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Dance, little ladies, dance

The portable mini-music system belts out the Twist Twist song from the Hindi film Love Aaj Kal. Sabina Amin shows her class four dance steps and tells her students to smile as they imitate her. Overwhelmed by the experience, one girl runs into her mum’s arms and climbs into her lap. She can be excused — she is hardly four years old and this is her first ever Bollywood dance class.

Teaching their children about Indian culture has become a priority for many Indian-origin parents. And Bollywood dance — the energetic gyrations that Hindi cinema is known for — has become synonymous with Indian culture. Private classes and dance academies that teach Bollywood dance have mushroomed all over London.

“Today’s Asian parents want to keep their children rooted to their culture. They see Bollywood films as something that they can both enjoy together and which give their kids a connect with India,” says Honey Kalaria, who launched Honey’s Dance Academy (HDA) in London in 1997. Today, it has 1,800 students with 15 studios all over London and hopes to expand nationally.

“I realised that British Asians didn’t want Indian classical dance — they wanted Bollywood. When I started my first dance class many people said ‘it won’t work’, but I was on a mission to teach everyone Bollywood,” says Kalaria.

It worked. Thirteen years on, her students have been cast in major film, TV and stage roles like the Harry Potter series, Bombay Dreams, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Mohabbatein, to name a few. Apart from teaching Bollywood dance and the Punjabi Bhangra, Kalaria also manages people looking for professional work as dancers or opportunities to enter Bollywood. “Currently we are looking for dancers for Nikhil Advani’s new venture Patiala House and are shortlisting for an item girl for another big budget film,” she says.

In the last five years, a great many dance schools have surfaced in the British capital. And there’s something to suit every taste. Bollyfusion provides dance classes specifically for mums, babies and toddlers. It claims to help “new mummies face many challenges like making new friends and socialising, losing some extra pounds that came along with the baby, and keeping baby entertained”. Members of Angel Dancers take part in live shows and films, both eastern and western.

Then there is the Bollywood Grooves Dance Company which consists of choreographers, teachers and performers of Bollywood and Bhangra styles of dance.

Britain’s emphasis on multiculturalism, practised by schools and local councils, has clearly given a boost to the popular dance form. Bollywood dances figure prominently when schools and councils zero in on Indian culture.

The schools are also flourishing because many Hindi films are shot in Britain, and need local dancers as extras. Stage shows too often use local talent in programmes billed as Bollywood nights.

Not surprisingly, many Britons see Bollywood dance as a hobby that can lead to employment.

Take 19-year-old Sabina, a student at HDA since 2005, who now teaches at the academy as well as participates in stage shows. “I have an average of 20 students per class,” says Sabina, who is simultaneously revising for her ‘A’ Levels. HDA is also hoping that this year its Bollywood dance classes will get accreditation from the British Dance Council.

“Ten years ago, when my daughter was 11, I had a hard job finding a class which taught Bollywood dance. I would drive around 15 miles just to take her to one. But now there are small academies everywhere, particularly in localities with large Asian communities,” says Vimla Arora, who helps with enrolment at HDA.

Even now Monica Bedi drives 90 minutes every Saturday from the small town of Harpenden in Hertfordshire to Hatch End in Middlesex so that her four-year-old daughter Asha can learn Bollywood steps. “For the first six classes of the last term Asha just sat in my lap. But now she loves it and we have returned for the second term,” says Bedi. Bedi also believes that the dance classes are a wonderful way to boost her child’s confidence. “This class doesn’t teach her just dance, it has made her a more outgoing person. It is a heavy investment for us but we think it is worth it,” she says. Most of the professional classes charge about £100 for a 10-12 week term with a one-hour class every week. Smaller schools charge £5-10 per class.

London schools are introducing Bollywood dance too to teach children about Indian culture. “About five years ago, we were asked by the school where we worked if we could teach some of our students an Indian dance to be showcased at an international evening being held at the school. It was so successful that the headmistress asked to formally begin teaching Bollywood dance as an extracurricular activity offered by the school,” says Varsha Mehta, who has now launched a dance academy, Taal, with her partner Shehnila Raza.

Apart from teaching dance in schools, they give lessons to performers at weddings and cultural events — or, as they say, “just for fun”. Mehta admits that she has had no formal dance training. “I learnt it watching films and doing dandiya and raas at home or during community gatherings. We make up our own steps and we sometimes even ask the children to show us what they want to do,” Mehta says. Raza adds that the dance steps are “clean” and they avoid songs with provocative lyrics. “In fact, we don’t teach any of the gyrating or chesty moves,” she says.

While Kalaria’s academy draws mostly Asians, Mehta and Raza find they have a 50-50 mix of Asians and non-Asians. “When we started we thought only Asian children would come forward but we were so surprised that it was the non-Asian kid who was eager to learn. By the end of the term the non-Asians loved the songs and were singing along to them even though they didn’t understand the lyrics,” says Mehta.

The non-Asian learners at HDA tend to be older and mostly girls who want to join Bollywood as professionals. Kalaria says one of her students, Hazel Keech, learnt dance for seven years and is now playing the female lead in a remake of Don in south India.

With Bollywood dance becoming more and more popular, Kalaria has also launched an Indian Idol-style dance competition called Bollywood Factor. One of the entrants is an 18-year-old Polish girl, Karina Gniazdowska. Currently studying for a diploma in interiors and architecture at Reading University, Gniazdowska came to the UK two years ago from Poland and has a passion for Bollywood. She already teaches her own Bollywood dance class.

While there are those who wish to make Hindi films a career, the majority of people learning Bollywood dance do it just for fun. “Many of the teenage girls or young ladies who come to us dance for fun or to keep fit. We have mums who bring their young children to learn and see how much fun it is that they simply stay on to do the classes themselves,” says Arora.

So far the classes are popular mostly with girls, but boys have started taking an interest as well. “The gender mix is definitely 70-30 in favour of girls,” says Kalaria. “Boys find it more difficult to join dance classes because of negative peer pressure about dance, but we certainly have more boys learning Bhangra,” she adds.

Kalaria’s mission to make “everyone learn Bollywood” is certainly well on its way in multicultural London. Clearly, dance has no language.

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