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Verve People
January 17, 2019

What Happens When A Pole Dancer And An Odissi Master Spend An Afternoon Crossing Forms

Text by Sadaf Shaikh. Photographs by Debarati Sanyal. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Hair and Make-Up by Saher Ahmed, Faze Creative Management. Location Courtesy: The Space, Juhu, Mumbai

Dancing might be poetry in motion, but there’s a science to it. Pole dancer Aarifa Bhinderwala’s agile spins and inversions defy gravity, and Odissi dancer Ranjana Dave elevates simple physics to keep her lower body firmly grounded while her torso is fluid and snake-like. Verve spends an afternoon watching how the two women’s mutual intuition for movement results in beautiful synchronicity

The laws of Internet Browsing Behaviour dictate that each human spends a preordained amount of time scouring social media for topics that specifically interest them. This may be beauty for a few, fashion for others, while some users veer towards fitness-related content. My Instagram kryptonite happens to be dance. When I was younger, I would consume So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars with the same zest that my grandmother reserved for the K-serials. Later, in the confines of my room, I would try to mimic the techniques I had watched, and convince myself that my execution was excellent. I’d think that I was pirouetting gracefully, but in reality I was barely managing to not pass out from the twirling.

I am jolted out of this childhood reverie as my cab comes to a screeching halt outside The Space, a boutique studio in Juhu which regularly holds fitness and lifestyle classes. Aarifa Bhinderwala and Ranjana Dave, who have volunteered to submit to our experiment in locomotion, are engaged in conversation as they warm up together. The former, a maverick pole dancer, and the latter, a trained Odissi practitioner, have agreed to swap roles for a day to ascertain how effectively the body of a dancer can adapt to an unfamiliar form. I may appear calm on the outside, but I can feel the dance-loving childhood version of me stirring with excitement at the prospect of an eventful day.

Before she walked into her first class two years ago, 29-year-old Bhinderwala hadn’t even watched a video on pole dancing, let alone attempted any moves. Her only brush with dance had been the stray classes she’d signed up for, in which she had tried out different styles. But it wasn’t until after her first pole class that she found her true calling. She reminisces, “My initial experience wasn’t too successful, because I had applied copious amounts of moisturiser on my body and kept slipping off. I saw the other girls conducting their spins with effortless ease, and the universe whispered into my ear that I would get there very soon.” I realise that Bhinderwala’s intuition wasn’t far off the mark, as I watch her demonstrate a complicated inversion with the grace of a gazelle.

Dave is impressed by her peer’s display of skills, and can’t wait to try her hand — quite literally — at the pole. The 30-year-old Odissi dancer discovered the ancient classical form at the age of 15, and fell in love with how her body looked when she performed. She had learned Bharatanatyam as a child, but her fascination for it ebbed as soon as she stumbled upon Odissi; she was enamoured by its structural nuances, like the complex torso movements and undulating motions. But mostly, it was the music that made her fall in love with Odissi. She claims to have a soul connection with the sound of the mardala, a percussion instrument, and the melody of the ukutas, rhythmic syllables sung in various combinations, both of which accompany performances.

The stage is set, and the dancing duo, draped in identical striped saris paired with white vests, is a sight to behold. They command attention to their individual selves — Bhinderwala with her lithe, sinewy body and Dave with her nimble, curvy frame. The Odissi dancer starts her enthusiastic student off with some simple torso isolations, which the pole dancer mirrors flawlessly. Dave reacts to this with a childlike happiness that is utterly endearing. The Odissi dancer, who also freelances as a writer, had to cross many hurdles to get to where she is today. “I majored in journalism for my bachelor’s degree. It was when I began studying Odissi that I started writing about dance. Initially, it was just a way to learn more about dance in a shorter time. I started Odissi at 17, amid a sea of five-year-olds, and I had this urgent need to catch up. At first, my parents were quite alarmed when I chose to ditch an education in the sciences for journalism and then for dance, but they have made their peace with it now.”

Bhinderwala identifies with Dave’s exhilaration at being a successful mentor, experiencing a similar joy when she sees her students getting their pole techniques right. The founder of Pole Burnt, the aptly christened pole dancing class held in the same space we are in right now, explains, “I started out having no experience in either sports or dance, so meeting novices takes me back to how helpless I felt during my first session. Teaching pole is a grounding experience because I am imparting my skills to someone who doesn’t know what to expect from my class. Dancing, on the other hand, has its own kind of high; it’s meditative. If I had to put it in words, I’d say that if teaching grounds me, dancing elevates my spirit. So, I try to strike a balance between the two to align my energies.”

Satisfied with her one-day-old protégé’s triumphant outcome in the first test, Dave decides to turn it up a notch with a tribhanga posture, where the body is fragmented along three bends — the knee, the torso and the neck. The tricky part is to bring the shoulder and neck into a serpentine position without moving the latter. It is tedious, and Bhinderwala struggles with mastering the principle for a while, treating us to some comical moments during her tries. To be honest, I am floored by her perseverance. Whereas I would have been resignedly rolling on the floor after a few attempts, Bhinderwala’s tenacity knows no bounds. She cajoles Dave into repeatedly demonstrating the move until she executes it to her satisfaction. The pièce de résistance is the bhramari — a fast-paced spin with one leg suspended in the air — which the pole dancer performs impressively after a few trials. Says Dave, a smile plastered on her face, “I find teaching crucial to how I deepen my understanding of dance as a practice. I first taught a dance module to architecture students at a college in Mumbai, and there was a miraculous moment when I saw them suddenly begin to engage with new ideas and concepts and ask critical and reflexive questions. The desire to keep that spirit of inquiry alive fuels how I teach. Currently, I teach dance studies at a university in Delhi, and every minute I spend in class enriches my thinking immensely.”

