By Maya Haridas, from en Avant Magazine Issue 10
Sweet, caring and the one who always comes up with the loveliest exercises. We all know Sushmitha Margad as a teacher. But now get to know her as a student and follow the journey that made her the teacher she is now.
Why did you start learning ballet?
As a new member of the Yana Lewis Dance Company, I was mostly dancing in jazz choreographies. I could see that everyone else was way ahead of me. They were faster, stronger and had beautiful lines. I could see a huge gap.
I started working hard to bridge this gap. I started running to gain more stamina, joined barre fit classes to get stronger and made a point to attend jazz classes and rehearsals regularly. Yet, as time went on I realised that in order to enhance my technique and to truly bridge the gap, I had to do ballet. So that’s why I started ballet, to improve myself as a dancer.
Can you share the backstory? How you started jazz and got into YLDC?
My older sister wanted to take up ballet, but I found ballet to be daunting and boring. Eventually, we agreed on attending jazz classes instead. After the very first class with Yana I was in awe of her and the dance form. I had done Indian classical dances, folk dances and a bit of western dance forms before, but this experience felt very refreshing. When I came back from class, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was as though I had fallen in love. The whole experience kept running through my mind again and again.
Back then I did not anticipate that dance would become such a big part of my life. Jazz class quickly became a top priority! My sister and I would go up to our terrace and practise all the steps we had learned in class. We couldn’t wait to get back there next Sunday and do it all again.
Dancing on Sundays brought me immense joy and satisfaction as I made progress with each passing week. However, my sister aspired for more. She used to say, ‘You know those dancers standing in the front line? I want to dance alongside them’. Those dancers were from The Yana Lewis Dance Company, and I couldn’t help but think, ‘How can we dance with them? They are exceptionally skilled!’ However, my sister wasn’t the one to give up. She approached Yana who asked us to come in for a trial rehearsal. But shortly after this, my sister moved to the USA and I quietly let the idea fade away. One Sunday afternoon, after our regular class, Yana asked me If I still wished to join them for a trial rehearsal. Part of me was very excited at this opportunity, but a part of me was also filled with doubts – ‘Oh, will I be good enough? Will I be able to keep up with them?’
Well to cut a long story short, I did attend that rehearsal and little did I know that it would mark the beginning of my journey as a professional dancer.
Yana has a remarkable ability to recognize potential. She recognised my potential even before I had fully realised it myself. The initial stages were undeniably challenging, even now at times it is. Training with Yana on a more frequent basis was vastly different from our once-a-week classes. Company rehearsals pushed me beyond my limits, both physically and mentally. Made me more confident. Made me achieve results that I never thought I could.
How old were you when you did your first ballet class?
I was 21.
What was the experience like?
I was super excited for my first ballet class. However, a few minutes into the class and I quickly realised how difficult it was going to be. The dance form was entirely unfamiliar to me, and it seemed as though everyone else in the class was already well-versed in the movements. I struggled to keep up.
There were moments of doubt when I questioned my presence, especially when attempting adage and allegro sequences. I would wonder if I should even come back. Attending ballet demanded significant sacrifices on my part, as the classes took place on Saturdays, forcing me to forgo attending college. If it wasn’t college, it would mean sacrificing time with friends or family. So I had to make it worth the sacrifices. To prevent discouragements, I made a conscious effort to silence my negative thoughts during class. I started to remind myself that, ‘Just attending this class is an achievement in itself, so I must persevere’. I started at the back line in the class and my aim was not to become the top performer in the class. Instead, my objective was to give my own personal best effort and not give up.
Describe your experience learning under Miss Yana.
Teaching and dancing always fascinated me. I have always held teachers in high regard. Whenever I encountered an exceptional teacher, I would closely observe them, their methods, motivations and the principles guiding their actions.
