The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Item dancers
A look at the growing breed of young men and women who perform at events

A look at the growing breed of young men and women who perform at events

They belly dance, they hip-hop, they JLo, they Shakira. And of course, they know all the moves from Bollywood. At times they are a welcome break from the uninspiring models in a fashion show or a beauty contest. At times their jhatkas and matkas are waved off as gross. At times they inspire catcalls and whistles. They are the item — or commercial — dancers. They are everywhere, but it is difficult to recall a face in particular. They dance better than Bipasha Basu to Bidi, though their names often go unannounced at the shows

Their number is growing steadily in the city. Talk to these young men and women — mostly in the 18-25 age-bracket — and they are determined to make a mark in the world of entertainment, but will have none of the sniggering that dancers at public events would meet with even a few years ago. They will not be the Miss Pinky of yore in the ill-fitting sequined bustier — they are professionals in halter-necks.

The profile

In the age of entertainment, the social snobbery associated with dancing at shows and parties seems to have disappeared a lot, even in middle-class Bengali homes, from where many of the dancers hail. And many enjoy total family support. Ipshita Bakshi started dancing when she was four or five. “I started with Kathak. My father is a tabla player. Obviously he sent me to be trained in Kathak, but about four years back I felt that there was more of a demand for commercial, item dance, Bollywood and Western numbers. That’s when I decided to change,” says Ipshita, who specialises in belly-dancing. Luckily for her, the parents didn’t mind. “They have supported all my decisions. Especially my mother. In fact, she is the one who now keeps track of all my shows, talks to the clients and finalises my schedule,” says the 24-year-old.

For 19-year-old Payal, too, getting her parents to agree to let her dance was never a problem. “I first joined a dance group Big Blast when I was in Class IX,” remembers Payal, who now has a troupe of her own, Twinkle Dance Group. “I was very young when I joined Big Blast and I did outstation shows with them, travelling to Madhya Pradesh and Nepal,” says the girl who is from a business family and is a resident of Dum Dum Park . “My parents did not object.”

But not everyone is so lucky. Ravi, a college student, who has been a part of Payal’s group for a year and a half, admits that he has to face parental disapproval. “My family has a business and my parents are not happy with my being part of a dance troupe. They do not approve of the life. But it is my passion, so I carry on in spite of their objections,” says Ravi.

Job skills

A thorough knowledge of the Bollywood numbers is a must. “We mostly do hip-hop, freestyle and the Bollywood numbers. Favourites change with each new hit, so we have to keep updating our repertoire. For example, the current favourite is Bhool Bhulaiyya and we have to do that a lot,” says Bunty, a choreographer who started as a dancer about 10 years back. A student of Goenka College then, Bunty dropped out when he found it difficult to balance study and work. But today, he tries to organise rehearsals in a way that will give those in his troupe time to study. The criteria for selection vary. “I stress on talent. I have no formal training, so I know that a person may not have got the opportunity to get a formal training, but has talent,” says Bunty.

But training is an important requirement to get into Crecendo, a group managed by choreographer Debraj Ghosal. “Some of my dancers have worked with experts like Tanusree Shankar before switching to commercial dancing,” he says. The scenario changed in the last decade. Before that, live shows were few and far between. “Then we would be jobless for nearly three-four months. But now there is something going through the year,” says Bunty. November-December are peak periods with groups bagging as many as six to 10 shows a month. During the lean period this may drop to two-three shows a month.

The platforms are many: awards shows, talent hunts, corporate and club parties and providing the back-up to a star programme. Many dancers are part of television shows where they provide the back-up to a star or a contestant. Making a mark is tough and troupes spend long hours at rehearsals. “We usually practice for three hours twice or thrice a week,” says Payal. But practice sessions stretch longer when a show is close, often extending to the small hours. “The quality of shows are better. There are more out-of-town shows. Payments are better. Competition has increased, and so I have to prepare myself more now for a show,” explains Ipshita.

Bunty points to the changed mindset. “They used to think earlier that those who dance are from very poor families and are doing it for money. There was no respect. But now the situation is a little better. My dancers are all from well-to-do families. They don’t come here for the money. They come because they are passionate about dance,” says Bunty.

While that may not be true for all the dancers, for money remains a need for many, another big hook is the glamour. The shows are a good platform for wannabe models and actors to be spotted. “Even while doing shows, I used to participate in a lot of competitions. Finally I was spotted at Dance Bangla Dance and received a film offer. I am playing a journalist in the forthcoming film Satyamev Jayate,” says Priyadarshini Ghosh, a 19-year-old student of South City college. She makes it clear that though she would dance at parties and shows, she was never an item dancer. “I have my own back-up troupe of girls and boys,” she says.

The struggle

But it’s not easy still. On stage, they are the Hrithik Roshans and Bipasha Basus. But for the dancers, especially the girls, it’s a fight. Dancing like the Bollywood babes requires dressing like them and facing the male gaze. Debraj insists “it’s not a skin show”. “I try to dress as comfortably as possible, but the costume does have to match the theme. It’s part of the job,” shrugs Ipshita. Most dancers wear a body suit for comfort. “We don’t show skin. Even if the costumes are revealing, there’s a body-suit underneath,” agrees Payal.

But that is not protection enough from lecherous men. “People seem to think that models and dancers are available,” says Ipshita. She tries to take it in her stride. The harassment may go beyond staring or a comment. “Sometimes they try to take pictures while we are dancing. On New Year’s eve men try to dance with us. My girls and I don’t allow that,” says Payal. Every group and dancer works out its own support system to handle this. They have to be on alert all the time. The shows, too, have to be chosen carefully, keeping in mind the reputation of the organisers and the venue. Ipshita tries to take her mother with her while meeting clients, and on shows. “Men often get drunk and lose control. But our job is to perform and then leave. I ask the girls and boys of the group to stick to themselves,” says Bunty.

The discomfort factor is less for men. “I have never had to listen to any lewd comments from women,” says Ravi.

Beyond the spotlight

And the arclights fade, all too soon. “The age of a female dancer is between 18-24. For the men, it might be 18-25,” says Debraj. Many girls get married after that. The truly dedicated and enterprising among both girls and boys turn to choreography, having formed a group by then. Some move to greener pastures in Mumbai for related jobs. The lucky few have already made it big by then as models or actresses. Like Priyadarshini. “I never intended to stick solely to dancing. But yes, it did create a platform for me and helped me to get spotted,” she says. Some try to make ends meet by working as dance tutors, but this, says Bunty, is not enough. “If we had an institute, we could have absorbed the old dancers, who would have had a steady income,” he muses.

The biggest problem: income is never steady and definitely not huge at any point of time. Many admit that after a point dancing cannot be a sole source of livelihood. “I get about Rs 3,500-4,000 for a show and out of that I have to pay the troupe, buy the costumes and pay for transportation. One cannot depend solely on this after a certain point. It is okay as long as you are a student,” says Payal, a college student. Ravi, who works in her troupe, gets Rs 700 per show. For a “junior artiste”, it may be as little as Rs 400. “But I am doing this as long as I’m a student. It cannot be my profession. I’ll join the business afterwards,” says Ravi.

Once on the stage however, no worry of money or future, can take away from these girls and guys the kick they get from dancing. Eyes focused, bodies arched, they seem transported to a world as glittering as their costumes, as they jhoom to tunes that have given birth to many stars.

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