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Shiamak Davar: Dance Heals

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as you know, in this podcast, we try and get you ideas, trends, and techniques that will help you lead a healthier and happier life and today we’re talking about something really interesting— the connection of dance and physical health, but not just the way you know it, but in many different ways and forms. And I have today the incredible Shiamak Davar, who is a dance instructor to the stars, as you probably know. He’s a committed performer and the success of a lot of people has been attributed to him because he’s brought rhythm and form into their lives. Welcome to the show, Shiamak and thank you for being here.

Shiamak Davar: Thank you so much, Thank you. Hi.

AB: My first question to you is that— you’re a great dancer, you’re a choreographer, you’re a great singer, so how did you get interested in this field?

SD: Actually, the thing was that I was not even into dance or choreography. I would (just) sing and dance in a frivolous (way), (I would be) singing and dancing on my piano, playing the piano, singing Elton John, Billy Joel, (Barbara) Streisand and try and do stuff like that. And then many years later, I wanted to do singing classes again and acting classes. So I went into London, to the Pineapple Dance Center and the instructor was teaching jazz and I didn’t know what was it. I could hear the music, it was jazz music, so I was very excited, and I said, let’s just try a class for fun. And I’ve not really had much dance training earlier. It was just jiving at dance competitions, things like that. So I went inside and I started doing (the) class. After about a month, the guy said, you seem to be well-trained. And I said, no, the only training I’ve had is here, otherwise I’ve never done this. He said, but you’ve got a natural balletic body and turnout and this and that. So I said, really? I said, how is that possible? And I was like, so surprised because you don’t expect that. Then he said, no, you must not stop classes and this and that. And in the end, of course, I did the classes and things happened which were really good and everything. So I got to do that and I went again and again and again and again. And then I came back to Bombay and started (classes) with seven students.

AB: Oh, wow.

SD: Yeah, only seven. Five were my family and two were students.

AB: Fabulous. So that was the beginning of an incredible career. But obviously, it was meant to be then.

SD: Yes, yes! But I didn’t even know the word choreography, or what it meant, I had no concept of anything, really, about these things.I didn’t know these things. I was just watching all these movies. At that time there was not much YouTube and Instagram and stuff, so it was just going to the theatre— musical theatre, and watching films.

AB: And the Pineapple (Dance) Studios was in Covent Garden?

SD: Yes.

AB: So it was still there when you started?

SD: Yes. She had made her house—a Pineapple warehouse, into a studio. And I’ve met some phenomenal teachers there. There was Charles Organs, then there was, Arlene Philips, and, so many of them there.

AB: Wow. So in terms of physical health, now we all know that there are all these benefits from dance. I mean, you know, it’s exercise, it helps with weight loss, muscle tone and all that. Tell us of some of the lesser-known benefits where you’ve seen it help.

SD: So I have an actual story here. There was a girl who came to my class who had polio, in her hand or something. And she wanted to dance. So, I said, yeah, you can come and dance. I mean, I have no problem, you can come. After a year of training with her, did I realize that she came up to me and said, Shiamak, do you know that I can move my hand a bit? And I said I don’t understand what you’re saying, mostly your doctors have done a very good job. And then she says, no, it was not the doctors. It was actually, the fact that your classes have been so helpful to me. So it really didn’t strike a bell that dance can do anything, even on a physical level, really. I didn’t think anything at that time. I was so into that start in my career, and learning and teaching, and going back and learning, and coming back and teaching. After that happened, I started my Victory Arts Foundation. So people with crutches, wheelchairs, HIV affected, all came to my classes. Sex workers’ children and people who were really with special needs. And the thing was that it was a very, how do I say, enlightening experience for me. And the best part was, they were only smiling (during) the whole class. And I’m wondering, as I said earlier, is it (dance) really going to make them any better? I said you know what? Who cares? I said they’re having fun, they’re enjoying the thing, they’re enjoying the classes, they’re having fun! And there’s some divinity in what is happening with this exchange.

AB: But I think that’s why, because of this divinity, that’s why you were led to it. It just sounds like that.

SD: As I was always told, because I believe in the Bhavnagris, these are the people who wrote a book, the Laws of the Spirit World, and the book has been my Bible. And she lost two of her sons in a car crash, and she realised and said that her life was over. And then eventually, to make a story short, she started communicating with her children in the spirit world. And that fascinated me because it was all about simple things like karma, reincarnation, or how to be a good person on Earth. Don’t think you can get away with doing wrong things and don’t think you can hide from the truth,
because eventually, it’ll whoop in your face. And that really made me feel, literally, liberated, I felt free. I read that book, and I was freaked out. I just loved that book.

AB: What was the book again?

