International Dance Day: The top dance forms trending across the nation, right now!
We traverse through the nation to find out how waacking, voguing, kathak-flamenco and folk forms like poikkaal kuthirai aattam are changing the face of the performance art in India
Agnes de Mille, American dancer and choreographer once said, “The truest expression of a people is in its dance and its music. Bodies never lie,” and her quote rings true for most of India. As a culture, we are defined by the way we move and while the debate — of what is classical and what is folk, what is borrowed and what is indigenous — will always continue, no one can deny that dance is an integral part of the living culture that we use to define our identity as Indians.
This International Dance Day — a day created by the dance committee of the International Theatre Institute (ITI); on the birth anniversary of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810), the creator of modern ballet — we take a look at styles and forms of dance that are slowly seeping their way into our collective imagination and also celebrate the enthusiastic re-emergence of forms that we seem to have lost along the way.
From waacking and voguing, to kathak-inspired flamenco and popular and refreshing takes on semi-classical and folk forms from India, we traverse through the country to take a closer look at the hottest dance forms trending across the country.
When someone says that waacking/whacking is a dance form categorised within the new ballroom movement, it almost always leads to confusion. But the term ballroom here is derived from the word ball which in turn originates from the Latin word ballare which means ‘to dance’ (a ballroom being a large room specially designed for such dances), and shouldn’t be confused with the traditional meaning of ballroom dancing. “Most of us saw this form online and taught it to ourselves,” says Kolkata-based 27-year-old dancer Sangram Mukhopadhyay, one of the most popular names in waacking, in the country today. “In India, waacking came to us like a younger sibling of hip-hop.
I was looking for a song and came across a workshop for the form by Los Angeles-based Kumari Suraj (often called the ‘The Queen of Whacking Nuevo’) whose roots lie in India and who played an important part in introducing the style to the South Asian diaspora. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn directly from her, but there were enough videos online to learn the form from. We connected and she came to India a few years ago and we managed to do a few classes together and there’s been no turning back since,” adds Sangram who began his foray into dance with waacking in 2011.
“A lot of people were discovering the form online and were learning through videos, and we began to slowly connect over the Internet and then began to meet in person at dance battles and events, where we shared what we learnt. There was a lot of interest and so at some point we did start teaching. Today, there are many studios across the country that are offering training in waacking and other related styles. I do teach sometimes, but I am more interested in popularising the form,” he further elaborates.
At the other end of the country, Srilakshmi Muralidharan — known more famously as MisB — also teaches waacking in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru. “I learnt the form online and have been teaching it since 2018,” she tells us. “It all began when I saw the form for the first time at a dance battle in Mehsana, a small town in Gujarat, and people were performing all kinds of styles there. Honestly, waacking seemed the easiest to learn and my obsession began then,” she adds.
Bengaluru to Barcelona
Down South, in Bengaluru, classically-trained 42-year-old danseuse and actress Archana Kumar discovered a similarity between flamenco and kathak, while she was studying dance in the US and her curiosity led to her pursuing the art form professionally. “I began studying dance as a child and trained in bharatanatyam before pursuing an education in kathak at Natya & STEM Dance Kampni in Bengaluru in 1996. I then went to the US and while I was learning many other forms of movement, I came across flamenco and was surprised by how many similarities it shared with kathak. This was in 2004. It took me a few years before I began to consciously try and learn the dance form and meld it with my training in kathak,” she explains.
It hasn’t been easy for Archana, as the custodians of the art form in Spain are very protective of the dance. “I was reduced to tears on one occasion because they didn’t like the idea of me comparing the dance form to anything else (kathak), but I have continued to practice it and I recently found a guitarist, Sanjeev Shri, based in Bhopal who is also interested in flamenco music and so we now produce work together,” Archana adds. Archana continues to perform and work with different performance art forms and is open to teaching the form to students who are genuinely interested. “My work will always represent my need to find a form of self expression that is unique to me and so therefore this will continue to be a journey of self exploration and constant learning,” she tells us.
