Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > Dance like everyone's watching

Dance like everyone's watching

For young Indians, Western dance forms, from breaking to hip hop, offer the freedom to express themselves and the possibility of global fame. Is there space for such a dream in a country of many traditional styles? 

Nepo (in beige cap) and Pradeep during the Red Bull Dance Your Style India competition on 1 July in Delhi
Nepo (in beige cap) and Pradeep during the Red Bull Dance Your Style India competition on 1 July in Delhi (Courtesy Red Bull )

"Nepo!” “Nepo!” “Nepo!” A crowd of over 200 screams in unison. Nepo steps on to an elevated stage in the centre of a south Delhi hall, facing the crowd. Pradeep follows him. It’s 1 July and the two have reached the sixth and final round of Red Bull Dance Your Style India, one of the country’s biggest cross-style street dance competitions, leaving behind over 1,300 participants.  

  They will present an impromptu performance to a song the live DJ will select. The one who wows the judges—the spectators—gets to represent India at the finals in Frankfurt, Germany, in October. 

 Lights out. Pin-drop silence. Just two spotlights—one on Nepo, from Nainital, Uttarakhand, and the other on Bengaluru-based Pradeep. Tunak Tunak Tun, the DJ blasts Daler Mehndi’s super-hit song. Blue and red blinking lights turn the hall, as big as a school football field, into a dance club. Pradeep grooves to the tune with Bollywood  jhatkas, sprinkling some bhangra along the way.

Next is Nepo, 22. He does a mix of bhangra, robot, popping and hip hop. In the middle, there’s a Charlie Chaplin-inspired walk and a diving stunt. The audience is laughing and dancing with him. 

“I have to entertain the crowd,” Deepak Shahi, or Nepo (from the school nickname “Nepali”), had shared backstage when we met two hours earlier. Nepo, who has been practising hip hop half his life in Haldwani’s public parks, won the first edition of Red Bull Dance Your Style India in 2021 but lost the international contest in South Africa in the first round. “The past few months have been horrible. I have been losing all the competitions. I need this win,” he says. “I want the world to know me, my skills.” 

 So do hundreds of young Indians who are looking at dance forms that originated in the West, be it breaking, hip hop, contemporary, as more than just a hobby or a way to lose weight. They want to showcase their skills on the international stage, to turn their passion into a full-time profession that brings them money and global recognition.

There’s no government body that supports or organises Western dance-form based competitions in India.  Nor are there any official figures or data to indicate the growing romance for Western dance forms. But a quick survey of students of three dance studios/academies, each spread across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata, showed most preferred street-style—locking, hip hop, popping, house or breaking. It seems to be much the same in cities and towns like Kodaikanal, Chandigarh, Gandhinagar, Rourkela. Age range? Anywhere from 3-25. Gender ratio? Depends on the region. Students who see it as a profession? At least 10 in every studio; most of them had some form of support from families.

The growing number of talent shows and dance competitions is fuelling interest, with most wanting to become teachers, choreographers, studio owners, reality show judges, or all of these. At heart, though, is a deep, pure love for a form that allows freedom of expression through improvised movements—something a well-rehearsed traditional dance routine of Kathak or Bharatanatyam might not always offer.

But the path to achieve the dream has its share of struggles. For one, there’s not much external support, especially when it comes to funding, either to help dancers continuously hone their skills or participate in competitions abroad that would help them earn international credibility.

Also read: Can dance create a lightness of being?


“This is the era of street dance. It matches the vibe of today’s Gen Z, who like to live by their own rules,” says Lourd Vijay,  organiser of the Dance World Cup (DWC), among the world’s top dance competitions, in India. “The entry of breaking (or break dance) in the 2024 Summer Olympics has also changed the way dance is perceived. Maybe hip hop will be the next to enter Olympics? Plus, there are more dance reality shows, a growing fondness for dance videos on social media. All these things have made dance more attractive, which is why parents are also supporting,” adds Vijay, who is also the trustee of the Indian Society for Performers and Teachers of Dance, as well as the founder director of Lourd Vijay’s Dance Studio in Bengaluru.

The 2023 edition of DWC, with participants from 60-plus nations, saw Indians win a silver (in the show-dance category) and a bronze (in national folk) in Portugal earlier this month. Of about 400 people in the 4-25 age group who participated in qualifiers for the Indian contingent, 100 were selected. Only eight made it; they either couldn’t fund their way or couldn’t get visas since European countries had stopped visa appointments owing to the number of applications. “At least 20% of those 400 are interested in making a career in dance,” says Vijay.