I was captivated by Yana’s teaching style. Her energy radiated throughout the class, making each individual feel valued and significant. She made every student feel challenged, irrespective of their skill level. Even the most advanced dancers found themselves pushed to new heights, while newcomers were encouraged to surpass their own limitations. The way she personally connected with each and every student in the class was truly exceptional. Indeed, it was solely due to Yana’s influence and guidance that I pursued ballet in the initial years.
I also remember once confessing to her that if she were to teach football, I would have probably chosen to train in football. Such was the impact of her teaching.
What are the proportions in your heart for teaching and for performing?
I think I’m more of a teacher. I have always wanted to be a teacher even as a kid but life took me on a different path. But as my teaching years unfold, I am realising how much I love and enjoy this.
What was the funniest experience you had while on stage?
Probably Elina has already told you because we share so many of our stage experiences. (Click here to read what Miss Elina had to say!) Other than that… On one occasion, during a performance in Goa, due to heavy rainfall there were puddles formed on the uneven stage. Naturally, we had to avoid stepping into them, and I was particularly cautious. However, in the midst of a lively jazz piece, there came a moment where we had to place our hands on the ground and kick our legs up in the air. To my dismay, my hands landed right in the puddle! Despite my efforts to keep my legs dry, my hands were now soaked. Quickly recovering, I carried on with the performance but soon the dirt from my wet hands began to spread onto my neon green costume.
When I look back now it seems funny, but back then I was so worried about ruining the company costume as we had to perform again the very next day, on the same stage!
But that’s the reality of performing on stage, we simply carry on, adapting and persevering amidst the unexpected.
What was the most interesting experience you had while on stage?
During my performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, there was a specific step that filled me with nerves. I struggled to maintain my weight forward on pointe while executing this movement, constantly slipping backwards.
It was showtime and I entered the stage performing a series of courus. As I was nearing that difficult step, I could hear Yana’s voice echoing in my head reminding me to keep my weight forward. Then, in an unexpected moment, everything aligned perfectly — my weight was perfectly placed, hips were lifted and balanced with control. I executed the step smoothly. I probably had never done that step so well even in class. I felt a sense of achievement but then wondered ‘Did anyone witness that? Did the audience even see how good that was? And Yana, did she see it? ’ But the audience remained silent, offering no immediate reaction as I continued with the rest of the performance.
As I approached the final section of the dance, the manége, I prepared myself for the pose turns that would conclude the performance at the centre stage. This was my favourite part. At this moment I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve made it this far without any mishaps. I’ve been dancing en pointe, and it has been good. All the tough sections are over, it’s just this fun part to finish’. As I started the turns, all my nervousness disappeared, and the only thing left was pure joy of dancing! I felt so good and at that moment the audience started applauding. It was as if they could feel what I was feeling. As I kept turning, the applause kept increasing and so did my joy!
It was only later upon reflection that I came to realise the significance of more than just technical proficiency in a performance. Technique is really important, it is the foundation. But there are other crucial elements that contribute to an enjoyable experience for the audience.
Though I executed the hard step technically right, I was so nervous about it that I probably made the audience nervous too. However as I reached the end of the performance, I was at my peak, fully immersed in the moment. It seemed that the audience could feel the energy and passion emanating from me.
I can never forget that moment of resounding applause that flooded the auditorium that evening.
And while teaching a class?
It is really hard to choose one incident because I have funny, interesting experiences almost every single day. After every class, I find myself eagerly sharing these incidents with my family and friends. I can easily get carried away, continuing with these tales, until I consciously remind myself to stop.
One particularly amusing incident occurred in my initial teaching years during storytelling in a pre-primary class. Back then storytelling wasn’t one of my strengths. Determined to enhance my storytelling abilities, I practised telling a captivating story about exploring outer space in a spaceship and encountering a meteorite strike. I recorded myself, listened to the playback and made necessary corrections, feeling satisfied with the result.
So in class when I started telling the story to the children, they were fully engrossed, hanging onto my every word. As the tension built and I exclaimed, ‘Look! It’s a meteorite strike!’ One of the children leapt up in panic and landed right in my lap. Clinging onto me, she anxiously asked, ‘Where? Where? Where is it?’
