Chindu Sreedharan


1-2-3 DANCE!
One man's battle against all odds.

Today is my arangetram. At age 27, as a jazz dancer.

I am reasonably supple. Have practised reasonably hard. Know my dance steps reasonably well.

What I am not, even reasonably, is confident.

Right now I am at Sophia College, Bombay. In the second row of an air-conditioned auditorium.

Beside me are my eight dance-mates: Annette, Hansika, Sajjan, Hussain, Anita, Hema, Mukta and Pratik. We will go on stage in a few minutes.

I am not nervous anymore. Just petrified.

My hands are cold and clammy, my pulse clocking something outrageous.

From the corner of my eye I see Hema looking back at the audience. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but she seems more scared than I.

"Relax!" I whisper. "Try and forget they are there."

She smiles gratefully. Nazim, our instructor, turns back from the front row. He takes in our strained faces.

"Are you all right?" he asks uncharacteristically. "Do you want me or Bhavesh [his assistant] to dance with you?"

"No," I croak through parched lips. "We'll manage."

Better this way, think I, than be shepherded in public through our beginner-level, just-three-plus-minute dance.

I lean back and rehearse the moves in my mind: Opening line-up (up at count 12!), dance (stretch, stretchhhh!), scatter to position (ready at 8 and don't forget to smile!), dance...

Block position (small steps for god's sake!), dance, return to scatter, dance, V position (remember to smile!), dance, scatter again, dance (hurry, only four counts to reach!) and final stance...

Had anyone told me eight months ago that I'd be dancing energetically to somebody's tune, I would have had a good laugh.

If s/he had told me I would be sweating it out in a dance class with 12 kids centuries younger than me, I would have laughed in her/his face.

Nobody gave me the opportunity for such a reaction. But that's precisely how things turned out.

And the blame must be placed squarely on my -- forgive me this once, m'luv, I know not what I am saying -- fiancée's shoulders.

A true-blue Goan, dancing is in her blood. She takes to the floor like fish to water.

Me, I am the opposite. Trap me in a discotheque and I will die a thousand deaths.

Not that I had anything against dancing. It was just one of those things that I felt, intuitively, I would be bad at. So I gave it a wide, absolute berth.

If you find that incredible (you mean to say you have never danced?!), let me assure you it is every bit true.

You see, where I come from, a small town in Kerala, discotheques are non-existent. In fact, I don't think there are many/any in the state.

To us, shaking a leg (not that anyone used such 'crude' terms) implied Bharata Natyam and Mohini Attam, and our own unique Thiruvathira, Kathakali and such.

But these, unless you were a girl or from a completely 'arty' family, weren't for you.

Of course, there were a few 'break dance institutes' around, which nobody but the owners took seriously. For Mallus raised on generous helpings of traditionalism and Communism, such forms were corrupting 'Western influences'.

So I grew up, foot-tied and dance-free.

Then Cupid did his bit. By which time I was a working man in Bombay.

"Chindu," says m'lady one day. "Do you dance?"

"Sure," I reply. "Like a nightmare."

"Oh, that's all right," she smiles. "It's easy, I'll teach you."

She tried. The very next day. And failed.

Let me put on record that it was no fault of hers. She is brave; she risked grave physical injury.

But there are certain things that take a bit of doing. This was one such.

"No, no, forget freestyle dancing. Let's try the waltz... No, Chindu, it is the girl who rests her hand on the boy's shoulder..."

"Be careful of my toes, will you please? They are a bit bruised."

"Er, I am dancing double-step... and you?"

"Chindu!!! You are supposed to twirl me, not twirl yourself!"

To her credit, she didn't give up. Over the next few months, between peels of laughter and screams of pain, and Dirty Dancing and Dance With Me, she managed to drill into my feet a faint sense of shadowy rhythm.

Now I could waltz gracelessly. If she led me.

In October, the lady brought up jazz dancing.

"You know what, Chindu... are you listening?"

"Yes, my Goan dew. Of course!"

"I think we should join Shiamak Davar's classes."

I had heard of him in a vague sort of way, like you hear about China's top nuclear chap or something. I was on a different plane altogether, you see.

"You move a bit stiffly, you know," the lady continues. "Once you start dancing with others, you will unwind."

Which was how I signed up at Shiamak Davar's Institute of Performing Arts. For a three-month beginner's course.

Davar, who attained fame through Bollywood blockbuster Dil To Pagal Hai, had a tough crawl up the ladder.

"I went to many people," he was to tell us later, "and they all told me I couldn't dance!"

Because of that, he has a tender corner for youngsters. And a wonderful way with them.

Of course, I didn't know all that then. My reasoning was simple: if a man's gotta dance, he's gotta dance -- and he might as well do it gracefully.

There was a time not long ago when I seriously wanted to be a basketball pro.

In the last three years of that five-year spell, before wiser counsel prevailed, I lived the game, my life revolving around the six gruelling hours of practice we put in each day.

I wasn't too bad at it. At a pinch, I could move with adequate grace and effect on court.

And that, I consoled myself, would stand me in good stead -- after all, dancing too is about movement, right?

Sorry, it doesn't happen that way.

Our instructors Nazim, Shahana and Bhavesh recognised my talents immediately.

"Chindu, right? I said your left foot, left..."

"Move your hands anti-clockwise... don't you know what's anti-clockwise?"

And, "What's that step? You are not begging for food, yaar!"

November shase'd by. I continued to make my presence felt in every class.

In waltzed December and, thanks to certain personal problems, I missed five classes in a row.

When I returned in January, the course was almost over. Sequences had been changed, the dance was 'set'. There were only three more classes before The Presentation in front of a full house.

"You have to learn your dance somehow," Bhavesh took me aside and told me sternly.

I don't know how/what I did, but by the last class I managed to contain my imitation of a jack-in-a-box. I even managed steps similar to what my mates were doing.

"Good," Nazim nodded his approval as we wound up. "If you guys dance like this, at least there won't be any tomatoes coming your way."

Now it is time to face the music.

We get up stiffly, climb on to the stage. The curtain is up, but the lights have dimmed.

Nazim is pointing out the first and second lines to us. I steal a look at the audience. They appear ominous.

We complete our opening line-up. "Watch the floor-lights!" Shahana whispers.

The instructors leave us to our fate.

The lights switch on. I switch off.

I have a vague memory of trying to avoid the floor-lights in the initial move. I think I succeed.

My next memory is that of missing a step. Then another.

I pick up, zombie-like. Once in sync, I blank off again. During that brief moment of consciousness I fancy I hear the audience...

Then the dance is over. There's a smattering of applause. As we climb down, I regain my senses. I can see, hear and comprehend again.

Now, days later as I pen this diary, I still have no clue what happened up there. Did I really do my steps? Or did I just freeze there?

Oh, never mind. No tomatoes came my way. I survived.

Chindu Sreedharan now hopes to star in the Malayalam remake of Saturday Night Fever, playing the Travolta part of course.

Illustrations: Lynette Menezes

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