I started doing it, I came across children really enjoying dancing and people working very hard to make it possible for these children to develop their personalities through dance.

So on a Sunday morning, I asked my watchman’s daughters to come and dance for a video. The eldest girl, Mansi, works as a maid and I feel sad to say that this 16-17-year-old girl is being married off very soon. The other two younger ones, Anjali and Hema, go to a government school, and on a Sunday morning, they’re usually seen loitering around in an unkempt state. But that day they came bathed, clean and in their best dresses. Mansi, who is seen dancing here, barely speaks in front of strangers. The three girls were very excited to dance in front of a camera and it made me feel good to give them small gifts at the end of the shoot.


Next, I invited my maid’s grandsons and their friends – Pravesh (sixth standard), Sujal (sixth standard), Shubham (seventh standard), Gaurav (eighth standard), Ricky (eighth standard) and Sandeep (seventh standard) – who live in the slum nearby and study in a government school. They had been taught some dancing for a function in the school and they came all dressed up, in their best shirts, caps, clean socks and shoes. The excitement and chatter about dancing on camera did not stop right till they left. The hip-hop they did to Bollywood songs had locking, popping and cartwheels. With a bit more training, they could become better dancers. They were very eager to have their names put in the post, and dance for it. I was so impressed, I felt they could give Prabhudheva a run for it!



Nehha Bhatnagar

Then I came to know about Nai Disha through Bharatnatyam dancer Nehha Bhatnagar. Nai Disha is an NGO in Vasant Vihar, and it’s a non-profit organization that provides underprivileged children a platform to get a holistic education with the right values and principles. Nehha’s Sarvam Foundation holds free classes for the underprivileged students of this organization. Neha trained six girls from this NGO and took them to Poland as part of a student exchange programme. We went and interacted with these girls. Here, I’d like to mention that this NGO is being run from just four-five rooms in an urban village, and it was kept spotlessly clean, with a very clean kitchen supplying food and milk to the children, and very clean toilets too.

Nikita, who’s part of the team that runs the NGO, told us, “They are all from nearby areas and we bring them into their age level groups. When we find them fit enough to join, we put them in regular government schools. They need support and help in all subjects since they are first generation learners – their parents have never been to school. We help them in English, Maths and Science and run tuition centres for them. Nehha is a volunteer and our very close friend and she took six of the girls to Poland.”

Shveta, Seema, Pinki, Rinki and Shalu

Here’s a conversation we had with the girls:

Q: How did you think about learning Bharatnatyam, and teaching it to the foreigners you met in Poland?
A: Because it’s very nice to look at and our bodies become very flexible.

Q: Do you like classical more or Bollywood?
A: Classical.

Q: How was the experience of meeting and teaching other children abroad?
A: We all enjoyed teaching each other, and we taught them whatever we’d learnt. We also learnt their dance from them.



Q: How did you feel when you first got your passport and travelled abroad?
A: We were excited and apprehensive about how it would be to stay there. But everyone was very nice in Poland. They helped us, looked after us. They were very frank. They took us sight-seeing as well.

Q: Did you feel that there was a gap in communication because of the language?
A: We can learn. We and they both did not know English very well, but we managed through expressions, gestures and the computer.
Nikita: Language is no bar in dance and music.
A: We were very proud that we could present our culture and music, could present India to foreigners. There are 22 states here, various religions. The traditional ladies’ dress here is a sari, but even that’s worn in various different ways. We are very proud of this.


Q: Do you get support from home to learn Bharatnatyam, or do they tell you to let this be and help out at home?
Nikita: Their families are very supportive. Their parents have never travelled anywhere in India, and these kids are travelling abroad. In fact, the first week was difficult for everyone. They were missing each other. Then we had them speak to their families through WhatsApp and conference calls, and sent a lot of pictures. It was an all-girls team, but they had no insecurities. There was a teacher with them, but they were staying in different places. They looked after each other. Nehha had groomed them well – table manners, toilet manners, sleeping manners – there were no complaints. In fact, when they came back, they had problems speaking Hindi!

Q: How has Bharatnatyam made a difference to your personality?
A: Bharatnatyam se muscles strong ho gayi, we learnt how to control our expressions. If they explain the concept to us well, we are able to dance better.


Nargis: Main bahut khush hoon, nobody in my family had ever seen a plane. We taught and learnt songs and dance, and became great friends with them.


Srijanatmak Manushi Sanstha is an NGO run by Neelam Thapliyal and Archana Kaul from an urban village in IP Extension. It’s housed in an old building, not even fully constructed, two-room apartment filled with books and trophies that the children have won in competitions. Neelam looks after the art and craft, and Archana teaches dance and theatre. The children attend these classes after school.

Neelam Thapliyal

Archana Kaul

Archana: Both Neelam and I started working at a point in our lives when we were stuck in a mire. So this lady approached us to work for her NGO. I had learnt dance as a child, so I started teaching them dance, the first one being Maa Tujhe Salaam. Here, we were altering our old skirts and dressing them for dance rather than teaching them English. What kept us going was some people who helped us financially, and we had hordes of volunteers – our old students helped us, people believed in our ability. All our experiences have not been good – hum chhote se maqsad ko le kar chale the, aur usse achieve kiya. We have acquired a larger family – students from our housing societies help us on Sundays. We have ladies from this area who come and work here in their free time, knitting or sewing, and also learning to dance. Our children and their friends also help us in their free time. I have been working on this since 1999.


