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Dancing with the stars

The truth is that you may recognise them by face, but you won’t know them by name. That is the biggest predicament of Bollywood dancers’ lives – they exist in the shadow of the stars. Don’t call them extras.

brunch Updated: Apr 14, 2012 19:31 IST
Amrah Ashraf

Here’s a test for you – watch your favourite Bollywood song and name any background dancer you see in it. Come on, you know the song, you know the steps, you know the actors, heck, you even remember the costumes. But what about the dancers? Well, the truth is that you may recognise them by face, but you won’t know them by name. That is the biggest predicament of Bollywood dancers’ lives – they exist in the shadow of the stars.



Having said that, today, most dancers in Bollywood have big dreams and are not afraid of chasing them. Yes, they are anonymous (considering most of us still don’t know them) but they are different, very different, from their predecessors. They hate the ‘extra’ label; now they are trying to reinvent the ‘backup dancer’ image as well.



Also, the earlier generation of daily wage earning Bollywood association dancers is long gone. This new breed of dancers trains hard under different choreographers, travels the world for shows and dance tours and earns well – unlike their pot-bellied predecessors.

Interestingly, most dancers today are also well educated, and could have picked up any well-paying comfortable job, like most of us, but instead they chose dancing – because of their aptitude, talent and love of it. That’s the difference – today’s Bollywood dancers are dancers by choice!



Our curiosity got the better of us and we chased down a young Bollywood dancer – Navin Rajaiya – to understand how different today’s Bollywood dancers are, the life that they lead, their dreams and their hopes.



Navin rajaiyaThe New Prototype

Navin Rajaiya, a contemporary Bollywood dancer, comes from a well-off family (they have a construction business), is trained in jazz, hip-hop and Bollywood dance. He works hard to stay fit and dreams of being a choreographer one day.



Life In The Day Of A Bollywood Dancer

When I got a call from a journalist saying she wanted to interview me, I didn’t believe her at first. Each time she called, I muttered some curse words and disconnected the line. But when she kept calling, I finally said, ‘Promise me you’re not joking.’ She swore she wasn’t. She asked me to write a candid account of my life as a Bollywood dancer. So here it is, a page from my diary:



My name is Navin Rajaiya and I am a Bollywood dancer. I am trained in contemporary, jazz, hip-hop and Bollywood dance. I have featured in many hits – including Bunty Aur Babli, Kisna, Dhoom and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. But please don’t label what I do as ‘backup dancing’ or call me an ‘extra’. Call it Bollywood dancing. I am a trained dancer and what I do cannot be replicated by anyone.



Today, the profile of a Bollywood dancer has undergone a transformation. I belong to a new breed of dancers who are trained in various dance forms and take their profession seriously. Most dancers in Bollywood are now part of a choreographer’s troupe. We make sure that we take care of our physique. After all, who doesn’t like looking good on-screen?

With Priyanka Chopra at Femina Miss India, 2008

I am an established dancer in choreographer Geeta Kapoor’s troupe, but it took me nearly a decade to get here. These days, dancers struggle for a year or two but in my time no one considered dancing a full-time profession, especially for male dancers. Whenever I told someone that I was a dancer, people assumed that I was good for nothing.



At 16, I dropped out of junior college to pursue my dream. My sister enrolled me in Shiamak Davar’s classes, but I couldn’t concentrate on my passion. We have a family construction business and I am the only son. I knew that I would have to take care of that once my father retires.



Also, I wasn’t earning enough. Initially, I was paid only Rs800 per show. I would travel in Mumbai’s local trains from the suburbs (Mira Road) to town (Grant Road) every day and have over 12 hours of practice and rehearsals. I had no time to rest and slowly my body was giving up on me. Dancing in Bollywood seemed like a distant dream.



At one point, I even quit dancing to take care of my family’s business. Those were the worst days of my life. That is when I realised that I was meant only for dancing. Determined to get back, I shed 10 kilos. That is when I got my big break with Bunty Aur Babli in 2004 as a part of Shiamak Davar’s troupe. Now, not only do I dance in films, but I have gone on many tours abroad like The Unforgettables tour with the Bachchan family, IIFA Awards, Stardust Awards etc.


With SRK at the Colors Screen Awards, 2012

The lack of recognition from the audience does bother me. You wouldn’t recognise me even if you see me in 100 films. But I am not going to be invisible all my life. I’ll work hard and become a choreographer. But don’t get me wrong – I am not dying for fame. I just want people to give us our due credit.



The best thing about my job is the close bond we can develop with the stars. My friends think it’s a big deal. You have to see their excitement when I post a picture of mine with a celebrity online.



I have worked with everyone from Vidya Balan, Abhishek Bachchan, Rani Mukerji, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, to Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Shah Rukh Khan. Vidya is very down to earth. Shah Rukh talks to us like we’re his buddies. I also got to know Abhishek Bachchan personally during the Unforgettables Tour. Today I can proudly say that he’s a close friend. But most celebrities are not as humble.



Today, dancers are well paid and I couldn’t be happier. Every dancer in a choreographer’s troupe is paid a monthly allowance which can vary between Rs15,000 to Rs35,000 depending on levels of expertise. On top of that, seasoned dancers charge anything between Rs50,000 to R90,000 per stage show and films. So, remember that you don’t have to be an engineer or management graduate to earn well these days. Just tap your feet and make some money.

‘Tap’ on the other side
Professional dancing has seen a surge in popularity, not just amongst dancers but industrywallahs as well. “It’s a good time to dance. The film industry has grown to respect dancers,” says Terence Lewis, choreographer and a judge on Zee TV’s Dance India Dance. Even the number of professional dance companies have increased and Terence feels that’s the way forward. “Dance troupes always existed but with increasing professionalism, dancers have a better opportunity to train hard,” he says.

And with the advent of companies, dancers are paid well. “Salaries can vary between Rs 15,000 to R1 lakh, with health insurance between R1-2 lakh. Also, most dancers become assistants to choreographers or choreographers. Some get hired as trainers. Some also manage the administration of dance companies’ branches.
“Dancers should also ideally be given a cut of profits. But I feel this will take a while.”

From HT Brunch, April 15

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