It’s not a bad career choice. A choreographer for an OTT show, for instance, can make anything from 60,000 to over 1 lakh for one song. For a film song, the fee starts from 2.5 lakh and goes up to 20 lakh. Back-up dancers get 3,000 a day during rehearsal (10-15 days); 8,000 a day when the final song is being filmed (three-six days). If you are running a studio, the sky’s the limit. The average rate of a dance class per month for one student is about 2,000.

“Five years ago, the fee used to be about 1,000 a month," says Sameer Mahajan, who started the Rockstar Academy in 2005 in Chandigarh, offering Bollywood, bhangra and contemporary. At the time, Mahajan used to charge about 500. “There were only three academies in the entire tri-state area of Chandigarh (including Mohali and Panchkula) and parents used to bargain for fees. Today, there are at least two academies within 5km of every sector— and this is just in Chandigarh. And parents are ready to pay; they feel if their child has interest, they should give them an opportunity.”

Also read: How breaking is finding its feet in India

There is money in dance, agrees Mumbai-based Sneha Kapoor, who wanted to become a professional athlete but shifted to dance after an injury. Gone are the days when the only options of reaching a wider audience were Boogie Woogie or UTV’s Street Dance show, in the 2000s. Today, season after season of shows such as Dance India Dance, India’s Got Talent, India’s Best Dancer enjoy good viewership. There is dance in mainstream films like  Gully Boy  (2019) and  the ABCD: Anybody Can Dance  franchise. In terms of learning and teaching, anyone can find steps and routines of different dance forms on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. All this has been instrumental in making people believe there’s immense scope in dance. Add to this the financial and emotional support from parents who no longer believe that only doctors, engineers and civil servants make for well-paid professionals.

Kapoor herself began learning jazz in college in 2006. Since then, she has learnt hip hop, B-boying, Latin and contemporary and has worked as a choreographer in films like Byomkesh Bakshi and Yaaram, OTT shows like Tamanna, five seasons of Jhalak Dikhla Ja, three seasons of Nach Baliye and once as a mentor for Dance India Dance.

“Of course, you need talent and to keep updating your skills, but even a decent dancer can make at least 50,000 a month without investing in any equipment or studio. You can teach people at home, online. There’s the option of holding workshops in schools and colleges. Several private competitions keep happening across India and abroad. Nowadays, people even hire choreographers for their wedding functions,” says Kapoor.

“Finding work abroad might be difficult since dancers there are (better trained) but when you participate in international shows, it adds to your credibility and helps you get more recognition. That’s why many youngsters pay from their own pocket to participate in international shows.” With the rise of social media, there’s another stream of income: brand endorsements. “Again, how much you make depends on how many followers you have on social media,” says Kapoor.

And they do seem to be dancing like nobody’s watching. You may find a lone breakdancer practising headspin in Lucknow’s Janeshwar Mishra Park or dancing buskers on Bengaluru’s Church Street. On Sunday mornings, you can join a group in a car shed near Kolkata’s Howrah railway station to work on your popping, a street-style dance where you contract and relax muscles to create a jerking effect. In Delhi-National Capital Region, you can join hip hop dancers in the Rose Garden, Lodhi Gardens and Deer Park, even DLF Park Place in Gurugram, to cypher.

“The new generation of parents is more open to creative arts as a career option,” says Saritha Dasappa, whose 12-year-old son, Surya Balaji, won silver (show-dance category) in Portugal during the 2023 DWC. Dasappa, a chartered accountant in a private company, adds: “There are just so many ways now to earn money. Why should I restrict my child to the 9-5 job?”


The Dance World Cup saw participation from 60 nations
The Dance World Cup saw participation from 60 nations (Courtesy Dance World Cup/Instagram)


As a nation, India likes to dance. No celebration is complete without it. And much of it is inspired by Indian cinema. Whether it’s Mithun Chakraborty’s disco moves in I Am A Disco Dancer (from the 1982 movie Disco Dancer) or Katrina Kaif’s filmy hip hop in Kala Chashma (Baar Baar Dekho, 2016), the charm of film songs has intoxicated generations. At the same time, Indian songs have, every now and then, embraced elements of trendy non-Indian dance forms. Punjabi rapper Baba Sehgal, for instance, helped make hip hop culture more popular through his songs in the 1990s. Salsa became a rage in the early 2000s with singers like Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin. Even 2011’s multi-starrer  Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara  had a song dedicated to salsa.

“Most of the students who come to us say they started dancing after watching and copying moves in a Bollywood song,” says Sharmila Prasad, who started the C&S Dance and Fitness Studio in Faridabad just before the pandemic. Of her 100 students, 80 learn hip hop and Bollywood. “Even I got attracted to dance after watching Waheeda Rahman’s  Piya Tose Naina Lage Re  (from 1965’s Guide).” 

