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Perfectly poised

Ronnie Shambik Ghose (far right) of Rhythmosaic stresses that it takes time to learn and perfect ballet Bangalore’s The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet has over 650 students while the NBATI (next page centrefold) has over 160 students at four of its centres across Delhi and Gurgaon
Pic by The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet/ Mallikarjun Katakol

On a sweltering summer afternoon, a group of carefree five-year-old girls are sauntering along the corridor of Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College. Inside the college’s grand hall, an instructor cheerily welcomes the tiny tots decked up in pink leotards, tutus and pointe shoes and chivvies them to line up in a neat formation.

Their trainer Renata Manescu, who is part of Delhi’s National Ballet Academy and Trust of India (NBATI), has been trained in classical ballet. She moves gracefully into position for the ‘port de bras’ arm sweep so the children can mimic her and perform it in sync.

NBATI has over 160 students at four centres across Delhi and Gurgaon and its director, Mohit Sameer Mehta, is being hounded daily by eager parents of youngsters and even adult beginners for what have become highly sought after places. Says Mehta: “Business is going northward at a great clip.”

You might think that ballet doesn’t have any cultural connect for Indians who are more familiar with the rhythms of Odissi or Bharatanatyam. But Mehta isn’t the only one being deluged by calls from prospective young ballet students and their parents.

Around the country, a clutch of ballet schools is pirouetting their way to success. “Ballet is not just a great fitness mantra. It’s magical and makes you feel like royalty,” says Ronnie Shambik Ghose, artistic director, Rhythmosaic Dance Company, Calcutta, which offers diploma and short-term courses in ballet. “Dance is dance and it gives you a sense of elation when you’re performing,” he adds when asked about why Indians are embracing the dance form.

Cut to the Calcutta School of Music (CSM) where Ranjita Karlekar teaches ballet and modern dance. She says that many children and adults are starting out from scratch along with expats who are keen to take their starting steps in ballet. “Today, everyone, be it the under-10 age group or adult dancers or those from abroad all want to jump onto the bandwagon,” says Karlekar, who has a master’s degree in dance from UCLA, the prestigious US university.

Pic by Rupinder Sharma

What is it about ballet that’s attracting students even though it is an art that requires long years of training to master? Says Ghose: “People find it interesting and sophisticated. There’s a lot of grace and poise involved and I’d recommend that all aspiring dancers give it a try.”

In Bangalore, it certainly seems that the dance form has picked up. Take a look at Yana Lewis, who has over 650 students on the rolls at her institute, The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet.

Most Indian ballet schools teach three variations of the dance form. Lewis, for instance, instructs her students in what is called classical ballet from the Imperial Classical Ballet syllabus which is recognised the world over while the School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance in Mumbai teaches Western Classical Ballet using the syllabus of London’s Royal Academy of Dance.

But Vaganova or the Russian ballet is the most popular form in this country. Some also teach contemporary ballet. Sanjay Khatri of Central Contemporary Ballet, Mumbai, notes there are slight differences of the movement in each of the styles. “It is the head, arm and foot work that makes each style a slightly different from the others,” he explains. “The differences are subtle. But you could start with any of the styles since the basics remain the same,” he adds.

But Ghose of Rhythmosaic warns that ballet is, indeed, a difficult discipline in which to become truly expert. Says Ghose: “Some people think ballet is like fast food — that it can be learnt instantly. But it’s not like Bollywood dance that you can learn over three months. You have to spend a long time learning and perfecting this discipline.”

Khushcheher Dallas, co-director of The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance, agrees and says: “It’s an art form, a lifestyle, which can take years and years to perfect. It takes up to a minimum of six months to a year to learn even the basics of ballet.

Most companies offer pupils a semester system with the option of long- and short-term programmes. But Dallas says it’s hard for students to attend ballet lessons every day, owing to their often hectic schedules. According to her, an hour-long lesson three times a week, is sufficient.

Age factor

There are many other misconceptions about ballet. One is that you must start as a pre-teen. Most ballet schools agree that it’s better if you start young but the good news is that there’s no real age bar even if you start out as a complete novice. Says Lewis: “It’s important to start as young as possible since your muscles need to develop in a certain manner. But even if people start late in life, it’s not that difficult. We get students of all ages,” she says. Lewis recalls one student, Sowmya Puttaraju, who started learning ballet at the age of 27. Puttaraju had the advantage of having been a Bharatanatyam dancer so she already had a certain grace and flexibility. But she made spectacular progress, moving from the beginner level to the advanced level in around a year, thanks to hard work.

