‘Positively horrible’.The two words from my dance teacher–Yana Lewis that evokes laughter every time but also makes me push myself beyond the limits.Because if you say I can’t do it, I will make sure I try my hardest to not fail in proving you wrong. And I, for one, did not want to be a ‘positively horrible’.
I am Pooja Mehta and this is my journey of discovering ballet at the age of 19, learning with the best dancers abroad and working against all odds to pursue performing arts as a career and way of living.
I was a confused kid. From arts to sports to dance, I always searched for something new because I liked being different.At the age of three, I started dancing Bharatnatyam, and soon, I was into athletics and also represented in various state and national level skating competitions.
Like any other teenager, Mumbai’s very own-Bollywood dance caught my attention and very soon, I started performing at award shows under choreographer Terence Lewis . This, perhaps, was my first exposure to western dance and music. But with it came a lot of questions -why can’t I learn them all; who can teach me; where do I begin; how do I research and whom should I approach?.
Call it luck, because around that time, Yana Lewis came to Mumbai to conduct a week-long workshop in ballet. “ This is it, she is the one”, I told myself after that workshop and began my research on Yana-the dancer and ballet. I understood that learning ballet was essential to master other western dances such as jazz, contemporary, modern etc. And frankly, in the earlier days, I loved the idea of going abroad just to dance.So, unaware of the hard work, practice time, monetary requirements and other sacrifices, I took a leap of faith and enrolled myself at The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet (TLFCB). Starting ballet at the age of 19 wasn’t easy but I did not let that affect me.
If there were any words of wisdom that kept me motivated all through the tough times, it was my father’s advice on the first day of my training. He said, “if Yana asks you to practice something twice make sure you do more than 100 repetitions”. That kept me going.In my journey, Yana has been my biggest inspiration. I often told myself that if Yana, being a dancer, could be a wife, a mother, a teacher and still manage to wake up at 4 am to practice ballet and yoga, why couldn’t I?
I devoted my mornings to self-practice and going over corrections given in classes. She trained me right from Pre-primary level to Advance level class. Being in pre-primary classes helped me to understand the basic technique and build strength while advanced classes motivated me to push myself to achieve the challenges Yana threw at me. At the end of two years with TLCFB, I secured a place at Laine Theatre Arts (LTA); Epsom UK for National Diploma in Performing Arts.
But fate had other plans for me. I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Tumor, which deferred my admission by a year. Recovery post the operation was not easy but probably, Yana was the only reason I never gave up.I knew she would piece me back together and she did. I came out emotionally, mentally and physically stronger and passed the Intermediate Ballet exam with a distinction.
In September 2012, I flew many miles to start my professional dance training in the United Kingdom(UK).
Lessons from Laine
My first day at Laine — I was so amazed by the place, massive dance studios, acting workshops, singing room, college theatre and the luxury of five or six dance classes every day. A normal day at college was jazz, ballet, singing/acting. What more could have I ask for!
Well, I did. I joined extra classes during free time and also took private singing tutorials. The training was vigorous and definitely not for the faint hearted. During the first few weeks, I came across some amazingly talented singers, dancers and actors or commonly known as the ‘triple threat’ in this industry. I wondered why was I given a place, even when I wasn’t talented enough to be here. I assumed it was because I am a fee paying foreigner with no such opportunity back, in my home country.
But the next second I told myself that I did not want to be that stereotypical foreigner.I was paying fees, of course, my only resource being the mortgage loan.
Though not many scholarship options were available for foreign nationals, during the third year, I was fortunate to be the recipient of the ‘Betty Laine Scholarship’, the only scholarship given by the college. I also worked part time at McDonald’s restaurant and taught bollywood dance in a community center. I also became the cover teacher for ballet and contemporary at the City Academy in London.
Training and exposure
The college has the best teachers, many with thirty years of teaching experience and West end credits. You are not only taught dance, but they nurture you to be an all round performer–a matured dancer who has a history and story behind every move and uses real experiences to be an artist. The teachers here devote their time by staying back after college even after 9 p.m and help you with anything in your training. I strongly believed that you learn more during the time you spent outside college on self-practice and observations.So in addition to all this, I still continued my morning routine. I was the first one to be in the studio and also the last one to leave.
The genres taught are ballet, contemporary jazz (commercial, street, lyrical, musical theatre), tap, modern, singing, acting and voice coaching. The college also gives you the opportunity to attain your teaching qualifications.
The more you experience the more you learn. During the first year, we performed pantomime; it was acting and musical theatre during the second year and during the third year it was a music and dance project. I was also part of the three annual summer shows. This is where you work with some successful choreographers and directors such as Crissy Cartwright (Cats), Neil Westmoreland (creative choreographers for Mathew Bourne) and many others. You also learn your first lessons in putting a show together and also networking.
Survival after training only gets tougher.You will no longer have the luxury of classes at college. The fitness and skill level will need to be maintained by attending open dance classes at various studios.
The performing industry is a tough one. There are more disappointments than results, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying. You will need an agent who will put you up for suitable jobs and get you auditions. Most of the time you are denied not because you can or can’t do but because you do not fit the casting requirements. So don’t give up.When you are right for something, you will get your chance and nothing can change it.
Like Yana says you learn more on a job than you do at college. As a dancer and performer, you take any job thrown at you. The sky is the limit and you should never stop chasing your dreams.
I aspire to be in musicals and travel the world as a cruise performer and dancer. Coming from Mumbai, I am often asked to try my luck in bollywood. But my answer is and will always be that I want to be an artist, be on stage to experience live audience and create unique work. Bollywood is a very narrowed down route.That doesn’t mean I won’t take it. I aspire to grow and spread my wings in every genre of dance. I want to be an inspiration for others.