 Akash Singh, 23, from Agra, Uttar Pradesh, grew up copying Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit Nene’s Chak Dhoom Dhoom dance moves from Dil To Pagal Hai (1997). Ten years ago, when he indicated his desire to make a career in choreography, the parents said, “Boys don’t dance in our community.” It was around the time when his moves were being appreciated at school functions and competitions. At the insistence of teachers, Singh was allowed to sign up for classes at a dance studio that offered only jazz and contemporary in the non-classical dance forms category. 

Also read: How dance can heal your mind

Six hours of daily dance practice over eight years paid off when he won a gold at the 2021 DWC in the solo show-dance category. His performance included contemporary, jazz and Kathak. The parents started taking him “a little seriously after that”, recalls Singh, who is currently completing his bachelor’s in business administration from Agra’s Subharti University. He learns Kathak, jazz and contemporary from online videos and waits tables at a Domino’s Pizza outlet for a monthly salary of 8,000. Earlier this year, he qualified for America’s Got Talent but couldn’t fly to the US owing to visa issues. A few weeks later, he qualified for the DWC (show-dance category) as well. Visa appointment dates again nixed his plans. He is now preparing for America’s Got Talent 2024. 

 “Dance is how I deal with my emotions. Sometimes people comment on my white skin patches (he has vitiligo). I dance to deal with that sadness. I am not giving up,” says Singh, who wants to become a choreographer like Shiamak Davar. “Even my parents share my dream now. I can’t let them down.”

 This undying spirit is a result of the changing perception towards dance in general. “It’s no longer like she’s a nachnewali (dancer). That stigma has long gone, especially after reality TV shows came in,” says Sakshi Rauthan, who, along with her husband, Sameer Mahajan, runs 18 Rockstar Academy centres across Punjab, offering three- to six-month courses from the basic to the advanced levels. They have over 1,800 students, learning everything from freestyle, hip hop and Bollywood to bhangra and Kathak. Close to 70% learn Western dance forms, with at least 100 of them planning a career in dance, says Rauthan. “Today’s parents are from a different generation. They want their children to do well but they are also willing to give them the freedom to choose the path they want to take.”

 Twins Tanya-Tanisha are Rauthan’s students in Chandigarh. Since the age of four, the girls have been learning hip hop, acrobatics, contemporary, salsa, Kathak and freestyle. Now, at 14, Tanya and Tanisha, who use only one name, have participated in two reality TV dance shows and over 20 competitions across the world. They have just returned from the Asia Pacific Dance Congress in Dubai, which saw participation from 30 countries. The twins won a silver in the duet category. At present, they are preparing for next month’s International Dance Competition in South Korea. 

Twins Tanya-Tanisha of Chandigarh
Twins Tanya-Tanisha of Chandigarh

 Like most dedicated dancers, they maintain a disciplined lifestyle: They wake up at 6am, practise Kathak for 45 minutes, eat breakfast and head to school. After school, they head to the studio and practise, from 4-6pm, any one of the five Western dance forms, depending on the schedule, and return home for tuition till 9pm. By 11pm, they are in bed. “They are very driven. As long as it makes them happy, who am I to say no?” says their mother, Anamika Kashyap, refusing to say how much she spends on their dance.

It’s worth everything, says Tanya. “When my sister and I are on stage, we forget anyone is watching us. It’s like we are in a park, playing and laughing.” Their dream is the same as Nepo’s: Make the world aware of India’s potential. 

 Not all dancers are pursuing a Western dance form to make space in the international arena. Hyderabad-based actor Faria Abdullah, for instance, says street dance moves like hip hop help her express herself better in cinema and in theatre. “One of the main things about street dance is that it allows you to be in the flow, improvising as you go. It helps you be more present, be expressive in life,” says Abdullah, who was also present at the Red Bull event on 1 July. “You become more aware and unaware of yourself at the same time. That’s why I keep returning to it.” 

In Jaipur, Simran Ranga, 20, is chasing a different goal. She’s a B-girl—a term for dancers/players who perform breaking, an acrobatic dance form that started somewhere around the mid-2000s in India. Think hip hop with less dance, more power moves. To qualify for the Olympics next year, Ranga must have 1,000 points; she has 200. Closing the gap requires her to participate, and perform well, in as many Olympic-recognised competitions (like the Portugal World Battle, Belgium Championship and Hong Kong World Series) as possible.   