SD: The Laws of the Spirit World, by Khorshed Bhavnagri and it really changed my life. It was all about auto-writing and stuff like that and about angels and guides. And every time I would talk to Khorshed, she would say, darling, you must give back. You don’t have to be a famous person to give back. You will realise that ‘Seva’ or service is the most powerful thing. I didn’t even know about (anything like) ‘Seva’ before, but they (those with impairments) were coming to my classes, and I didn’t have the heart to say, no, you can’t do my classes because you’re in a wheelchair or because you’re on a crutch or you have a Jaipur foot or you can’t see, can’t speak. In fact, one of my dancers, even today, is dancing in my dance company and is a professional dancer, and he can’t hear and he can’t speak. So, dance heals. Dancing actually heals, in some way. Because I could just see joy (in them/ on their faces). That’s all I could see. And for me, that was a shift. There was a shift in some consciousness that I said, no, no, this is working. We have people who are in a wheelchair teaching other people in wheelchairs how to dance in my Victory Arts Foundation. So you empower them.

AB: Oh, wow. That’s incredible. So tell me a little more about the Victory Arts Foundation, Shiamak.

SD: So I actually did this about 35 years ago, quietly, with the polio lady and some other people who just came and, you know, they were special in some way. I said, look, let them just come and even if they do anything there, they’re going to be happy, right? They have someone with them all the time. Always with special people, we have a lot of people looking after them and, you know, looking for them. So it just became a norm. And then he (Glen D’mello- CEO of The SHIAMAK Group) said, but baba if you’re doing this do it properly. So we started Victory Arts Foundation. I don’t remember the dates, but it was about, maybe some 15 years ago, somewhere, officially. And we never charged money to anyone who came for classes with
special needs, whether they were billionaire children or not, any other special needs child would never, never have to pay, and they never did. So I started this kind of thing, and then I realised, what am I doing? Let me do something more. Let people know, don’t be ashamed of your kids. So when I was performing, I actually brought them on the show, So in their wheelchairs, in their crutches, there’s a sweet boy called Shubham, who he actually stands on his ankles. But he was dancing, and there were people in wheelchairs and crutches, and I was doing the Lion King song. So I used them on stage, and after using them on stage, I said, you know what? This is fantastic. And I use them again and again and again, and every time, the audience would get up and clap because they were so in awe.

AB: And you must have helped their self-esteem so much, no?

SD: I think that’s what made them feel empowered.

AB: Yeah. Confident and empowered. Wow.

SD: Yeah. That was something, really, that blew my mind. And till today, even in Canada, we did this. I brought them on stage at the IIFA show, and I got Shah Rukh to dance with them.

AB: Oh, amazing, you took them all the way to Canada to perform?

SD: No, they were the Canadian kids. So we had them, and we had them on stage, and it was really, really something. And I brought Shah Rukh to dance with them, so they went mad. There was a stadium for the film Academy Awards— IIFA.

AB: I’ve been to the IIFA when it was in London.

SD: I used to choreograph I think, 99% of those shows.

AB: Oh, wow. Years ago, you know, when the O2 Center had just opened, I think it was one of the first ones.

SD: Yeah that’s the one I did.

AB: Oh, my God.

SD: We did one in Yorkshire, also.

AB: Okay. Wow. And a little bird told me that you do a lot in Canada, so you have a huge following there. There’s a lot because you’ve done a lot to give back.

SD: I just love doing dance classes because I think they help everyone. And the kids come from the age of four to 84, and with my classes, they don’t have to be professional. They can just want to learn and enjoy, and have fun, basically. It’s free for senior citizens as well. So it’s a lovely feeling, and the most powerful feeling is when your students grow up and, you know, suddenly I bump into somebody and he says, sir, I’m your student, and now I’m working in this conglomerate, and sir I’m your student and I’m the commissioner of Income Tax. So it’s at random places I find them. And they say I was your student, and I loved you. And I can’t believe it, because some people even came when they were 30 years old, 40 years old at that time. Today they’re big commissioners and CEOs of huge companies, and they were such sweethearts. My Lucky Ali used to come to my class. A lot of them came to my class.

AB: You know, there are such few people one meets who are so passionate about giving back. It’s coming through so strongly (through you), and that’s what’s amazing. But after the pandemic, have you felt that people’s physical abilities have changed, do you find that?

SD: I can tell you something very honestly, I don’t understand what is going on right now. But when we had the pandemic, I still started online classes for people at home. For the first three months, I gave classes every day, and for free! Because they didn’t have money. So I did it for free for everybody. And it turned out to be really, how do I say? People were really happy. And in my head, and I told Glen, my CEO, that why do people have to charge for something like the arts? I think that’s pathetic. Government should sponsor this and let them be free. It’s irritating to teach dance and charge, that was my mind. So I said one day I will give free classes to the whole world. So, for three months, I did it every single day (free classes). My instructors gave it to everyone in Canada, everywhere, all over the world. And it was so beautiful because people were at home suffering. And I sound fake saying it, but I’m not. I genuinely love giving back.

