Dance reality shows are stepping stones and not an adoption centre: Choreographer Terence Lewis

Dancer, choreographer and reality TV dance judge, Terence Lewis’s stride of pride needs no introduction. He is a choreographer par excellence, a mostly self-taught dancer who challenges himself at every point and TV dance reality show judge who is balanced and fair. In a candid conversation, Terence talks about his journey as a dancer, the pandemic situation and how dancers need to cope with the new norm. Excerpts:

What is dance to you?

Dance is a language, where words fail and bodies speak... and in the words of Martha Graham, “The body never lies.” It is the most genuine way of expressing yourself. When you dance, you liberate yourself to the thoughts that are deep within. To me, it is the language of God and a very refined mode of communication.

How has dance shaped your life?

As a kid, I would act, sing, dance... it was more to get attention really. It helped me become popular in my school, church, area, and when I got a bit older, it also helped me get dates! I was able to get my pocket money from it and then later, it started sustaining me financially as I started teaching dance. Slowly, it became a language for me especially when I started studying dance correctly in its true form and met some great gurus along the way. It then became my way to communicate with the world.

Terence Lewis with his students
Terence Lewis with his students

How did it all start for you?

I was six and in school! The teacher asked if anybody would want to participate in a dance competition. Nobody in the class put their hands up, but I wanted to be different, so I put up my hand. I did a song and dance routine I had seen on TV, and I won! It boosted my confidence, so I kept participating in competitions — won some, lost more, but the whole idea of getting onto the stage gave me a lot of practice that eventually helped me and became a part of my life.

How was your exposure to Bollywood while growing up?

There was not much exposure back then; we had the radio. Ameen Sayani sir had a show on the weekend where he would narrate an entire film. We couldn’t afford to watch movies, so we would listen to Ameen Sayani’s version of it and create our own in our heads. Bollywood movies were watched rarely and mostly at neighbours’ houses — we used to stay in a chawl. Going to a movie theatre was not within our means back then.

How did you get trained in classical Indian dance?

I never got trained in classical dance. I always had the inclination to learn it as I found it very graceful, especially Bharatanatyam. Next to my friend’s school, was this teacher who used to teach Kathak and semi-classical dance. We would play football in the evening, and I used to stay back and watch her teach from outside. I never had any formal training till I was 26! I started with jazz and then at 30, I got into contemporary. Indian classical dance is something I picked up along the way... I think I pick up more by just watching than by being taught. It is something innate in me, and it is not only restricted to dance, but anything really.

What was your first exposure to contemporary dance?

I had no idea about the dance form! I used to create dance productions in my studio — I used to dance and ask my dancers to follow. It so happened that one of these pieces got noticed by a German choreographer Susanne Linke (one of the major innovators of German Tanztheater along with Pina Bausch and Reinhild Hoffman) who had come down to Mumbai. It was in 2002. She found my work refreshing and told me that I had a flair for ‘contemporary’, and gave my assistant choreographer and me a scholarship to learn contemporary dance. We were the first Indians to get the dance WEB scholarship in Vienna, Austria. There, I got introduced to many top-class teachers and trained under them, including Susanne.

A still from Ram-Leela’s song Ang Laga De
A still from Naach

Isn’t it ever frustrating to choreograph to actors who often have two left feet?

A film is an editor’s and a director’s medium — and one can use a lot of editing techniques to make actors look like great dancers, on screen. You can cheat a lot. Yes, there are actors who just can’t move, so you have to change your choreography accordingly. But that is okay! They are here to act, which most of them do pretty well! Unke liye saath khoon maaf! But this is pertinent mostly to the older lot of actors, today’s kids are very well trained in everything. But I think there should be an award for choreographers who can make actors who can’t dance look great, because that’s a skill and challenge. Anybody can do a marvellous job if you have a Hrithik [Roshan] or a Madhuri [Dixit-Nene] or a Govinda!

Choreographing for movies, or dance reality shows on TV, which one you like more?

Bollywood is lovely, I had never assisted anybody and still I got an opportunity to work here. I started with Lagaan, Reena Dutta (Aamir Khan’s ex-wife and producer in Lagaan) was a student of mine and she gave me the first break in a small sequence. Then came Jhankaar Beats, Naach and Ram-Leela. But I realised my work is most appreciated with TV dance reality shows because my choreography requires trained dancers who can go through the grind and push their boundaries. Also, I need the creative licence to do what I want. And you get all these in a dance show. While in movies, you are restricted to the artistes, song or scene, etc… Also, I am a one-take artiste and I love TV dance shows where you often have to execute a routine, and I like challenges.

You have judged so many dance reality shows, is it a viable career in India?

Dance reality shows is a great platform for kids who would have perhaps been struggling for maybe 20 more years without getting any recognition. But it is not an adoption centre. It is a stepping stone that you need to cash in on. It gives you huge recognition, jumpstarts your journey and puts you in a place from where you can amplify your price points. If you are charging a thousand for a dance class, the promotion you get from these shows can increase that to a lakh, if not more. Using that money, you can create your own path. You need to grow your social media followers, which will get you endorsement deals, etc. But yes, what happens is a lot of them get disillusioned. More so, as once the season where you were the star is over, there comes the next season and along with it, a new set of stars. And you are out of sight; the channels will now find the next star. So, you need to be really good in your game. This is a crucial point where many reality show participants get lost because they start thinking that ‘I am the star, and this is it’. But when the sudden attention shift happens, sometimes, they can’t handle it and they get cocky and don’t know what to do next. … so, they become irrelevant.

With the pandemic raging and lockdowns in place, what is the future of the Bollywood dance scene?

It has really impacted me personally. We were performing so much, and that scene is totally down now. I have a large crew of dancers and there is no business. It is impacting everyone and among the worst hit are people working in the entertainment industry, especially the ones who are dependent on live performances. There are tough times ahead and I don’t have any answers. The dancers’ community needs all the support, and my heart goes out especially to the daily wage dancers who work in Bollywood. The shoots have stopped either completely or the crew is kept to a minimum. It is really a sad situation and there is no easy way out. It is not the best career to opt for right now.

We celebrated International Dance Day on April 29. What is your advice to the kids who want to make a career in dance?

My first advice would be: Please keep an alternative career. Dance for your passion, do it for your heart and soul, use it for fitness, use it to express yourself. But at least for the next few years, I don’t think it will be a financially viable career option. But there is always a silver lining. These days you don’t need to be in the movies or even TV to showcase your talent, work hard on your skills and showcase your talent on social media. The world is now on the phone and you have the greatest opportunity to reach out to people. It will give you name and recognition if you are good. Maybe the money will take time, but then that has always been the case for dancers. Also, there are many online courses happening which are quite cheap, make use of those and hone your skills.

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