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Yesterday I had my first lesson in Bollywood dance. As part of the Southbank Alchemy, the largest UK festival of South Asian culture, members of the cast of Bring on the Bollywood offered a dance workshop to those with tickets for their show at the CAST in Doncaster. That is the company featured in the video above.
Now I have to confess that I do not know a lot about Indian dance or popular culture. I don't speak any Indian languages beyond a few words of Urdu that my mother had taught me. She picked them up from her father who had lived in Lahore. He was the last of several generations of my mother's family who had spent their lives in the Sub-Continent some in the armed forces and others in the civil service.
Everyone in my mother's family, whether they had spent any time in the Sub-Continent or not, had an enormous affection for the region and a very high regard for its people. My mother and her sisters always wanted to return and, in particular, to see my grandfather's house in Lahore which was next to the Roman Catholic cathedral. Something I managed to accomplish in 1992, a few months after my mother's death while my aunts were still alive, on my one and only trip to Pakistan. I have inherited that affection and regard and while my knowledge of the culture of the Sub-Continent remains superficial, I take every opportunity I get to learn a little bit more.
Before attending the workshop I had seen one Bollywood film in an Indian cinema in Southall and a couple more on video at the Washington home of my best friend from St Andrews who was then working for the World Bank. I had attended the Bollywood Icons: 100 Years of Indian Cinema (8 March – 16 June 2013) at the National Media Museum (as it was then) in Bradford. I had also read Irna Qureshi's Bollywood in Britain blog. That was just about it.
I attended the workshop with a friend of Indian heritage who knows a lot about Indian dance in general and Bollywood, in particular, having danced in a Bollywood musical at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a few years ago. The workshop was due to start at 14:00. It was to take place in a dance studio on the first floor of the theatre. I collected my friend from her home in Bradford just after 12. Normally that have been would be more than enough time to reach Donny but there was an incident on the A1 which delayed us by over half an hour. As a result, we arrived at the CAST theatre after the workshop had started.
We, therefore, missed the warm-up and introductions but not a lot of the choreography. Nisha Aaliya showed us the steps and arm movements that the rest of the class had been taught and we were able to catch up quite well. The routine that we learned was the second number in the show. It started with the dancers in the wings. After a few bars, we danced on stage using the steps that Nisha had taught us. We then faced the audience with our hands in what I believe to be the namaste position. We raised our hands above our heads. More dancing to the left and right, then a clockwise turn and an anticlockwise turn, we exchanged something like a high five with the person next to us with different hands several times, we danced around each other, we drew an imaginary bow and arrow several times, assembled ourselves into a line in height order with our arms at different angles and then broke from the line assuming a pose of our choice.
Not knowing how to dress for a workshop I turned up as I would for ballet in a leotard, tights and ballet shoes.
"You're showing me up" hissed my friend, "this is Bollywood, not La Bayadere"Well, it is true that I was the only one dressed like that but nobody had told me about a dress code. Moreover, the plot of the show that we saw in the evening had several things in common with Petipa's ballet including a compulsory marriage, a scene in the mountains and a snake of a woman who nearly destroyed the heroine.
The workshop passed very quickly and I had a whale of a time. It was a friendly class that included children who seemed to know quite a lot about this style of dance as well as adults. I was the most overweight, woefully unfit and least coordinated member of the class but even I was able to keep up. If I had more time, I would certainly look out for a regular Bollywood class. Alas, I struggle to find time even for ballet.
The class was an opportunity to see a bit of the theatre than few members of the public ever see. The studio had a wall mirror and barre and a beautifully sprung floor. The dancers at Northern Ballet, Ballet Black and the National Dance Company of Malta must know that studio. I can see why so many fine dance companies include Doncaster in their itineraries.