I couldn’t contain my laughter at her adorable reaction. It completely disrupted the flow of the story. I had to pause and explain that it was all part of the make-believe story. Despite the momentary interruption, I was pleased to witness the progress in my storytelling skills and the genuine connection formed with the young dancers.
What was the first role you ever played on stage?
Since my childhood, dancing has been an integral part of my life, and my earliest performances feel like a distant memory. But one of the roles that I do remember dancing was that of a baby monkey in the Amazon Forest. During this performance, all the baby monkeys had to take a banana out of their pockets, peel it and eat it as part of the choreography. After the show, I received special appreciation for being the only monkey who remembered to continue dancing even while eating the banana.
What was your first role with TLFCB?
My first ballet performance was in a piece called ‘Bohemia’. There were six of us dancing in it and I had hardly done any ballet at that time. It was very difficult, I had to learn steps like pas de chat and balloné compose in that choreography. I remember Yana holding my hand and making me do balloné composes across the aisle, outside the studio. I used to think, ‘The day I can do balloné composé, I will have truly made it ’.
But as I progressed and eventually attained the skill, I came to realise that there is no final destination in ballet. No matter how far we come, there is always more to learn and that’s the beauty of it.
My first solo performance was the Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker.
What was your favourite role?
My favourite role was the Stepmother from Cinderella.
It was a powerful, evil and larger-than-life character on stage. Initially I found it challenging as it went against my natural personality. I had always portrayed the good characters and never the evil ones. So I was pushed out of my comfort zone to get into this role. I told myself, ‘Okay, this is not me. This is somebody else and I have to be her’. Once I made peace with that, I started enjoying the role.
If I could go back and play a role again I would definitely want to do the Stepmother again. It ended up being so much fun!
At what age did you first get your pointe shoes?
I don’t remember exactly but it could have been when I was 25. I was not tracking that date probably because I never thought I was going to get on pointe until it actually happened! One day, to my surprise, Yana asked for my foot measurements and casually mentioned, ‘Sush, you are getting pointe shoes!’ I couldn’t believe it and responded, ‘What??? Are you sure?’ She had a hearty laugh at my reaction.
The first pointe class! It felt great for a few seconds and the pain started to set in and then the numbness. Not sure which one was better. My feet were crying to be rescued. I could not wait to get the shoes off my feet. Right after class I had to drive to college. My legs were shivering and I could barely hold the clutch down. I even remember asking Yana once, ‘Will it ever stop hurting? Will it ever feel good?’
Of course it does get better as you get stronger and it’s worth it. Eventually, pointe work became one of my favourites! I can never forget the magical feeling of that first pirouette on pointe, it felt like I was flying. Even now when I tell people I do ballet, the first thing they ask is if I can stand on my toes and I proudly say, ‘No, I can dance on them’.
How did you balance academics/work with dance as a student?
During that time it was crucial for me to maintain clear boundaries between my work and dance commitments. I established distinct allocations of time, ensuring that neither of them would encroach upon the other.
However this meant sacrificing certain opportunities in both my professional and dance spheres. I did lose out on some opportunities at work and in dance. Nevertheless, this approach worked for me. To compensate for any missed classes, I would seize the opportunity during office hours to forgo a coffee break and instead utilise that time for exercise and leg workouts at the gym. These small, focused workouts, lasting around 20 minutes, made a significant difference. Although it required a strong willpower to opt for the gym over a break, the choices I made proved to be immensely rewarding. Moreover, I was fortunate to have exceptional mentors and friends who supported me.
Despite the challenges of balancing both pursuits, when I look back now, I think I managed quite well. I attained my first promotion at office and received multiple recognitions for my work during this period. Simultaneously, I acquired my pointe shoes, completed my first ballet examination and performed my first solo.
