It was in 2000 that I put up Audition notices in several dance studios in the area of Maryland/DC, and was astonished to discover that I was the first person to set up a professional audition for a South-Asian Dance Company.
Fourteen years later, I know it is because even now there is no real concept of a Dancer here in the “Indian Dance “ community.
Most of the “dance companies” that operate in the area, (and much of the country), are really Dance Schools that produce their own shows once or twice a year; student’s shows that are labeled as professional performances. For these shows the teacher usually produces mostly traditional dances, the music of which has been recorded at shockingly low rates in India and the religious choreography has been passed down several generations. Or the teacher will book the Indian musicians, who travel to the U.S. every year to make the bulk of their year’s earnings with back-to-back shows to play at in the season. If anything new is danced it’s often by using commercially produced music for which no one dreams of asking permission for or paying royalty for. Rehearsals are held on a comfortable ‘once a week on the weekend’ schedule.The auditorium is usually booked by the parents or with their funding and the families spread the word. The costumes and jewelry for the students are bought from India by the parents and the tickets for the show are divided amongst the parents and sold out by their families. The dance tradition also ensures a bond to the teacher that implies disrespect if you move on to dance with someone else. All of this makes it difficult for most girls trained in “Indian” classical dance forms to imagine applying for an audition for a dance company. They have no idea what it really means. And with the background of their training, prima donna attitudes develop early.
Competing for trained dancers, funding, resources and audience with “companies’ like this makes it truly difficult to run a professional dance company where the responsibilities and the risks are on the company owners/administration; and where we strive to work with local musicians and pay our dancers at U.S. rates. This is an important distinction not understood by presenters or funders either.
Yet again, since the teachers do not have the typical financial burdens that a professional company has, they are always willing to do a show for free for anyone who asks and dance under any conditions. The parents are happy to see their daughters up on stage; the students themselves are ready to jump at any occasion that allows them to dress up and show off their skills. It is no wonder that to get a professional contract signed and ones’ fee paid by most enquiring organizations is like getting water out of a stone.
As a company that is secular in its values, it is difficult to initially engage communities that are tightly bound to their area of origin, language and culture in the “old Country”. South Indians go to see Bharatanatym; those from Orissa prefer to only see Orissi, etc. The Sri Lankan Tamil dancers Bharatanatym is not accepted by South Indians as ‘authentic’ and the Pakistanis, while copying obscene Bollywood dances at their own functions, only want to see Kathak because they have been hoodwinked into thinking it is a ‘Muslim dance’!
Mimicking the titillating, provocative and anything but subtle movements from Bollywood, a lot of young men and women think they are doing Modern Asian dance. That one can have an actual contemporary technique is not something that is understood. Alien, too, is the idea that to choreograph at a higher level, particularly when venturing into unknown waters, there needs to be a deeper understanding of rhythmic complexities, ragas and, yes, actually having something worthwhile to say in a way that no one else has, is helpful.
Add to the above trial and tribulations the slotting of our dance by most presenters as “ethnic’ because they have never bothered to ever come and really watch a performance, and you have an obstacle course to run. Asia Pacific week is not the only time to call us to perform.
We are Americans, and our dance is as much a part of this culture all year round, as is our daily existence.