Manish Chauhan and Elizabeth Gollar in the studio with Yehuda Maor

Photo by Leslie Shampaine

In India, Interest in Classical Ballet Training Is on the Rise

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.

Three young Indian men do tendus in a ballet class. One is sweating with no shirt on. The other two men, behind him are wearing black shirts and shorts.

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.

Bobby Roy is photographed midair, jumping in pass\u00e9 in a city street scene. He is wearing black ballet shoes, and black tights with on suspender over his bare chest.

Bobby Roy

Courtesy Roy

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.

A black and white image of Manish Chauhan in a fourth position lunge with arms in second as he arches his torso backwards. He is photographed bare-chested and in shiny, high-fashion pants.

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.

Pia Sutaria, in pointe shoes and a flowing lavender dress, does a piqu\u00e9 in low attitude derri\u00e8re as she glances over her left shoulder at the camera. Her dark curly hair falls over her shoulders.

Pia Sutaria

Courtesy Sutaria

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."

Now 25, Sutaria has several young ballet hopefuls under her wing. The youngest, Vidhi Thakker, is 11; her family has applied for her to train at ballet schools in Canada and the UK.

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.

Vidhi Thakker, an 11-year-old Indian girl in a bright blue ballet costume and tights, performs onstage. She poses in piqu\u00e9 attitude with her arms framing her face.

Vidhi Thakker

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."

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

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Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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