He is celebrated not just in India, but around the world, for revolutionising dance. Hailed as the ‘guru of contemporary dance’ in India, Shiamak Davar calls it his “tough love”, and himself, a “work-in-progress”.
“If you love something, you cannot do anything without taking risks, without taking up challenges or without knowing that you can do something with it, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody,” he tells indianexpress.com in an exclusive email interaction.
Excited about his show on Audible — ‘My 3 Secrets to Success‘ — Shiamak chats about many things on the occasion of International Dance Day today — from how he first fell in love with dance, to his pandemic experience, and his association with Bollywood, among other things.
Your show on Audible is called ‘My 3 Secrets to Success‘. How do you understand success in your life?
I think success for me is to be in control of your life. To be attuned to your body, mind, soul and emotions. To be in balance. To have clarity of thoughts. It’s not about fame, money and fortune. That is great if it comes in as icing on the cake, but what if it wasn’t there? True freedom is when you have clarity of purpose, when you know you can express what you want to be, how you want to be, how to behave. You don’t have to worry about what people have to say. So, true success is actually when you live and love yourself, fully!
How did this collaboration with Audible come about?
This opportunity came to me from a friend of mine. It’s given me the opportunity to explore a whole new medium. It’s surreal to see how emotion can be portrayed by using just the range of your voice, similar to how much you can say using dance!
When did you first fall in love with dance?
My journey in dance was something that was wonderful but very tough (it was like tough love). I had to learn to be who I am, to fight for something that I want… Dancing and singing are things I love. I was always on the piano [ever since] I was four-five years old, making up songs. So, singing, actually, was my passion.
Dancing happened in an odd way. I had gone for a singing audition to Pineapple Dance studios in London and I saw this classroom, which had these see-through glass studios, and people were dancing, and I said, ‘Oh my God! I only know how to jive. And I know how to answer the disco’. Then I said, ‘Okay, let me try the class’.
I tried a few classes and the teacher at that time said, ‘You’re pretty good, and you’ve obviously had some training’. I was like, ‘Oh God, I’ve absolutely had no training’. He said, ‘But you seem to have a balletic body’. I said, ‘But I’ve never done ballet. I’ve just done maybe a class or two, with my sweetheart, Tushna Dallas’ — the most phenomenal ballet teacher in the world, who passed away recently; she was an institution here.
I just didn’t want to do classes and I wasn’t really learning ballet at all. In fact, she was more of a friend to me than a teacher and I did maybe two or three classes. And then I saw the class, and the teacher was impressed with me. And I did lots of classes in London. And that’s how dance came to me. And that’s how I thought of bringing it back to Mumbai.
In Mumbai, there was nothing at that time. There was just one ballet school, one ballroom school. There were small classes all over. And there was just no way that my jazz would ever work, or the contemporary style that I learnt. And I only did master classes at that time. I started the class with seven students, slowly making my way into the theatre with Alyque Padamsee, my guru. I started singing and dancing. And then I had a lady called Sierra Lobo, who made me choreograph my first musical, ‘They’re playing our song’. While I was doing that, people got to know who I was because I was in the theatre. With seven students that I started, five were my family and friends, and two were real students. And then it just grew. Then, I did Dil To Pagal Hai (1997).
Which dance form is your favourite?
My favourite style will always be Fosse’s style. Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, their style. The old classic Hollywood dance — that is what I really call epic, unbelievable, phenomenal, outstanding. And today, I don’t think anybody can replace that kind of style of dance. I also love the ‘Shiamak’s style’ because I didn’t want to be a copy of any of the great legends. I wanted to be me, so I developed my own Indo-contemporary style, and it really made me feel happier. I’ve got so much more self-worth, I feel all the 20-30 years of dance that I’ve learnt, staged and theatre-crafted, I put inside the style, and it has come out beautifully.
Do you think it is ever ‘too late’ to learn how to dance?
I don’t think so. I started dancing when I was 21-23. I never thought it was too late because I never knew any better. But today, in a professional world of dance, by 18, 22 or 25 you’re over as a dancer. But then, you have people who are world-class dancers, who dance till their 30s, 40s, 50s. The real life of a dancer professionally is maybe till 25, 28, 30. But here, I started at 23 and today I’m 59 and still dancing.