What was it like learning ballet and bharatnatyam?
Bharatnatyam became an integral part of my journey from early childhood. Even before I was old enough to start formal classes, I would eagerly watch my sister’s bharatnatyam sessions, yearning for the day when I would be allowed to join. However, it took a few years before I could officially commence my training. Bharatnatyam became a part of my routine right until my teenage years. It wasn’t fuelled by an overpowering passion. I pursued it because it was simply what I did – a natural extension of my upbringing.
In contrast, ballet held a different significance in my life. I consciously chose to attend the classes. Ballet demanded tremendous effort and dedication, required sacrifices to attend classes week after week. The commitment required was unlike anything I had encountered before.
Only upon embarking on my teaching journey, did I truly understand the influence bharatnatyam had on my ballet. As my understanding of this interconnection deepened through teaching, I felt compelled to revisit bharatnatyam and explore its synergy with ballet. I started attending bharatnatyam and kathak classes again, although intermittently. I firmly believe that all classical dance forms mutually enrich one another. Hence I actively encourage my students to explore different styles if they express interest.
Could you tell us about the photo of you that is on the studio door at HQ?
I first attempted that jump at a photoshoot for Peps mattress. We needed a perfect picture! Yana was there checking my technique and performance. There were many others checking their own parameters for a perfect picture – my hair, makeup, costume, light, the actual product, my angle to the product, etc. Sometimes I would get everything right but the photographer would click the picture at the wrong moment in the jump. So I had to do the jump so many times to ensure that everybody was happy with the end result.
A few months later, in one of the shoots for TLFCB, I had to do the same jump. Both Yana and I prepared the photographers to be patient as this would be taking us a long time. The photographers were very enthusiastic and up for the challenge. I jumped and they took the first shot. Yana took a look and then to everybody’s surprise, she said, ‘It’s perfect Sush, we are done!’
The photographers and I were so surprised! It was a good lesson for me to experience that practice does make you perfect. Not knowing something at all, then repeating it over and over again until you know it so well that it can come out perfect.
So yeah, that’s how that photo was shot. Probably the only photo of mine I think that was taken in a single shot.
What inspired you to become a teacher of dance?
I have always loved dancing, teaching and children. As I grew up, I pursued hobbies in these areas but never though they could all merge together so beautifully into one role.
It was only when I started assisting Yana in classes that I first realised how much I enjoyed teaching. When I discussed this interest with Yana, she offered to train me to take up my teaching exam. I was very excited at this opportunity and went
When and why did you decide to make dance your work?
Following my intermediate exam, I found myself increasingly involved in assisting Yana in classes. While I held a genuine interest in teaching, I never thought that dance teaching would be the path I would pursue.
However, having completed my Intermediate ballet exam, I approached Yana expressing my desire to explore teaching opportunities. Initially, my focus was more inclined towards fitness training. Then, to my surprise, Yana proposed, ‘Why don’t you train to become a ballet teacher?’ I was taken aback, thinking, ‘Can I really go down that path now?’ After all, I had already completed my education and was fully engrossed in my current profession.
Nonetheless, Yana presented me with a well-structured plan, outlining the steps I needed to take to become a ballet teacher. And my response to that was, ‘Great, I’m going to quit my job!’ And that’s how that happened.
How do you make sure to keep a work – life balance?
In my daily life, I try to follow a structured routine with dedicated time slots for work and various other activities. I strive to maintain discipline and adhere to my schedules. However, with experience, I’ve come to realise that there will be moments when one aspect of my life may demand more attention than the other, and that’s perfectly fine. There are occasions when dance takes precedence, requiring more time, while at other times, my family and personal life may require greater dedication.
Having this flexibility is important, but I approach it with a sense of awareness. I consciously acknowledge when one area of my life starts to dominate and make an effort to restore balance as quickly as possible. By maintaining this awareness, I ensure that neither work nor personal commitments overshadow each other for an extended period. This however is a continuous process of learning and practising.