AB: No, obviously if you started 35 years ago, when you were starting in your career, that shows that it’s not just something you’re doing now. You’ve done it from the beginning.

SD: And that was a really tough time for me when I started my career. It was a very tough time because boys don’t dance. If they do, they’re gay, or they’re not going to have a proper education. You better be a doctor or lawyer. What nonsense is this? And how can you do this kind of stuff? And the women who would come to my classes at that time, would wear a leotard that covered them, right? But no, you can’t wear such tight clothes. Who will marry you?

AB: Oh, God.

SD: It was a horrible time.

AB: Yeah. And that was probably also a time when the elders would probably say that, no, get a proper career. They didn’t realise that it would be an incredible career.

SD: It was like, what are you doing? Such a frivolous stupid thing. What are you doing?

AB: But today, when the parents get the kids to you, are they just looking at them for physical benefits? Or are they thinking, my child, will be a Bollywood star?

SD: Yes, there is a 1%, who bring kids with that intent, which is fine. I always believe you know that if today you want to go into films, Indian film is all about dance. Even my Pathaan, You saw my Shah Rukh dance. His wife was my student for many years. In fact, because of Shahrukh, I did Dil To Pagal Hai. Because he used to come every day and wait outside my studio, waiting for Gauri, his wife. And she would perform with me on stage, and I would sing ‘Jadoo Teri Nazar…’, and she’d walk, and she would do the whole modelling bit. Even in the national game, she performed with me, where I performed the whole theme for the mascot of the games, the national games, Raju— with a tiger, so I made up a song in Hindi-Marathi, which I wasn’t
very good at because I speak Gujarati at home, or English. You know that was lovely! Shah Rukh even today dances. He has to dance. Mr Amitabh Bachan dances. What I’m trying to say is that dance is an integral part of our system, our wedding has dance, and our religious ceremonies have dance. We dance on the road. It’s a part of us.

AB: Absolutely. It’s in our cells and our DNA. We dance everywhere.

SD: Yeah! And now weddings have become like shows. Like they’ve become big shows. Dance is a part of us, so we had to for films. You want to get into films? Okay, you’re acting so obviously, you have to work on that, but dance is vital.

AB: So how young is your youngest student? You said your oldest is 84. How young is the youngest?

SD: Four.

AB: Four! So people can send their children to your classes from four years old?

SD: Yeah. So between four to six, they come and they learn the sun, the moon, and they just express themselves.

AB: And between four and six, then you never forget it. Whatever you learned when you were little, you’ll never forget it.

SD: I promise you, I don’t know about the four and six, but I do know that in your youth if you train your muscle memory and your being, something happens in you. Like kids who are not doing well in their classes or failing their exams, and I said, what’s the big deal? I said stop it. Just send your child. And they’d say, but they will fail. I said, no, they will pass, stop being negative. And the truth was that they did very well, and this also must have been because of blood circulation and physical activity, but also they got confident.

AB: Yeah, they get confident. I also think the left brain gets activated. There are all these brain networks that kick in. I just think it’s fabulous.

SD: And then I put them on stage to do the show, so they’re very happy with that.

AB: And you have a bunch of senior citizens, and as you said, you don’t charge them. So is it quite physically gruelling for them when it comes to the dance classes?

SD: What we do is we’re very careful about harming people’s bodies. If today, God forbid, we teach wrongly and someone gets a knee problem, or someone gets a back problem, we’re so careful. We’re careful. Like, every teacher knows, baba, you can’t do this, you can’t do this. You can do this. So what I’ve done in my new kind of workout is I’ve done preemption, rather than redemption. So I will strengthen your knee in my workout, your lower back. I will strengthen your neck. I will work out your neck in such a way that you don’t face issues in the future. So, I do preemptive workouts.

AB: Right to prevent things.

SD: Yeah, which heal you in the classes. A Plié is to bend in the ballet world, now, if you don’t have your knees over your toes, your alignment and the way you turned out, you have to be turned out, if you do not do these things on a physical level, you can harm yourself. Because when people started my classes, they did my class, and they went out and did (taught) classes. And people come back to me saying I went to this class, I hurt my back and I’d say, baba, you should do it carefully. You cannot work out wrongly. It is dangerous.

AB: And Shiamak tell me, in the age of gadgets and gaming, do you find that people’s bodies have stiffened up? Because I know boys who will sit in game and game and game all day.