A life mantra you practise for success…
My devotional love to God, to the source, to the Goddess and to the God within. People don’t love themselves and if you don’t love yourself, you’ll never be able to love anybody. Doubt, fear, rules and negative thinking are things that have to stop. That is something I’ve been working on all my life, and I will always work because I’m a work-in-progress. My religion says, “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”, there is nothing more powerful than that.
The pandemic has overwhelmed everyone — how have you been coping?
The pandemic has been a sad, low situation in everyone’s life. It has made people unhappy, depressed; it made them lose their self-worth. They lost their money, their careers; dancers were out of jobs. But I do believe if we look at the positive side, it gives us time with our families, and a lot of time for introspection and balance.
I cope with it, with my ups and downs, like everybody else; I’m no special person. But with my belief in the laws of the spiritual book, teachings, my spiritual understanding of things, I learnt to accept it better. You help people, but unlike everybody, I do it quietly. I do what I have to do for my dancers and for the dance community in my way. I do what I have to do for my elders and for the people I love. And extend it to people I don’t even know. I don’t talk about it, because that’s not the way I’ve been taught. And that’s the way I am spiritually.
How do you begin your day, and what do you do to stay fit?
I do a lot of spiritual work. I read a lot of stuff on spirituality. I think audiobooks are a good way of engaging yourself as they allow you to work on other stuff while listening. I try to write on spirituality, I write my own thoughts, notes to myself. I look after my mother who is 99 years old, making her comfortable. I look after my pets and do lots of meetings on Zoom with my dance company and my institute of performing arts. I watch films, I pray. I think prayers are powerful as I have seen things happening miraculously.
To stay fit, I walk, run and do a little bit of exercise. I am not excessive in this, I like to be balanced, do some stretching. I want to do things that make me happy, and that is dancing for me.
For someone trying to stay in shape, what dance form would you recommend?
Simple jazz exercises or the Bollywood workout. It’s like a dancercise! I believe you get more in shape with dancing as it makes you happy in every way: mind, body and soul. It is not just a physical exercise that you’re doing.
How would you explain dancing helps with a person’s overall well-being?
As an individual, I don’t like exercise. I love what I do — dancing, floor work and sometimes very lightweight, maybe 1-2 kg — that’s enough for the leg/hand strength. If you’ve seen a dancer’s body, it’s never stiff, it’s agile and flexible. Dancing lifts your mind and soul.
Of late, Indian television has been populated by dance reality shows. What do you think of the representation of dance forms on these shows?
I think it’s a great platform for people from all over India; fabulous talents come out. The only downside I see is they only show hip hop and nothing classical (Indian and Western). I’ve never seen folk or ballet. Dance is not just hip hop, gymnastics and flips. I believe there should be more dance and less drama in these shows.
Besides dancing, what are some other activities which keep you busy?
I don’t have many activities besides dance and teaching and working on my career. I do a lot of introspection, reading/listening to spiritual content, I love watching movies and love animals. And of course, I love food!
You have worked with so many actors in Bollywood. Who has been the easiest to choreograph?
Madhuri [Dixit Nene], Shilpa Shetty, Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan], Priyanka [Chopra Jonas], Shahid [Kapoor] and Hrithik [Roshan], Sushant [Singh Rajput], Ishaan Khattar, Varun [Dhawan]. A lot of these have been my students and, therefore, were easy to choreograph and I love them. I love others as well — Ranveer [Singh], Deepika [Padukone]. Deepika is a really good dancer. Alia [Bhatt] picks up everything. Nora [Fatehi] is a lovely, gifted dancer. All said, my favorite would be Helen ji — an epitome of class in those days. I have not seen that grace till today.
Which dance icon — in India or abroad — do you look up to and admire?
I’m crazy about Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Jerome Robbins. Cyd Charisse, one of the finest dancers I’ve ever seen abroad, is unbelievable. Misty Copeland and Debbie Allen are some of the finest dancers I’ve seen. In India, I love Ganesh Acharya, Saroj Khan (there is no one like her in expressions). Farah Khan, Vaibhavi– they are great choreographers. I love Prabhu Deva, more as a dancer than a choreographer.