Dance is where my heart is, says Neha Sujhani, whose passion for the art form led her to turn into a professional ballet dancer.
A Chartered Accountant by profession, Neha gave up her well-paying job to imbibe and inculcate the graceful dance form, ballet.. A professional ballet dancer, she eventually went on to set up one of the city’s first ballet dance academies.
In a candid conversation, she took us through her journey as a professional ballet dancer and how it proved to be her passion.
“When I was part of the corporate world, life was very challenging. I would go for an early morning yoga class from 6.30 am to 8 am, freshen up and report to office, work till 7 or 8 pm, and rush for company rehearsals from 8.30 pm to 9.30 pm. This was on weekdays.
Weekends I had almost 5 to 7 hours of ballet and jazz classes. Sometimes I had to report to work on weekends, but everyone in my office, including my seniors knew I wouldn’t miss my ballet classes for anything…
“I started ballet quite late, at the age of 15.I was told it’s too late and that I can only take it up as a hobby. I was also told that there’s no career in dance. Which is why it was very important for me to be good at academics, so that no one would prevent me from attending my ballet classes.
We have to watch what we eat. not just during the show season but throughout the year. Being a ballet dancer is a choice which alters life. One of the benefits of dancing is that our body and mind urge us to make healthier choices. I have not had a pizza for the past 5 years! When I go out on social events, I prefer eating salads and soup.
“I guess one of the biggest motivations for me to clear all my CA exams was ballet.
I knew I would be asked to quit dancing if I did not do well in academics. When I attended my first class, my splits were pathetic. I used to look at everyone around me and would feel foolish trying to do something, that others could demonstrate easily.
It took time and determination. It was a painful journey to get the perfect 180-degree split. Ballet is such that, progress doesn’t come overnight. It takes years. It takes patience, determination and confidence. When family and friends find out that you are pursuing ballet they expect you to do split jumps and rise en pointe,” she adds.
When I was told, that I have been promoted to pointe work and can get my pointe shoes, I was in tears. This is every ballet dancer’s dream come true.
Reminiscing about her first experience with the ballet shoes, she says, “Since pointe shoes are not available in India, they have to be ordered from countries like the US or UK. I couldn’t wait for my pointe shoes. They took almost 2 to 3 months to arrive.
I clearly remember the day I went to try my pointe shoes on. My teacher was with me, and she told me how to wear them, which type of toe pads would be the best suited for me etc.
“I woke up very early the day of my first pointe class. When I wore them the first time, and went en pointe, I felt more confident than I had ever felt. The world looks very different from that height. But five minutes en pointe, and I experienced pain like never before.
My calf muscles, quads, metatarsals were on fire. We just did barre work on day 1, but it was the most agonising one hour of my life. When I removed my pointe shoes I saw my toes bruised, in spite of the extra padding. But gradually my feet got used to the pain and cuts.”
Neha later went to set up one of the city’s first ballet dance academy, Les Danseuses Academy of Ballet (LDAB). However, lack of awareness and interest amidst the citizens made it an uphill task for her.
“Setting up LDAB was very difficult. When we started LDAB, people in Pune were not aware of ballet. They had an idea about what ballet is, but did not know how to differentiate a professional ballet academy from a hobby class.
Ballet is a western dance form. Hence, people are more comfortable, when a non-Indian teaches this form.
As an Indian I was asked many times why they should join my classes when non-Indians are teaching ballet in Pune. It was very difficult for us to explain to the people that the right way to be recognised in ballet is through exams and international certification.
“Without these, the global dance community does not recognise the ballet training the students may have taken.
“ We also have two boys now in our academy, although we would like more boys to take it up. Ballet has many benefits to boys. Strength building, increased stamina, agility are a few such benefits,” she adds.
“I did not injure myself during a dance performance/training, but at a yoga class once the instructor pushed me quite severely which resulted in a hamstring tear. After the injury for a year I couldn’t do much, and that was a very depressing phase for me.
There was a very funny incident which occurred during a jazz performance. Me and another girl were required to do a grand jump from the opposite wings and enter the stage. We were so lost in the performance that we did not assess the distance and placements on stage and banged our heads mid-air.
“Fortunately, it was a group performance and our fiasco was noticed only by a few people. But it was highly embarrassing for us and taught us that as a dancer we need to be aware of everyone around us,” she giggles.
“I am a student of St. Mira College and it was an honour to have my students perform on that stage. “There were loud applause at every grand jeté (split jump in the air) and cheers at the entrance of our young five-year-old ballerinas. It was a very memorable event she says, signing off.
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