Musings: Kathak, Bharatanatyam—or Ballet?
When DEEPAK SINGH took his 6-year-old daughter to India, he hoped that she’d get interested in Indian traditions and culture, like dance. Instead, what she remembers from her trip to the country Singh left 12 years ago has little to do with India and a lot with where she’s growing up—the United States. But that doesn’t mean Singh has given up.
I went to India with my wife and daughter in December. We spent about five weeks visiting my parents there. My mother and father love to see us, and especially their grandchild. Each year, ever since my daughter was born, I hope that she will learn some more Hindi in India, acquire a taste for different kinds of Indian food, and become familiar with Indian weather.
When we arrived in Lucknow, my hometown in northern India, I thought it would be a good opportunity for her to get a taste of some Indian dance. She loves dancing in the U.S., and her tastes range from Bollywood numbers to Taylor Swift. What better place to learn Indian dance than India, I thought.
I asked some local residents whether I could sign her up for some traditional Indian dancing lessons. Someone said something about ballet lessons. My daughter’s eyes lit up. “Ballet!” she exclaimed. She had been talking about ballet lessons in the U.S. but we hadn’t gotten around to looking into it.
I learned that a Brazilian couple living in Lucknow, my hometown, had been teaching ballet to young Indian girls. In the U.S., I have taken lessons in salsa, bachata, and merengue from people from Latin America, but I wasn’t expecting anyone to be teaching ballet in Lucknow. I don’t usually think of Lucknow as such a cosmopolitan city, like New Delhi, where people could be looking for European dance lessons.
I was curious and she was interested. I got their address and tracked them down. The school was a nondescript house in a posh neighborhood of Lucknow. Karen, a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman, wearing a shirt and trousers with a scarf draped loosely around her neck, greeted us at the door. She appeared to be in her late twenties. If she hadn’t spoken English with a Portuguese accent, I would have taken her for an Indian. She told us she was the owner of the school.
She led us to the dance floor, which was rectangular in shape and about 500 square feet in size. One of the walls was lined with mirrors and had a long handrail against it. The floor was wood.
She said, “The idea of teaching ballet in India came to us because there are a lot of after-school activities available for boys, but not for girls. I thought ballet was a good medium to teach girls to walk with good posture, feel confident and take pride in being girls, especially in a society where expectant parents often hope more for boys than girls.”
I nodded and she said, “Ballet is about discipline. We ask that each student has a clean white dress, shoes and socks on every time they come for the lesson. I also ask their parents to make sure they eat healthy food, and not so many candies and sweets and fried foods.”
“How much do you charge for the lessons?” I asked.
“3500 rupees for a month.”
Seventy dollars every month is expensive for average Indians, so I asked about her clients. She said, “They are mostly rich Indians, but I give scholarships to kids who can’t afford to pay.”
It seemed like a good reason to me, and my daughter was excited at the prospect of her first ballet lesson. The teacher, another Brazilian woman, pulled her hair into a neat bun and tied a white ribbon decorated with white roses on top. She took her onto the floor, where several little Indian girls were focusing on straightening their spines and balancing on the tips of their toes.
I talked with one of the moms, Shweta, about what made her think of ballet for her child. She said, “I had never thought about ballet lessons for my daughter, but I was lucky to find this place. It’s a different kind of dance and requires a lot of discipline. My daughter loves it.”
As I watched my daughter walk on to the dance floor, I smiled. I had never imagined there would be a Portuguese-speaking couple from Brazil teaching ballet in India. Growing up in Lucknow, I had always thought of the city as a place for ethnic music, kebobs, and literature.
(Above) Singh’s American-born daughter learned ballet in India.
My daughter keeps coming to India, but the things she remembers about India most are American style shopping malls, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s.
I moved to the States 12 years ago and India has changed so much since then that it is almost unrecognizable at times. Maybe next time, I should look harder to find an Indian dance class for my daughter. This time her trip was all about ballet.
Deepak Singh is a writer, radio producer, and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s “The World” and has written for NPR, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
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