Teaching Bollywood and learning ballet

Teaching Bollywood and learning ballet

Deepika Ravindran is in Manila with two students from her Rhythmus Happy Feet school in Mumbai, Krisha Shah and Eesha Karnani.

By Michele T. Logarta

Twice a week this summer, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the Ballet Manila studio in Pasay City is alive with the sounds of Bollywood as students learn this dance style from visiting teacher Deepika Ravindran.

With 38 adult students and 15 children under her wing, Deepika – and her students – are having a jolly time at class. Bollywood dance, she says, is not all difficult. “It’s not at all technical. It’s all about letting your inhibitions go and having fun. Bollywood dance and songs have been an integral part of our culture.” 

Bollywood dance is the dance style used in Bollywood movies as popular Indian movies are known. It’s a fusion of traditional and classical Indian dance with hiphop, jazz and modern dance.

Krisha Shah (foreground) and Eesha Karnani are enjoying learning the Vaganova method under their Ballet Manila mentors.

Deepika is one of the co-founders of Rhythmus Happy Feet (RHF), a dance school in Mumbai, the home of the Bollywood film industry.

She is here under a partnership forged with Ballet Manila two years ago. Under this arrangement, BM is helping RHF strengthen its ballet programs. At BM, Deepika has been training in the Russian Vaganova method, which in turn she is teaching to students at RHF.

“I knew ballet but I did not know how to conduct a class. We did not know the structure; how to form a syllabus. I wanted to come here to the Philippines to see how ballet is taught to kids, observe the format and the progression of the students. What do you first teach the child? Do you teach the plie first?  It was very important for us to go outside of India to see how things are done internationally.”

Deepika visited Manila for the first time last year. 

“The first time I came here, I was truly impressed by BM. The kids… the things they could do! They were already flying in the air and could do so many things. There was so much to take from Ballet Manila... so much learning I took back home.”

This summer marks Deepika’s second time at BM. However, this time around, she is both a student at BM’s ballet classes and a teacher of Bollywood dance.

At BM’s Bollywood dance class, students are learning Bollywood moves such as the signature “dipping” and hip-shaking, various hand gestures, eye movements and footwork.

Deepika obliges a request to demonstrate. The hand gestures, she says, come from Indian classical dance. She shows the Pataka (flag), Tripataka (denotes three parts of the flag), ardhapataka (half flag) and the Kartarimukha hasta (scissors). Deepika says she will also teach students the eye movements, and moves her eyes and head to the left and then to the right. There’s nothing fancy about the footwork, she insists, and stands up to show how to “dip,” Bollywood style.

Deepika explains that these movements come from the Indian classical dance form called Bharata Nyam. Bollywood takes a lot from Kathak as well.

Deepika, Eesha and Krisha are joined by the girls’ moms, Harsha Karnani and Minal Shah, who are happy their daughters are so immersed in dance this summer.

“Bollywood uses a lot of hand gestures and takes a lot of inspiration countless number of genres of Western, Latin, disco and Indian culture and traditions,” says Deepika. “They do a mixture of everything. In the West, Bollywood is viewed stereoptypically as a colorful performance.”

At her Bollywood class in Manila, Deepika wants to show students that Bollywood is more than a grand spectacle.

“My goal here is to inspire Ballet Manila dancers and the other kids, to show them the different genres and variety in Bollywood and maybe get their interest in it so that they can explore further. I want to show them that we have a lot of diversity in our songs and dances.”

In between teaching her Bollywood classes, Deepika is taking classical ballet classes with BM as well. 

In India, according to Deepika, ballet is in its very nascent stage. People are not very aware of ballet and its popularity and importance globally.  Dance schools there offer mainly jazz, hiphop and modern dance. Finding a ballet class there is difficult. Ballet has never been a main offering. Ballet productions are rare.

Deepika started RHF with co-founder Swara Patel, who, she says, is “the strength and inspiration behind the idea, inception and the running of RHF.”   

Located in the western part of Mumbai, RHF operates two studios boasting of a combined enrollment of 350 students. The name Happy Feet was inspired by the Disney movie and the school was conceived to be a children’s dance school. Deepika says they may one day have to rethink the name of the school as it attracts more and more older students and adults. 

“Along with ballet, RHF has been pioneering toddler education in dance, creative movement for young children, other dance styles like jazz and hiphop, and we have a fitness division,” she explains. It offers strength training and zumba for ladies.

Krisha attends a rehearsal class for Paquita, conducted by prima ballerina and BM artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde

For the last two years, RHF has been conducting ballet examinations, under the guidance of BM. Osias “Shaz” Barroso, co-founder of BM, conducts the exam, assesses and guides the students. Furthermore, he has held sessions with the parents of the students and that, according to Deepika, “has helped bring more awareness about this wonderful art form.”

Since awareness of ballet in India is not widespread, Deepika says that RHF is constantly faced with the challenge of creating awareness and interest among parents to encourage their children to take up ballet.

“Our partnership with Ballet Manila has helped us in this regard. Parents look up Ballet Manila online and read more about its accomplishments and they discover the achievements of Ma’am Lisa (Macuja-Elizalde, BM artistic director), which has led to increased enrollment in our ballet programs.”