B-girl Simran Ranga
B-girl Simran Ranga

 She was attracted to breaking when she didn’t even know what it meant. Today, Ranga is known as B-Girl Glib for her sleek moves. Her father wasn't too happy, though, for the stunts sounded dangerous, but allowed her to pursue breaking. She started her journey around 2016. The next year, she was the only B-Girl  to enrol for a  jam in Jaipur. This year, Ranga, who is completing her graduation from University Maharani College, won the Red Bull BC One Camp And Cypher India 2023, the country’s biggest breaking competition. She also came 21st at the recent Asian Breaking Championship in Hangzhou, China.

  “You know the best part about breaking? The high you get when people cheer for you while you are doing a power move…. I add yoga asanas, a boxing punch or do a bhangra drop,” says Ranga. “That’s the beauty of breaking or hip hop or any street style; there’s this freedom that fills you up with energy. That’s why you are seeing more youngsters taking up these forms. I just wish the government noticed our dedication.”

 Like Akash Singh, Tanya-Tanisha, Nepo, Pradeep and many other dancers, Ranga is spending from her pocket to fund her travel for competitions around the world. Some of the money comes from brand collaborations (since 2021, she has done about 20 endorsements, earning 15,000-20,000 in each instance). The rest, her father pays. She spends about 10,000 a month on nutrition, therapy, training and learning. 

 “It’s difficult (to manage funds), especially now when she’s trying to compete for the Olympics,” says her father, Lala Ram, a head constable in Rajasthan police. “We are trying to support as much as we can but we don’t know for how long.”

 She wrote to Bishwant Mohanty, secretary of the 2021-founded Amateur Dance Sport Federation of India, asking for funds (the federation—partly supported by the government, though not financially—is meant to promote dance forms like hip hop and breaking)—in vain. When I asked Mohanty how the federation was preparing for the Olympics, he said, “We have reached out to four government-supported sports bodies of India, with a budget. We are waiting for a response.”


Anamika Kashyap spent close to 8 lakh for the seven-day Asia Pacific Dance Congress in Dubai earlier this month. “I don’t mind spending. Why should I let my kids’ talent go to waste? B ut there should be some effort from the government. After all, we are representing India.” In the case of Akash Singh, it’s his college that helps out.

  Dasappa took a 3.5 lakh loan to take her son to Portugal for the 2023 DWC. “When he won silver, I got goosebumps. That moment I realised that all the effort to collect money was worth it,” says Dasappa, who spent 6 lakh in total for the competition. 

Social media collaborations can bring in income, depending on the following. “The endorsements are not too much, though,” says Nepo, who has over 11,000 followers on Instagram. “Personally, I don’t like to put many dance Reels. Maybe I will put videos from my competition but I won’t dance in front of a camera just to entertain people for 30 or 60 seconds. That would be like abusing my art.” Other dancers agree.

“A lot of people put Reels of head spinning, B-boying; they are actually hurting the art. I get my followers (over 45,000 on Instagram) from posting my work, not making a joke out of art,” says Ranga. “Dance happens when there are people around you, not in an empty room with a ring light.” Local competitions can offer as much as 5 lakh as prize money. Most international dance shows, however, don’t give prize money or support for travel. They give a certificate or a medal/trophy, which helps the winner build credibility. Red Bull is among the very few brands who give funding for travel and stay travel.

Not all see it to the end. “After five-six years, people start leaving the dance field,” says Shreyas Bhairava, who founded the Bhairava Dance Crew, a dance studio, nine years ago in Bengaluru, starting with 30 students. He now teaches contemporary, hip hop, freestyle and Bollywood to close to 300 students. At least 10%, including Surya Balaji, are learning dance to become professionals.

“People generally do these competitions for five-six years and then money starts becoming an issue. It’s not like there’s no money; dance is like any other profession. There are ways to earn money, you just need to be smart about finding your way.” He adds that breaking’s inclusion in the Olympics, social media and online marketing offer new avenues to earn. “But you need to constantly update your skills,” says Bhairava, who has been learning dance for 18 years. “There are so many dancers now that you have to keep learning to stay ahead in the game.”

 Vijay agrees. “You can make or break your career in a year or two. You just have to be hungry for more.”  And persistent.

When Nepo was on a losing streak, he thought: Is this dream of becoming the world’s No.1 dancer even worth chasing? What’s the back-up plan? On 1 July, when he won the dance competition, he knew the answer. “When you have a back-up plan, you don’t give your best to your actual dream,” he said. “Dance makes me feel alive, happy. Isn’t that a good career goal?”  

Also read: Inside the race to be a viral content creator



Next Story