Neelam: I had done my fashion designing and worked for 14 years. Due to personal problems, I had to give up my job, but sitting at home was very difficult. This friend of mine introduced the idea of starting an NGO to me. It is very gratifying to see the smile on children’s faces, it makes you feel good. So I joined an NGO, initially only to utilize my time, and then it became my passion. I started teaching them a lot of things, like making bags, drawing and painting. Children who joined when they were very young still come to me now that they have joined college, and they still respect me. For the past six years, we have opened our own place and we do creative art and dance and theatre with them. The children enter competitions and win prizes or trophies displayed on a shelf. It is a wonderful feeling. It is not only creative satisfaction but nurturing the future generation. It is really a great feeling when you see children who learn from here go out into the world and become successful.



Learning dance has given these children some flexibility in their bodies. The concept that they internalize helps them understand, and then the fear of going on stage is overcome, and their dreams open up.  
“Woh jiska shareer, woh jiska sansar, jiski boli sabki boli hai, jiske abhushan chand tare hain, woh Shiv hain.”
This is a little girl, Seema, in the ninth class, and when she was asked how she feels coming here every day and learning things, she said, “Bahut achha lagta hai. Main jab bahut chhoti thi, tabse yahan aa rahi hoon. Yahan dance ke saath-saath silai aur art bhi sikhate hain aur hum cheezein banate hain. Humein achha bhi lagta hai aur mazaa bhi aata hai.”

Stuff made by children and their families


Reela Hota

Odissi dancer Reela Hota also teaches underprivileged children dance. I asked her how she began, and what her inspiration was. “Nine years ago, I joined my spiritual guru’s ashram. When I entered my deeksha in one of my visits, he asked me to teach dance to the local girls. This was one of the poorest places in Jharkhand, very remote and underdeveloped. He adopted one of the villages and dance was one of the activities that he introduced there. This was a part of our sewa or selfless service there. I would wonder why a gyani or yogi would ask me to teach dance. I had been drawn to dance because I liked to be on the stage. I hadn’t attached any deeper meaning to it. Now, since a yogi was asking me to teach dance as sewa, it got me thinking in another dimension. Dance is another form of yoga and it impacts the body. I saw how the girls, or the kanyas, as we call them there, had changed over the years. They had developed confidence. So initially, my inspiration was my spiritual guru, but I considered myself able to teach dance or share what I had learnt only after mastering my own technique for 15-20 years.”

And why did she continue with it in Delhi? “I chose underprivileged children because it gives you a sense of giving something. Even if these girls are literate, they are not given the right kind of direction. The job market is not very easy and they do not get out of the rut of marriage and children. My aim is not to make them just simple performers, but to be able to teach others too.
My guru’s ashram is in Rikhiya, Jharkhand, and my guru’s name is Satyananda Saraswati Ji. He is the founder of the Bihar school of yoga.”

Reela says that even on the most obvious level, dance brings the children great joy. “Dance affects the mind and the body and the psyche. Each one of us, whatever background we come from, has our own issues. Every individual has to struggle with positives and negatives. Dance per se brings a lot of joy into their lives – like they are excited to know that a picture of theirs will appear on your blog. I am not a social activist or a researcher on personality to say that, though, and this batch is relatively new.” But the benefits are not limited to the children alone. “Ultimately, whatever you do, it is for yourself. Teaching gives you more respect and gratification. If it was not contributing to my life, I would not be doing it. In yoga, we divide the karma into satvik, rajasik and tamasik. And this kind of work is satvik. Definitely, I have evolved. Teaching children has reduced my anger,” she explains.
Reela says overcoming stage fright has to be taught as much as the dance itself. “You have to train them to do so. Those days are gone when gurus would teach for many years and still the disciples would not go on stage. It encourages them when they wear a costume and go on the stage to perform. It is not just a matter of technical proficiency. It is the dance of the Devi. It is aradhana for them and proficiency will come in time,” she says.


The first batch of students that she has started teaching are Pooja, Radhika and Ritika, all aged between 6 and 13 years of age. All three of them say that it feels great to dance. Pooja says, “Didi kehti hain ki dance mein devi hain. Veh haath pair pakad ke humse Odissi ke mushkil movement kara deti hain. Dance karne se mujhe apne upar vishwas hota hai.” Radhika says, “Mummy papa mana nahin karte hain. Main badi hokar dance hi karna chahti hoon aur dance sikhana bhi chahti hoon.” Ritika says, “Mushkil movements samajh aate hain lekin kabhi thoda sa galat bhi ho jata hai. Apne friends ko dance karke dikhane mein mazaa aata hai.”


Writing this blog post was an eye-opener for me. After looking at the difference learning dance is making in the lives of these children, I realized that this is just a drop in the ocean. Many trained classical dancers who teach their art to such children, either for free or for nominal fees, also do not want to disclose that they do so, so that they can continue doing so alongside regular classes for which they charge fees. I salute them too, and hope that all of these people, and more, can continue to bring formal dance into the lives of children who cannot pay for that training. I also hope that I can continue writing on this subject and highlighting more such endeavours.