Bolly girls

Indian dance could soon be taught in schools. Yojana Sharma studies the steps

It is the highlight of the week for Vishali Sharma, nine, and her sister Roshni, 16. They've changed out of their school uniforms into colourful shalwar kameez for their regular class in modern Indian dance, just as the Bollywood stars do it. The music is upbeat and vibrant; the dance is energetic yet graceful, with every part of the body - neck, shoulders, arms, fingers and hips - in motion.

"It's easy to learn, the songs are great, and it has funky movements," says Vishali, who has been attending after-school classes for almost three years in Finchley, north London. Vishali is in no doubt about why interest in this dance medium is growing so fast. "It is more graceful than jazz or street dance. If I want to really impress someone at a party, I do this, and they say, 'Oh cool, how do you do that?'"

Her teacher is dancer and choreographer Honey Kalaria, who leads the teaching of the genre in Britain, and launched her dance academy in 1997 from her father's garage in Ilford, Essex, with just four students. Since then, the academy has mushroomed, with more than 800 students taught by 12 teachers or trainees in classes and workshops across greater London. But the indefatigable Ms Kalaria is not stopping there. She is searching for teachers in India, with the aim of extending the academy nationwide, and, within the next couple of years, to the United States.

Her more immediate plans are to put modern Indian dance on a secure educational footing, with a recognised national syllabus, standards and exams. Having witnessed the fun and excitement it can generate, she has kicked off 2003 with an intensive touring programme of school workshops for nine to 13-year-olds.

"Dance has huge potential for educating children," she says. "The Asian kids love it because it's something they know, and it has so much energy that the non-Asian kids get interested." She believes that within half an hour children "have learned much, and in a way they will remember".

Modern Indian dance is performed to hits from Indian movies produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The films, which feature extravagant song-and-dance numbers, have a huge following around Asia and wherever the Indian diaspora has taken root. In Britain, Indian movies attract huge audiences in mainstream cinemas. But it was when Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Bombay Dreams hit the London stage in summer 2002 that "Bollywood" dance took off.

It incorporates a range of styles: Indian classical, exuberant bhangra (the Punjabi harvest dance, widely performed at weddings), more sedate Indian folk dance, disco, jazz, even Latin. "Bollywood dancers are incredibly versatile. If they are taught well, they should be able to dance to anything," says Ms Kalaria, who is starring in a soon-to-be released Bollywood blockbuster called Indian Babu, with some of her London-based students.

Honey Kalaria came to Britain with her parents from east Africa, aged four.

She started dancing with her mother, imitating Bollywood styles, and won her first dancing prize at the age of 11. In her teens she went to India every summer, taking classes in classical and folk dance for up to six hours a day. By 13, she had her first paid dancing role, and by 15 was teaching and dancing professionally. "During the week I was at school, and at weekends I'd fly off to Spain, the United States or Scandinavia for performances."

Her degree in accountancy and public relations has given her a sound business sense. "Five years ago, when I set up the academy, no one knew what Bollywood was. Now, modern Indian dance is mushrooming. In the next few years it will be everywhere. Everyone is attracted to it," she says.

Her academy has become the first port of call for stage, film and video producers wanting young Asian dancers. As well as the Lloyd-Webber show, the academy has supplied dancers for the S Club Juniors and Bond videos and for the third Harry Potter film, which starts production in March.

Meanwhile, teenagers are beating a path to Ms Kalaria's evening and Saturday classes, eager to master the moves to "Shakalaka-baby" and "Chaiyya Chaiyya" - the hit songs from Bombay Dreams.

Honey Kalaria has a system of assessment for her pupils, but wants modern Indian dance recognised as a genre in its own right, with a national syllabus that sets grades and standards. "Even salsa has its own syllabus and exams," she says. Unlike classical Indian dance, with its rigid syllabus of set dances and steps, she likens an examination system for modern Indian dance to the "more freestyle examinations of disco dance".

This is the way she has assessed students in her own academies, videotaping them and marking their performance in terms of confidence, style, grace and interpretation. She intends to incorporate all the elements that could allow Indian dance to be taught in British schools, perhaps as part of the GCSE physical education or dance syllabus - just as Indian music is now a component of GCSE music. As well as talking to dancers and their trainers in India, she has spent the past two years developing contacts among Ofsted inspectors and teachers. "What makes it different are the aspects of Indian classical dance, the hand movements and the poses," says Ms Kalaria.

"A proper syllabus would allow students to learn some of the movements and understand how to put together their own routines."

She hopes to have the exam up and running this year, regulated by a body tentatively called the International Association of Modern Indian Arts, which will also provide accreditation for teachers and possibly handle franchises for dance schools overseas. "Modern Indian dance is here to stay," she says. "And we are the pioneers."

Honey Kalaria has developed two teaching videos and accompanying workbook.

They explain the terminology and teach two dance numbers step by step.

Learn Bollywood and Learn Bhangra include exercises and explanations, as well as references for further reading and Bollywood films to watch for specific styles of dance. To order, or for details of classes and workshops, tel: 020 8590 8050

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