So, what are the qualities that are integral to becoming a good ballet dancer? Most trainers say that posture, alignment, strength, balance and flexibility are vital to succeed in ballet. Says Khatri: “Ballet has several grand jumps and pirouettes (spins) — the trickiest aspects of ballet techniques — that require a lot of agility. We can spot these skills and grace that are needed to execute them.”Nevertheless, even students who find it a difficult dance form initially, can improve with training.

Price and training time

If you want to take up ballet full-time, Rhythmosaic offers a diploma and The Lewis Foundation helps you study and learn from the Imperial Classical Ballet Faculty Syllabus if you want to move to higher levels in ballet. Dallas’ The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance meanwhile teaches from London’s Royal Academy of Dance syllabus.

Learning ballet can be costly but not as much as you might think. On the contrary, it’s quite affordable for middle-class families. “I feel that dance should be available for everyone, it shouldn’t be out of reach,” Lewis adds. She charges about Rs 3,800 per child for a four-month period.

In Mumbai, Khatri’s company charges anywhere between Rs 1,800 and Rs 2,500 a month for eight sessions of group classes.

And learning ballet can be a huge assist for anyone who aspires to a career in contemporary or classical dance. Karlekar and Dallas both insist that ballet provides the foundation of any modern dance form. “Be it jazz or salsa, if you have your basics in ballet right, you can master any other style of dance. We get a lot of students who aspire to be jazz dancers and they want to learn ballet,” adds Dallas, who’s a graduate from London’s Royal Academy of Dance.

It is, of course, imperative to have trainers who have their own training basics firmly in place. Fernando Aguilera, artistic director of the Imperial Fernando Ballet Company (IFBC) that teaches Vaganova in Delhi’s posh Chanakyapuri neighbourhood, says: “We have around 15 trainers, some of whom are expats. When hiring trainers, we look for a degree in ballet from an international university. But we make exceptions sometimes. If our students have performed excellently over time, we hire them and also give them advanced training,” he says.

Dallas says students should be wary about not getting the right training —though, obviously, it’s hard to tell when you are still a novice. “It’s hard for us to correct people when they haven’t had the proper instruction since the muscles have developed in a manner that they shouldn’t have. This usually happens when you are not taught right in the first place and this can be very harmful for students,” she says.

Karlekar of CSM says it is also important to have a smaller class of students. “Ideally, the ratio should be about four students to one trainer. That way we can focus on each student better,” she adds.

It’s hardly surprising that it’s mostly girls who are turning up for ballet lessons. The boys are staying away — thinking it is too much of a “girlish” occupation — but that’s a trend around the world. Says Lewis: “Unfortunately, the ratio is as low as one boy to 25 girls in a class. But we do have male teachers who encourage more boys to join,” she adds. Mehta of NBATI also says very few boys want to learn ballet. “Usually, we get a lot of boys till about the age of seven after which this the number begins to fall,” he says.

Students at The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance study from London’s Royal Academy of Dance syllabus.
Pic by The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance, Mumbai
Ranjita Karlekar (in black) attributes the increased awareness about ballet to the Internet
Pic by Rashbehari Das

Most ballet institutes help the dancers find the required stockings, leotards, skirts for girls and skin-tight pants for men. But there’s no need to worry if you can’t find the right gear, you can wear regular workout clothes that don’t interfere in dancing but you have to wear the demi pointe shoes.

And, there are also a lot of websites like www.vidiadanceshoes.com and www. alibaba.com, www.discountdance.com that sell ballet outfits. The shoes cost between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 depending on the size. Leotards are priced from Rs 600 upwards.

Also, depending on where you’re learning your ballet, you can decide on whether you want to be a part of a performance at the end of your course. Some institutes like NBATI always put on dance shows for students and parents. But others like The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet don’t always have performances. Dallas of The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance has realised that not everyone who studies with them wants to become a premier danseur noble or prima ballerina assoluta — the highest rank assigned to a ballet dancer — so it’s best to leave students the option to choose whether to perform.

But whether you are performing in public or not, it’s a great dance form to learn and if you master it, you’ll be a few pirouettes ahead of everyone else on the dance floor. At the very least you’ll have strength, flexibility and grace and will have improved your physique. So go line up at the barre for a workout!