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How I overcame my fear of dancing to groove to an Allu Arjun number

Grounded by covid-19, my plans for an year-long sabbatical moved online, culminating in this Tamil-Telugu dance video

My dance guru, Pooja Kale, and I were practical about what could be achieved by an absolute beginner in a month. Photographs courtesy Swanand Kelkar
My dance guru, Pooja Kale, and I were practical about what could be achieved by an absolute beginner in a month. Photographs courtesy Swanand Kelkar

Over the past few months, John Lennon’s lyrics, Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans, kept coming back to me. I embarked on a one-year sabbatical from my corporate job in mid-February, hoping to devote a month each to 12 different things that I always wanted to do. The first month was spent learning yoga in Madurai and I was looking forward to travelling again in March. That’s when the pandemic grounded flights and my plans. I spent the first couple of weeks in denial, telling myself that things would normalize and I would be able to resume soon. As days passed, that optimism waned and I had to go back to the drawing board.

After some deliberation, I decided that for the period of lockdown I would reorient my original vertical plan into a horizontal one. Rather than spending a month immersing in one activity, I would make use of online learning to take lessons in the different activities that I eventually intended to attempt. Familiarizing myself with the online mode of instruction took time and the experience was nowhere close to in-person learning, yet I felt some satisfaction that despite the circumstances, I was making good use of my time. I had to redraw my longer plan too and that included sacrificing a few of the 12 things I had originally envisaged doing. Nonetheless, after hurling a couple of expletives at the universe, I soldiered on.

I started taking online dance lessons in early June. Dancing of any sort petrifies me. I can manage to bob my head in a crowded, dark pub but anything beyond that induces paralysis. Every time I have been asked to dance in public, I have just stood staring back at expectant eyes like a deer frozen in the headlights. Being married to a Punjabi girl has made things worse. At family functions, when the entire clan bursts into vigorous bhangra at the slightest invitation, I am that guy who clings to the bar as if it were a lifeboat. By now, my in-laws have given up on me and I am not at all happy about that fact.

I have often asked myself what exactly I am scared of. It’s not as if Meerut-waale taayaji is Hrithik Roshan but he has to be literally dragged off the dance floor. The paralysis, I think, comes from not being able to do anything in public, at which I am not better than average. In fund manager parlance, you are nothing if you aren’t at least second quartile and I realized I have unwittingly extended that axiom to unrelated spheres. Of the various things I intended to do during my sabbatical, dance was the scariest, because it didn’t originate from interest but from fear. Mentally, climbing from foothills to the summit is easier than crawling out of a trench to reach the foothills.

Luck played a huge role in helping me find the perfect dance guru. I met Pooja Kale, who runs her own dance academy in Mumbai, as a fellow yoga student. On the weekly talent nights at the Madurai ashram, she did a terrific job of rounding up a good number of students and putting up a good-looking show with minimal rehearsal. While I never mustered the courage to join them on stage, I saw several erstwhile bar-clingers confidently shake a leg and I felt encouraged.

In the beginning, though, there was a bit of apprehension as well. I have never had a teacher who was 14 years younger than me. Would I be able to respect her? Would I be taken seriously as a student or be treated like a corporate hack going through mid-life crisis? She put that apprehension to rest in the first class itself as her ease with teaching, and the fact that she was as keen to teach as I was to learn, became evident. I still remember her words from the first session as we did some basic routines. “Which is your left leg? Correct. Now step that forward." You could have easily mistaken this for a kindergarten class but she never let me feel that way. Knowing when to wield the stick and when to dangle the carrot is the hallmark of a good teacher and in that aspect, Kale proved to be way wiser than her years.

While both of us put in our best efforts, neither was delusional about what could be achieved by an absolute beginner in a month. We decided that we would record a 3- minute video at the end of the month and that after 12 teaching sessions and some practice, that would be a good outcome to aim for. When it came to the choice of songs, we settled on a mash-up of popular Tamil and Telugu songs. I do not speak either language, yet for a long time I have been mesmerized by the foot-tapping beats of south Indian film music and the dancing prowess of Tamil star Vikram and Telugu heart-throb Allu Arjun. In fact, long before my sabbatical, I had promised myself that if I ever learnt dancing, one of the first things I would learn would be to dance to an Allu Arjun number. Thus began a month-long course of online, and later in-person, classes that culminated in a dance shoot in my living room.

The first few days of training your body to do a new sequence of movements are the hardest.
The first few days of training your body to do a new sequence of movements are the hardest.

In the first week, it was stressful to memorize the sequence of steps and the associated nuances. I was constantly told to smile and not let the stress show on my face. I could hear Kale saying, “Dance big. Isolate that move. Squat lower," through my iPad and the flurry of instructions felt overwhelming. Then I would watch her effortlessly perform the same movements and my heart would sink.

I think the first few days of training your body to do a new sequence of movements are the hardest. Be it swimming, jumping rope or learning to dance. Your neurons are misfiring, leading to unwanted movements that make you look clumsy and jerky. It’s like splashing a lot of water without making much forward movement. I realized that this is integral to learning any new physical activity, and getting discouraged by seeing an expert do it effortlessly would only inhibit the learning process. As I practised more, the brain figured out the neuron-firing sequence and started weeding out unnecessary movements. As I practised some more, I stopped thinking about the “steps"—and that’s when I started looking forward to our classes.

That you are creating a life-long memory is rarely evident during the event itself. It’s realized only in hindsight. For me, the final dance shoot, in the middle of a rainy night, is an exception. My wife, my teacher and I converted our living room into a studio. We ordered lights, wiring, costumes and even duct tapes online. The missus decided to display all her 10 arms and became caterer, camera-person, light-person, director and editor, all rolled into one. Three people, one brightly-lit room and a night I will never forget. I am not the emotional sort but next morning, when I saw the empty “set", tears rolled down.

It was over. Why was it over? I know I will have to live with this feeling for a while—but I will also have to move on to my next adventure. The outcome of my dance journey is up on YouTube and I hope it will serve as a reminder to never cling to the bar again. And Meerut-waale taayaji, I hope you are watching!

Swanand Kelkar works in the asset management industry and is currently on a one-year sabbatical.

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