With Deepika in Manila for the BM summer intensives are two 12-year-old students of RHF, Eesha Karnani and Krisha Shah. Both girls are here under a scholarship offered to them by Ballet Manila. They underwent the examination conducted by BM co-artistic director Osias Barroso last year.

Krisha is a gymnast and a ballet dancer. She started gymnastics at the age of 6 and has excelled at it ever since. She participated in gymnastic competitions at the district level and then, in 2010, was selected to be a national player for the age group under 10. Her coach suggested that she take up ballet to develop correct posture and balance. 

“My coach said that my body was ready for ballet. And that I have the strength for it,” says Krisha.

Deepika, seen here at the BM compound, is herself is taking classical ballet lessons that will she be teaching in her Mumbai school later on.

Eesha has been studying ballet for four years already, starting at the age of 7½ with pre-ballet and moving on to certified ballet for the lasttwo years now. A good swimmer and once a student of Indian classical dance, Eesha got interested in ballet because of her fascination with pretty ballerina stories from Barbie and Disney books.

Both girls are here in Manila with their mothers.

Harsha Karnani, Eesha’s mother, believes that ballet has done a lot for her daughter.  “Ballet helps your figure, your dance form. It’s very disciplined, very beautiful, and agraceful form of dance. She has benefitted a lot from dance school, both in personality and nature. Eesha has learnt discipline, patience, concentration. Dance has brought a lot of agility and grace in her movements. Also, she has become more confident and a cheerful girl from the shy and reserved little girl she used to be.”

To qualify for the scholarship, both girls had prepared for the exam for a year. 

“We had to prepare everything to perfection!” Eesha recalls.

Krisha’s mother, Minal Shah, beams when she speaks of her daughter’s success at the examinations conducted by Shaz. 

The first year, Minal recalls, Krisha stood first in that exam. She continued doing ballet for a second year. Again, Shaz came for the examination. Again, she stood first and they offered a scholarship for the ballet summer workshop in Manila. 

“We are thankful to Ballet Manila for this experience and opportunity. It is good to come here to learn ballet from the masters. Right now, Krisha is doing gymnastics and ballet both very nicely.  She wants to achieve a great level in ballet as well as in gymnastics,” Minal says.

Eesha also made a strong impression on Shaz. Harsha, Eesha’s mother, recalls that he told Eesha she was capable of going further in ballet. “He encouraged her to prepare for the exam and so here we are! I was very keen that she come andstudy ballet here and get better and better!”

The girls start class at 8 a.m. and finish at 8:30 p.m., with a few breaks in between for meals. At BM, they are learning the rigors of the Vaganova method but enjoy the freedom of street dance, modern dance and even Bollywood dancing.

Acccording to Harsha, Eesha has never danced for so many hours in a single day in India as she is doing now at Ballet Manila. 

“Thanks to Sir Shaz for awarding her a scholarship for the summer intensive, she is being exposed to much much more of ballet and other dance forms in a more disciplined and concrete environment. We would like to thank Ma’am Lisa for giving Eesha this wonderful opportunity to learn and take back so much more in ballet,” Harsha says.

In Mumbai last January, Osias Barroso posed with Rhythmus Happy Feet co-founders and co-artistic directors Swara Patel (in blue) and Deepika Ravindran (with red sash) and students, including Krisha Shah and Eesha Karnani.

Both girls are looking forward to joining the recital at the end of the summer workshop which will be held on May 29 at Aliw Theater.

For the recital, Deepika reveals that BM dancers in her Bollywood class are now learning a short segment of the classical Indian dance form Bharata Natyam dedicated to Shiva.  

In India, most of the arts are dedicated to the Gods and dance, in particular, is attributed to Nataraja, explains Deepika.  “The image of Nataraja, worshiped at the start of a session of classical dance, is strikingly beautiful in its symmetry and symbolism. Nataraja is a form of Shiva. Shiva is the deity who holds the Universe in balance through a cosmic dance of creation and destruction.”

Most dancers in India will have an image of Nataraja in their homes.

For Deepika, it’s been a long journey to find her place in the world of dance. She started with Bharata Natyam at the age of 7 and pursued it for ten years, got a degree in Computer Science, tried her hand at event management, theater acting and even insurance sales. She found her true calling, she says, when she started learning jazz. She was a late starter – at the age of 21 – in Western dance. Jazz, she says, opened the door for her to contemporary dance and eventually ballet. 

“With ballet, I found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

For RHF, it is Deepika’s dream to see her students compete in a prestigious event like the Asian Grand Prix, an international ballet competition where BM has won many accolades.

“I am sure with the guidance and support of BM, we would be able to achieve that goal.”

Meanwhile, Deepika, Eesha, Krisha and mothers Harsha and Minal, still have to contend with the searing heat of the Philippine summer. But all are effusive when they say they are all enjoying their Manila sojourn and want to come back in the future. The heat is not bothersome, they say. “It’s hot everywhere. Even in Mumbai,” they all agree.

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