SD: I don’t even want to get into that because I feel, today I think, I was born in the correct era. Because I could play Chor Police, that’s robbers and cops, seven tiles, play the Dabba Spice and all these games, outdoors. I met old people. We spent time with our grandparents, we spent time with our elderly, we went out, we would sit at a table, discuss and talk— talk rubbish, but have fun. I also love the ease of technology. I love it. But the main thing is that it’s become something which makes people unworthy, sometimes I feel. Because of this challenge to become an influencer or to do something and to show, my God, everyone’s showing beautiful videos and then suddenly they feel, oh my God, I don’t have many followers and I can’t do what they’re doing. They’re just looking at the world moving ahead.

AB: They look outside rather than inside.

SD: And also it’s dangerous because when you grow older, you stiffen.

AB: And tell me, do you do a test when people come to your fitness classes?

SD: We don’t do any tests because my workouts are not very demanding for the beginners and things like that. They are pretty basic and everyone can do it and they’re safe. As I said, safety is important for me, especially in dance.

AB: And Shiamak, for people aspiring to be dancers. I mean, would you tell them, keep your BMI in order? Would you tell them to exercise 30 to 40 minutes a day? Would you tell them, to be disciplined?

SD: I would say go and do a dance class. Go to a proper dance class. Find out about your body, and find out what is your bone density. If you want to do bone density, you don’t want to do it, and that’s also fine. I’m saying but just be passionate about what you’re doing. Then you will work towards that, the dots will join and you will be led to certain things. You see, you have to really be hungry to do what you want to do.

AB: Yes, absolutely. So for you, that journey from the Pineapple (Dance) Studios 35 years ago, where all has it led to you?

SD: It led me to start dance classes in India. Then from Mumbai, I went all over India and then I went abroad and did classes for people (there)  because they love Bollywood a lot.

AB: And would you advise people to dance to get fit, for mental balance, or to have fun? What are the things you think you get out of it?

SD: Besides the physical healing which is important, mentally, it is very powerful for healing because you get a lot of confidence. They come on stage to perform for their parents and friends in my  Summer Funk program, Winter Funk program, all these camps we do, and even after a three-month course, they will go on stage and they will perform, and because of that something happens in their mind and things just change.

AB: No, that was incredible. Thank you for an amazing talk. Let’s do a quick recap. Best age to start dancing?

SD: When you really want to learn.

AB: Okay, so for a child, when would you advise parents to start?

SD: You know, for a lot of kids, the parents will say my child is just dancing in the house the whole day. That’s when it clicks!

AB: That’s the time.

SD: Yeah, just send them.

AB: Okay. Surprise benefits of dance?

SD: Healing on every level— body, mind and soul. Definitely. My father had Alzheimer’s and dementia and today people are using dance as healing for things like Alzheimer’s and brain diseases.

AB: And tell me an area that dancers should work on or pay attention to like nutrition, or sleep, what would you recommend?

SD: I think they have to work with a nutritionist. Now see, everybody doesn’t have that kind of money to do so. The general population is people from lower middle classes, low economic backgrounds, and middle class and they don’t want to spend on nutritionists. But today, I would always say that find out and research what is making me happy, what kind of food or what is working for me, what I eat before the workout, or what I eat after the workout. Because just having these protein things and you know that extra madness to get a body, is scary for me.

AB: Any final words of advice for the people listening in?

SD: I think you know, one has to believe in themselves. I think the reason I got through was because of the Bhavnagris and that book that saved my life ‘The Laws of the Spirit World’ and I realised that everything you do has to have some meaning. It can be fun, it can be rubbish, it can be beautiful, but it has to give you joy, it has to give you something that makes you happy. And I believe (in this), even if today people put you down, as they did with me many years ago to stop me from entering the Bollywood industry or even stop me from doing my dance classes, they made fun of me. The same people today send their kids to my school, many years later, and they realised what a really powerful healing tool dance is.

AB: And what is amazing Shiamak, is that you had a situation which was not great when you started but you’ve taken that in a positive way and made it positive for so many other people. Someone else could have got bitter about it but you’ve taken that and made it into a lotus. Shiamak that was such an incredible, inspiring chat for me and I’m sure for the listeners. Thank you for making the time to be here.

SD: Thank you so much for everything.

AB: Thank you to all the listeners. We hope you enjoyed it. We hope you learned something new with the wonderful Shiamak Dawar today. And we hope you’re closer to leading a healthier and happier life.

SD: And come to my classes in London and Lester!

AB: Thank you for doing that. Please go to Shiamak’s classes to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally and please like this episode. If you like it, please share it and press subscribe. Thank you.