As a young boy, Manish Chauhan hated dancing. “It was too girly for me,” says the 21-year-old before he effortlessly leaps into the air and does a double spin, landing gracefully on one leg.
“That’s a double tour en l’air and arabesque at the end,” he says, mouthing the French terms with ease. Meanwhile his friend Amiruddin Shah, 15, is focusing on perfecting the pointes or stylised archings of the foot.
Ballet dancers Chauhan and Shah belong to low-income families from Ulwa and Sanpada in Navi Mumbai. Manish’s father is a taxi driver and Amir’s, a construction worker. But for the last two years, they’ve been training under 73-year-old ballet instructor Yehuda Ma’or at Mumbai’s Danceworx Performing Arts Academy.
They have just been granted a year-long scholarship to study dance at the prestigious Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) in Portland.
For the boys the opportunity is most unusual. OBT has done world tours with internationally acclaimed contemporary choreographers such as Nicolo Fonte, Darrell Grand Moultrie and James Kudelka. Its classical productions include Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, August Bournonville’s Napoli, and restored works such as James Canfield’s Romeo & Juliet.
“If I had not got this opportunity, I would have been struggling with my studies like all my friends, trying to get a regular job,” says Chauhan. “Now, I can dare to dream and do what I am really good at.”
“I had shown some videos of them dancing to Lisa Kipp, the ballet master at the Oregon Ballet Theatre, almost a year ago and she had expressed an interest in getting them to Portland so they could get the additional training they deserve,” he says.
Try, Try again
This is not the first time that opportunity has knocked on the boys’ doors.
In June, Chauhan and Shah were offered a scholarship to New York’s Joffrey Ballet School for three months, but could not take it up because their visas were not ready in time.
This time around, they’ll start lessons from January next year, so they’ll have time to sort out their paperwork. Shah will also be enrolled in morning classes so he can finish school.
A die-hard Akshay Kumar fan, Chauhan’s interest in dance began in college, when he would mimic the stunts he saw on television. “I would practise backflips and head spins to impress my friends. During lectures, I would suspend myself above my seat by holding on to the armrests, just to build my core strength,” he says.
Those little tricks ended up making him a good candidate for ballet, which draws on balance and a sense of timing. Two years ago, Chauhan joined the academy and paid the Rs 6,000 for the first three months of training from saved-up pocket money. “It was my greatest birthday gift to myself,” he says.
Shah on the other hand was a natural performer and would often tag along with his elder brother, who was part of a troupe at Danceworx.
“Yehuda Sir saw me stretching one day and asked me to arch my foot. When I did, he was amazed and immediately took me under his wing because he believed I was born to perform,” says Shah.
The challenge, however was as much in mastering the moves as pronouncing them. Chauhan and Shah would huddle in a corner during class, trying to make sense of the French terms and instructions. “
When I first heard the term sous-sus, I could barely control my laughter,” says Chauhan, of the move in which the dancer springs and brings one foot behind the other while balancing on the toes.
“Then I started taking notes and doing my homework. Now I can almost understand basic French.” He and Shah are now demonstrators who perform to Ma’or’s instructions so other dancers can follow them in class.
It’s hard work preparing to storm the stage. Lessons for the boys start at 9 am and go on for six hours a day. On a good day, like when they’ve completed five perfect pirouettes, Ma’or treats the boys to burgers or a coffee at Starbucks.
“We try to keep an eye on our diet, but we burn a lot of fat at rehearsals,” Chauhan says. “A ballet dancer has to be lithe and in proportion. But, when Shah sneaks in samosas in the mornings,
I devour them without much protest.”
Both dancers are focussed on making a career out of ballet. “I have enrolled in a night school, but I rarely attend,” says Shah. Chauhan dropped out in the last semester of management studies.
“I cannot wait to see a live ballet performance when I go to Portland and maybe someday perform the Le Corsaire, a ballet about the adventures of a pirate, in front of a global audience,” says Chauhan.
What do their parents have to say about the scholarship abroad? “In June they had said ‘Beta, sapne dekhna bahut aasan hai… (It’s very easy to dream)’. We were a little upset then. Now there is a renewed sense of hope for us. I am just waiting for the moment at the airport, when I can tell my folks that it’s my ‘sapne’ that will make them proud of me,” says Chauhan.