Western classical ballet is still a very unfamiliar art form in India. But in the last few years, promising talent has begun emerging, often in dancers from disadvantaged or working-class families with no prior association with Western classical music or dance.
In the absence of live ballet performances, the entry point for most aspirants has been film, notably Bollywood, or an initial interest in other dance styles.
Kamal Singh, currently in his early 20s and from the outskirts of Delhi, is the son of a rickshaw driver. A ballet sequence in the 2013 Bollywood movie ABCD: Any Body Can Dance led him to train with a ballet instructor in Delhi, and three years later, he is studying further at the English National Ballet School.
But the bigger hub for many ballet newcomers has been Mumbai, India's "City of Dreams," known for its thriving film industry.
From Surfing YouTube to Training in Paris
Dipesh Verma, from Siliguri, West Bengal, became smitten with ballet at 13 after watching his teen dance idol, Sophia Lucia, on YouTube. As the son of a grocer and a daily-wage worker, it wasn't easy for him to go against his parents' expectations of pursuing a more "secure" profession, like medicine.
Manish Chauhan (center) training with Dipesh Verma and Bobby Roy
Photo by Leslie Shampaine
At 15, he headed for Mumbai with the equivalent of $80 in his pocket, to train with noted Israeli-American ballet pedagogue Yehuda Maor at The Danceworx Performing Arts Academy. Verma often spent the night on railway platforms and missed meals after grueling sessions.
As he advanced in his training, he applied to several schools abroad via video submission and ultimately chose the Paris Marais Dance School, where he's currently on scholarship. Now 20, Verma reminisces about his formative years in Mumbai: "It forged my character; I grew up as a dancer and as a man."
A Late Start, but a Passion for Ballet's Athleticism
Bobby Roy, like Verma, is also a protégé of Maor and a student at the Paris Marais. The son of a clothing street vendor and a housewife, he moved from Delhi to Mumbai at 17 to take his childhood fascination with dance further. He had supportive parents, and his father accompanied him for six months on his quest to find serious training in Mumbai—and they eventually found Danceworx.
Roy had grown up dancing hip hop and imitating the choreography he saw in Bollywood films, so starting classical ballet, a compulsory component of the Danceworx curriculum, was a novel experience. "I fell in love with its beauty," says Roy. But he had to work extremely hard to make up for the lost years.
Starting late is a common theme among most classical ballet aspirants in India, but they are often driven by a sense of dogged determination.
Maor's arrival at Danceworx six years ago has revolutionized the pedagogy of ballet in Mumbai. He has mentored most of the dancers mentioned in this story. Maor attributes the young Indian men's growing affinity for ballet to its athleticism. "That's what many of the Indian male dancers see when they take ballet classes: an athletic art form," he says. "They don't come to class with narrow or preconceived ideas about what ballet is or who should dance it."
Acrobatic Tricks and Netflix
This was certainly true of Manish Chauhan, now 27 and a student at New York City's Peridance, where he mainly studies ballet, along with contemporary dance. Chauhan is the son of a Mumbai taxi driver. He began doing acrobatic stunts "because girls get impressed," as he says shyly in the trailer to the forthcoming film Call Me Dancer, by Leslie Shampaine and Pip Gimour, which documents his path into ballet.
Manish Chauhan in a photo shoot for an international edition of Elle
Photo by Porus Vimadalal, Courtesy Chauhan
Chauhan also played a fictionalized version of himself in the 2020 Netflix Original Hindi film Yeh Ballet, written and directed by Sooni Taraporevala. It charts the compelling story of Chauhan and of Amiruddin Shah (played by Achintya Bose), both of whom were mentored by Maor at Danceworx and overcame huge challenges to follow their dreams. Shah is currently training in London at the Royal Ballet School.
A Growing Ballet Lineage
Though the majority of ballet students in India are the first in their families to explore the art form, that's not always the case. Taraporevala, for instance, now a filmmaker in her 60s, studied ballet during her childhood in Mumbai with Tushna Dallas, who founded The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in 1966. Dallas' daughter Khushcheher Dallas continues the pedagogical tradition today.
Among Tushna Dallas' students is Pia Sutaria, who says her family has been extremely supportive of her pursuit of dance. She was inspired to take up ballet at 5 after watching the 2000 British dance film Billy Elliot. A graduate of the Professional Dancers Teaching Diploma at the Royal Academy of Dance in London, Sutaria founded the Institute of Classical and Modern Dance in Mumbai in 2018, she says, "to fill the void that existed in vocational dance and ballet training for young, talented artists in India."
Hopes of Training Overseas
Elizabeth Gollar, 20, who lives in Dharavi, Mumbai, is the daughter of a woodcutter and a sweeper. Her entry into dance was through waacking and lavani (a strongly rhythmic traditional song and dance native to Maharashtra). Her flexibility was noticed by dancer Deshna Khanna, who introduced Gollar to Danceworx in 2015, where she was granted a full scholarship.
Gollar recently passed the Royal Academy of Dance's Intermediate Foundation examination and is hoping to apply to overseas ballet schools to train further. However, finances are a constraint. "My family still hasn't fully come round to supporting my dream," says Gollar. "I made them watch Yeh Ballet, and they understood me a little better after that."
Maor attributes the relative paucity of high-caliber female ballet dancers to a "clash of cultures." "Parents wouldn't allow young girls to stay in the studio and work late," he says. "As a result, they miss extra training that will be necessary for them to compete with other female dancers worldwide."
Evolving Attitudes About Ballet
Both Danceworx and Sutaria's Institute of Classical and Modern Dance offer full scholarships to disadvantaged youth keen to work hard at ballet. Newcomers also seem to be encouraged by the growing number of role models, mentioned here, although they comprise a minuscule portion of India's population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the success of Netflix's Yeh Ballet, the Call Me Dancer documentary already in postproduction and the power of social media, and there are likely to be subsequent waves of Indian youth turning to ballet.
Roy points out that Bollywood, which draws young people to dance, is itself beginning to incorporate classical ballet into its dance sequences—creating new job opportunities for ballet dancers in India.
Courtesy Thakker family
Sutaria agrees. Her students recently appeared in their first TV commercial, dancing neoclassical choreography while modeling Indian clothing for a fashion label. Sutaria herself has done gigs for nationally televised events and major magazines, blending classical ballet with Indian fashion and culture, including Bollywood music.
"I would love to see the day when one of the most well-known ballets, which is an Indian story, La Bayadère, is danced here with Indian dancers," says Maor. "The more people read articles and see performances and films about Indian dancers, the faster we will be able to attract audiences and financial support for our work."