Breaking the rules
Hyderabad-based Aayana Dance Company (on the cover) — earlier based in Bengaluru — is creating ripples in the dance community for very different reasons, however. A motley crew of dancers from different training and backgrounds, they burst into popularity with a Harry Potter-themed classical dance reel on Instagram in October 2020. The reel, which has since been viewed over 4 million times, drew attention to the dance company which now has studios in both Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
“I think one of the reasons we’re open to experimentation is the varied backgrounds we come from. There’s Pallavi Manjunath (31), who is trained in bharatanatyam; Vhishal Swami (26), who is trained in latin dancing and hip-hop; Raksha Ganesh (25), who is a contemporary dancer; Manish Kumar (24), who comes from the world of reality shows and cinematic dance; and me, who comes from training in theatre and football. My first attempt at even trying bharatanatyam was after we founded this company and my wife, Pallavi, taught me the basics,” explains 29-year-old Krishna Manognya Balaraju, artistic director of the company.
More recently, the company is also re-producing one of their popular productions Partha, a retelling of the tale of Arjuna, with music from the hit anime Avatar. “We’re open to all kinds of influences and inspirations. From Coke Studio to pure classical compositions and everything in between,” adds Krishna, whose latest collaboration with his company is a modern kuchipudi retelling of Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman with Hyderabad-based dancer-actress Sandhya Raju.
The company refuses to be categorised as a contemporary school of dance and continues to redefine what dance can mean to a modern Indian, evolving as they journey through varied styles and forms, never settling on just one.
Back to our roots
In Chennai, another revival is underway. Known primarily as a bharatanatyam dancer, 29-year-old Kali Veerapathiran is now trying to change his focus to indigenous folk dances that he believes, define him more innately. “I come from the fishing village of Kovalam, just outside Chennai and before I began learning and performing bharatanatyam, I was first introduced to dance through the Tamil folk forms. I began my journey performing oyilaattam, thappaattam, karagaattam and poikkaal kuthirai aattam after I learnt them in DakshinaChitra from Kannan Kumar master. Those dances continue to be the ones closest to my heart,” says Kali, who now runs Kalaikoothan School of Arts in Chennai.
Kali lost his father when he was very young; it was his mother — a construction labourer — who worked hard to raise him and his many siblings. His talent for dance was spotted in a Tsunami Rehabilitation Centre and a sponsor sent him to Kalakshetra, in Chennai, to study bharatanatyam. Kali’s dream was always to start a dance school and teach both the folk dances of Tamil Nadu as well as the classical forms (that continue to be largely inaccessible to the poor).
“There is a revival of interest in these folk forms and that brings me a lot of joy. These forms are closer to Tamil culture and they are true to the soil they come from. I will always enjoy being known as a folk dancer and while my classical training is definitely a part of me, these folk forms are where I truly am myself,” concludes Kali, who is also involved in researching and popularising these forms among urban populations across Tamil Nadu.
Indigenous dancers continue to invent new ways to bring modern styles of dance from across the world to a local population; and while hip-hop and belly dancing have definitely caught on and are already very popular; and contemporary dance in its many indefinable myriad forms continues to be the urban favourite — newer forms of movement, a fusion or revival of old forms, are slowly catching the imagination of young people in pockets all across the country and that leaves us very hopeful.
While waacking uses poses as breaks in movement that can either be a full intense stop or ones that ooze drama; voguing — brought into popularity by the drag community — can use poses in the same way, but they tend to be executed one after the other to the syncopated beats in the music as if posing for pictures. Voguing is now officially in India, thanks to Patna-based dancer Abhishek Singhania who is known as Jiya LaBeija. While his background is that of a contemporary dancer (having trained with Nritarutya Dance Studio in Bengaluru in the past), Abhishek had also helped popularise Yanis Marshall’s high-heel dancing for men in India, earlier. Abhishek is now a member of The Royal House of LaBeija, a prominent drag family founded by Crystal LaBeija and Lottie LaBeija in 1972, in New York, USA and officially represents the family in India, teaching this style of voguing to anyone interested.