The lights are dimmed. The saris come off. Underneath, Bhinderwala and Dave sport plain white vests with matching boy shorts. With this change of costume, the student becomes the master. Bhinderwala is just as excited about teaching the secrets of the pole to Dave as she was about learning the nuances of Odissi. I have my misgivings about this part of the session; I may have omitted this part earlier due to the sheer embarrassment of it all, but I had persuaded the pole master to do the simplest of spins in super slo-mo, and then tried to recreate it myself when the two were changing clothes. The gods appear to have seen it fit to bless me with the flexibility of a cow, so not only did I fail at even performing a single spin, but true to the name of Bhinderwala’s class, I was also left with some burn marks caused by the friction. I wondered if this genre of dance was reserved for those with better bone malleability. She is quick to dispel my presumptions. “Look at it this way. What do you do when you sign up to train at the gym? Do you first go somewhere else to build muscle and then come to the gym to pick up weights? No, you start small at the gym itself. Similarly, there are no prerequisites for pole dancing. There’s the misconception that you already need to be strong or lean to do pole. My class comprises girls of every body type and age, some of whom have absolutely no background in any kind of physical activity. Strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility — these are all built during the class so you just have to show up and do your best.”

Dave is stretching her bones in anticipation of the next couple of hours when, like me, she hopes to find out if the pole is a friend or a foe. I frown with scepticism at the thought of the Odissi dancer contorting on a pole. I eat humble pie the very next second, as Dave does a full split without breaking a sweat. That settles the flexibility debate, but what catches my attention is the faraway expression on Dave’s face, as if she’s wandered off into the secret spaces of her mind. Noticing the question in my eyes, she clarifies, “I just thought of one of my favourite performances — it was in 2016 at a park in New Delhi. The duet was organised by Delhi-based theatre-maker Mallika Taneja’s initiative Lost and Found which aimed to take the arts to different neighbourhoods in the city. We performed to an audience that surrounded us on all four sides. It was marvellous to dance in such an intimate setting, with not only the seated spectators watching us but also a larger peripheral audience, including joggers who slowed down and took in the performance.”

Twin poles are ready at the centre of the studio, and Bhinderwala reflexively takes hold of one. She spins around hypnotically, concluding the display with an inversion that render everyone in the studio speechless, right from the spot boy to the hair and make-up artist. The sleek, metal apparatus isn’t friend or foe to Bhinderwala. It’s a lover; one that she grabs seductively in a very public sort of foreplay. The pole, in turn, is an accommodating partner, but comes with dangers, as I can see from the bandages on her feet. Invigorated by a pep talk from her teacher, Dave tries her first spin — which requires locking one foot over the calf of the other leg — and immediately plummets to the ground. A little taken aback by the miscalculation, she stands up resolutely and gives it another go, once again not meeting with much success. I give her an understanding smile, empathising with her apparent inability to connect with the pole. Dave is having none of it; the next 20 minutes consist of constant slips and falls. At one point, Bhinderwala even tries to balance Dave’s body weight with her own hands just so that she can manage to cling to the pole for a longer time. The Odissi dancer’s resilience, in spite of the mounting number of failed attempts, is impressive.

Perhaps it was this same quality that prompted the organisers of this year’s Serendipity Arts Festival to have her on a panel where she could lend her curatorial expertise to a programme that includes classical dance performances and new ventures by emerging and established choreographers. Dave, who has struggled with the notion of ‘perfection’ in the past, admits to having taken a harsh and negative view of her body and its abilities. “You never feel good enough, and instead of focusing on the dance, you are constantly evaluating yourself and being excessively self-critical.” I have a feeling that her body holds her in high regard for eventually steering clear of any unrealistic expectations and, by virtue of this respect, bends to her will. Soon I see Dave is spinning slowly down the pole, not with the same effortlessness as Bhinderwala, but with the promise of a gifted beginner. Her instructor claps gleefully and rushes to join her on the adjacent pole and that’s when we get our shot of the day — two women who love dance coming together in perfect unison. But the duo’s magnum opus comes in the next few minutes — Bhinderwala executes a stunning inversion, which has her hanging upside down with Dave simultaneously performing a split on the same pole.

As we wrap up the shoot, I spot our tireless dancers exchanging numbers and notes, and am hit by a delightful vision — Bhinderwala in a silk sari adding a twist to some elaborate Odissi moves, and Dave twirling sinuously around a pole. I quickly snap back to my senses before my musings expand to include myself in the daydream, the burn marks on my calves serving as warning. Or maybe, come morning, they will be my motivation to sign up for an intensive pole dancing class.

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