It didn’t matter to Ruby Narsi that she was 66 when one of Mumbai’s first belly dancing classes kicked off. “I always wanted to learn it but when I was young, belly dancing wasn’t considered very classy; it was thought to be a bar dance,” recalls the sprightly Cuffe Parade resident. She signed up for a three-month program with the Arts in Motion Dance studio in Matunga, which introduced sensual dance forms like belly dancing, pole dancing and the striptease in 2005.
“First, I walked in and yelled, ‘Where have you been all these years?’ Next, I noticed I was the oldest person in the class,” says Narsi, laughing, but adds that she had an advantage there. “At my age, you develop a little paunch while youngsters these days have flat stomachs. This dance is all about wiggling your belly and I was the only one who had a belly to wiggle,” she grins.
As Narsi danced her heart out, a string of studios teaching erotic dance styles has sprung up all over the city. Most combine fitness and sensual dancing, to entice generations bored of cardio and aerobics workouts.
So, has Indian society finally stopped looking at sensual dance forms through its prism of morality? “Not really,” admits Aanchal Gupta, founder of the Arts in Motion Dance studio, “My own family had problems. Belly dancing is not done by respectable people they told me. Projecting it as something that is not sleazy was a huge challenge. But the response I got told me a demand existed despite the biases.” Gupta’s first batch of belly dancers have now reached Level 8, while classes for beginners are still filling up as quickly.
While fitness is the key motivating factor in such classes, an interesting offshoot is that women are learning to explore their sensuality while toning their bodies, even if it is within mirrored walls, and only in the presence of other women.
Pulse, a one-stop dance and fitness studio at Santacruz, offers lap dance workouts, belly workouts, pole workouts and striptease workouts. Dance
instructor Lavina A Khanna says hip swaying and pelvic thrusts go a long way in boosting a woman’s self-image. “We women don’t know how sexy we are and can be. Most women initially feel very shy and start giggling, but these dances help them explore their bodies and feel less inhibited. Ruchi Shah, a 26-year-old, echoes Khanna’s thoughts: “I’ve lost weight but more importantly, I feel very sensual and comfortable with my body.”
Abhilasha Ganeriwala, director of Pulse, plans to introduce tap dancing soon, although it doesn’t have as much of a sexual connotation as the other dance styles. “These styles were considered taboo, and still are by some sections of society. So we emphasise that these are taught only for fitness purposes,” she says.
Shedding socially-conditioned ideas do take some working on, agrees Gupta of Arts in Motion. “The first day, when women have to roll up their T-shirts, most of them are uncomfortable. But by the end of the course, you start seeing pierced navels,” says Gupta with a grin.
The transformation from coy Indian wife to sensual belle is quick for some, slow for others. Some women still feel the need to lie at home and say they are going for “a fitness class”, because it’s not widely accepted, concedes Gupta. She adds, however, “The classes change many lives. I’ve seen women get over heartbreaks and divorces, and make best friends here.”
To ensure that the men aren’t left too far behind, Gupta has also introduced Bachata, a slow and sensual Latin dance where couples are required to be “joined to each other” in a partner-hold. “We ran a trial workshop and it was extremely popular,” says Gupta. “People are more willing to experiment and these dance forms are now considered more exotic than erotic.”
Both attributes were perhaps at the back of 68-year-old Ruby Narsi’s husband when he bought her a belly dancer’s outfit on a recent trip to Egypt. However, some of Gupta’s friends who come from conservative business families, still ask her, only half-mockingly, “Tere mujra class ka kya haal hai?” (How are your mujra classes doing?) Change finds its way slowly at times.