Envisioning a future for ballet in India
By Jv Ramos
Swara Patel, co-founder of Rhythmus HappyFeet, can still vividly recall the very first time she came to the room where she's currently being interviewed. It was back in 2015 and she had with her a list of demands which she knew was too much to ask of Ballet Manila's artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. But she nevertheless presented these, as she thought it was the only way for children in India to learn ballet with the right technique.
"Lisa was like, 'What can I do for you? How can we collaborate?' And I said, ‘We need you to send us good teachers!’ And immediately, Lisa agreed," reminisces Swara, whose Mumbai-based dance school was doing very well at that time. Despite this, she and her business partner, Deepika Ravindran, still felt that the classes they offered were still lacking, that they couldn't cater to girls who wanted to learn ballet. The two women therefore sought a company in the region that may be able to help, and that's how Ballet Manila came to the picture.
"When she said yes, I was so surprised, because I know it's not easy to send teachers all the way to India. But I'm really happy that she made it happen," Swara adds. "[Since] we all started [dancing] late, we can only do so much for promoting ballet. Bringing in good teachers really pushes things forward."
Swara notes that after BM co-artistic director Osias “Shaz” Barroso's annual visits to their school, BM dancer Czarina Villegas’ teaching stint in India in the last quarter of 2017, and the guest performances of BM dancers Joan Sia and Elpidio Magat in The Nutcracker, the students are now more enthusiastic than ever to train and progress in ballet.
"When we started, we dreamt of having our students take five classes, and that's what is happening now. From taking ballet twice a week, the girls are now coming five times a week. There's been a great change in the girls after they've met Czarina, Shaz and watched the dancers of BM perform."
"In India, there is not a single ballet company; no ballet productions," she explains. "So that’s the really the reason I requested Lisa to send dancers there. Yes, children there see videos of ballet, but they don’t really feel it. Seeing it happen within your circle is a different inspiration." Such experience is something Swara is very familiar with, as she herself got into formal dance training -- an activity which she has always wanted to do as a child – after watching a series of dance productions when she was already married.
"Yes, I only began taking formal classes after the birth of my first daughter," Swara confirms. "And my husband supported this, because he would see, whenever we'd watch dance performances, that I would be very moved by it!" It was through her courage to pursue something new that Swara began to think of opening a dance business that catered to kids.
"While taking professional classes, I noticed that out of the classroom, there was no one offering proper dance classes for children. There was contemporary, jazz and other dances, but it didn’t fit the kids. The approach was different. For example, the kind of music they were using wasn’t appropriate for kids, and the teachers were young, so they didn’t have proper ways of teaching."
She adds, "All the good names are not laying the proper foundation for children. The classes are so intense, so by the time they turn 16, they experience too much pain. Dance shouldn't be too intense when you're teaching kids. For as long as you do it every day, then you're going to be okay.”
Fortunately for Swara, she found a partner who shared her vision, and as soon as they announced the birth of Rhythmus HappyFeet, 150 people signed up and willingly left their numbers with them. "Being a mother and dance teacher, people won't think highly of me. But if you really want something, you have to go all out. What we did was stand outside schools and give out flyers and that's how we were able to get our first students."
What made Rhythmus HappyFeet pursue ballet then? Swara expresses that she's always known that ballet is good for kids. "What I feel about ballet is that gives a very strong foundation. Obviously, ballet is an art. It’s very strong and gives a child a lot of good things. And even if the child chooses not to turn ballet into a career, the good things will last. The discipline, the technique, the understanding of the body, the focus and flexibility."
Despite recognizing that not all who learn ballet pursue a career in it, what Swara wants for their students is to experience dancing in productions and eventually be part of a company. "That's the long-term goal. I also would like to have boys take up ballet. For now, we only have girls, but hopefully, with BM dancers coming in, boys would be inspired to take up ballet."
Right now, Swara is in Manila with her youngest daughter Dhvani and other students from Rhythmus HappyFeet for BM's Summer Intensive Program. "It's [our current stay in Manila] been going good! My daughter is dancing for many hours, and dancers love to do that. For her, it’s like a dream come true!"
Previously, Swara along with Deepika handled Bollywood classes as part of BM’s summer workshop. While Czarina was in Mumbai teaching ballet in the school’s four dance venues, Deepika stayed in Manila to take more classes in the Vaganova method with BM and also had to chance to participate in the company’s production of Ibong Adarna.
Swara is thankful for the partnership with Ballet Manila, commenting how supportive Lisa and Shaz have been in helping to advance their goals. Moving forward, she is confident that with their continued collaboration, the dream of having skilled ballerinas and ultimately, of forming a professional ballet company in India, will one day be within reach.