After nearly 25 years on the dance scene, John Britto is going global
Fresh off the Big Boss high, John Britto chats about his 25th year in the scene, and his plans for global domination
John Britto is going global. Come 2018, this choreographer who is already an institution of sorts, when it comes to pioneering Western dance in Chennai says, “Our international locations will be revealed one by one.” This is fresh off the high of his company John Britto’s Dance Co. working on Big Boss which was hush-hush during the shoot of course. “We had to come up with the sequences for the celebrity entrances into the house, but the real fun was in keeping the actors apart during the rehearsals at our studio because no one was supposed to know who they were entering the house with,” he chuckles.
As for the future, Britto emphasises that a big part of his vision for expansion (beyond his existing 11 branches in the city ) is weaving in ‘inclusive teaching styles’. This was inspired from a reality show his company mentored for persons with disabilities three years ago, called Champions on Sun TV. “I would keep getting asked at the end of the show, ‘Sir, where can I continue learning?’ And I honestly couldn’t single out one go-to destination,” the 42-year-old recalls. “It made me ask the dancers on our team, ‘Are we really reaching out to everybody?’”
Summer of ’93
Flashback to the summer of ’93. Long before the sheen of mirror-walled dance studios and snazzy branding campaigns synonymous with the letters ‘jb’ — there was a 15-year-old from Don Bosco who would approach school principals in a formal shirt and tie asking to teach their students Western dance. “I would wait for hours and hours outside their offices,” he remembers. Keep in mind, these were the days when hip-hop or jazz classes were unheard of in Chennai and were sceptically associated with rebellion or bad behaviour. “I’d get shooed away with explanations like, ‘Western dance will spoil our children’ or in girls’ schools, the classic, ‘We don’t allow boys!’” That or the fact that he was too young. “I am not a trained dancer,” he shares. “Dancing just made me happy”. This was the era of MC Hammer and the C+C Music Factory.
Eventually, Britto decided to go back to the one place he thought was too strict to even consider a Western dance class — his own school, Don Bosco. After a relentless marathon of requests, he was granted permission to conduct a summer vacation class on the final day of school. “So I wrote my first ad with my parent’s landline number on a chart paper and stood at the school exit gate to catch students as they left,” he recounts. That first group ended up being 17 students who were taught at Rs 75 for almost a month.
At the time, it didn’t occur to Britto that a teaching business would require capital, which a 15-year-old
did not have access to, even to rent a space. “I played it by ear, if I heard a parent say they had a community hall in their building — I was there. If my college was from 8 am to 1 pm, I was teaching a school batch at Good Shepherd on campus at 2.30 pm. Dance was all consuming.”
Prepping for his annual Chennai Dance Championship next and squeezing this interview in before judging a corporate dance event in the evening — not much has changed. Except for one thing. Britto is grateful that people have finally stopped asking him the question, ‘How long do you think you can sustain this dancing thing?’
The JB formula
“I’ve been called ‘Sir’ since the age of 15, so these days, it feels odd when someone calls me by name!” says John Britto. If you’re wondering how a teenager managed to create and expand a successful business around dance — we’re told, the answer lies in a word: ‘sustainability’. “My dancers have a pension, gold scheme, petrol scheme and medical insurance — just like any other company,” he says. Hailing from a middle class background, with no godfather doling out the moolah, most folks might have re-routed after college, to seemingly more profitable ventures. But Britto credits his education to helping him stay on course instead. “It was after my MBA that I understood I could really make a career out of this and how,” he recalls. In line with his mission to reach everybody, however — he continues to price his fees at an affordable `150 an hour, as opposed to the market rate of anywhere from Rs 600 to Rs1,500. “I never want my classes to be a luxury, I want them to be accessible,” offers Britto.