What does it take to have a successful dancing career?

I am asking this question specifically for the Indian Classical Dance scene ( primarily because that is the one I am familiar with, though I also believe it is not very different from the performing arts scene elsewhere in the world) and also in relation to gender.

‘Success’ is a much debatable term, however for the purposes of this article, let us attempt to define it very broadly in contemporary terms. Let us say a reasonable span of stage performing career (about 20 yrs ?), with a degree of domestic as well as foreign public and critical acclaim. The journey starts first and foremost with a capable and inspiring Guru, leading on to an ability to lead a musical team, a knowledge base to choreograph new numbers and train one’s own students to a certain degree.

While the dance scene is exploding everywhere and many desis abroad like to perform a bit of classical at some stage or the other, not many classical dancers in India will vouch for it as a relatively sustainable profession leave alone a lucrative one. In my experience, the trend of soloism – mainly emerging from Bharatanatyam– puts the load of the entire system on the shoulders of the dancer. I.e the manifold roles of the agent/manager, publicist, make-up artist, hair stylist, costume designer, jewellery designer, director, producer, scriptwriter/composer, choreographer, anchor, sponsor… More often than not, the dancers inherently have the talent or develop the ability to jugggle most of these roles simultaneously. For every notorius ‘Stage mum’ or ‘tennis parent’, there is an indulging parent or spouse (more controversial) who leads or supports all the way. But in the long run it takes it toll on the performance/creativity of the dancer.

Now why can’t a dancer delegate? The answer is related to the main issue with classical dance – a waning audience. In the renaissance period of classical arts (from the 50s to the 80s), these shows were as popular as Bollywood movies and were ticketed. I have heard many middle aged people recounting tales of queuing up & jostling to watch Yamini Krishnamurthy or Hema Malini in their college days, sounding much like today’s youth about Enrique Inglesias or a Spice Girl. In short, for most public performances, dancers spend out of their pocket to pay even the accompanists and the shows are for free. And still, the near – empty halls prevail. Many dancers and critics have opined on the reasons for this but that is subject enough for many more posts.

So after having to worry about your bread and butter and being decried by family as impractical dreamers, come the gender based issues.

When one is male dancer, there is the classic ‘man in a woman’s world’ syndrome to fight. The irony is that the originator of the dance is Lord Shiva (Nataraja – The King of Dance). This irony along with the cultural milieu is beautifully explored in Mahesh Dattani’s classic play Dance Like a Man.

When one is female dancer, then woe if you marry and woe if you don’t. What kind of a husband will promote your interest? Big Question. He should be well-off and confident in his own right to promote you and not live off you (remember the hero in the novel/Hindi movie Guide ?). Then there are those who relate girls dancing to a matter of bringing down the family/social reputation, particularly after marriage. The very same in-laws who found this addendum on the CV of the young bride a matter of pride, may find it a slur to their honour after the wedding. Or more simply, other priorities take over and dancing steps down from being ‘profession’ to ‘hobby’ or ‘hobby’ to ‘past hobby’. After all who can continue to spare a drawing room to dance and tolerate worn-out tapes of the same obscure songs day and day out? And may the good Lord save you from neighbours if you have a live mridangam accompanist or live in high rise apartments!

For all or some of the above reasons, teaching is also not a good option unless you are teaching abroad, though it could be relied on to bring a little steady income. So in order to ‘succeed’ some dancers go abroad, some ‘network’ with journos, some marry bureaucrats, some rely on alternate careers such a solid bank job, some marry other artists or form groups which pools resources but all these also bring in friction and so on and so forth. ‘All is fair in love and…’ and don’t dancers depict that best?

To know what the living legend & prima ballerina of Indian Classical dance, Yamini Krishnamurti has to say on ‘achieving success’, follow this link.


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