Being Safe in India (part 2)

Being Safe in India (part 2)

Ever since I arrived to India, people keep asking me about the safety of women/dancers here. A while back I wrote about work-related safety issues. This time I am looking at more general aspects.

Let’s start with the grossest threat – the food! Indian food is notorious for causing troubles, and there is a selection of different forms of food poisoning to choose from 😉 On a more serious note, it can get as bad as needing an IV. The good news is, you will learn which foods to avoid (like salads at the weddings), how to cope with when it happens to you (hint: Immodium, Norflox and peppermint oil), and even how to work throughout the whole thing (not while being hooked to an IV though 😉 ).

It is world wide knowledge that most accidents happen at home, and in India it seems to be true. Especially when it comes to bathrooms. I’ve lived in a flat where switching on the light in the bathroom was always a bit of a roulette – you never knew if you would get an electric shock or not. In another apartment I witnessed how the heater tank exploded – it was extremely lucky that no-one was in the bathroom at the same time.

But the biggest threat lies in the drivers. We spend a lot of time in cars – sometimes the drive to a show can be up to 8 hours. And the drivers are terribly overworked. Once, a driver fell asleep behind the wheel while we were driving through a tunnel. Another time we had to take a roadside break in the middle of the night, so that the driver could have a little nap to recuperate. We’ve also had problems with drunk people sitting behind the wheel. Often I choose not to sleep in the car during our drive back from the show just to keep an eye on the driver… it is better to be dead tired than dead.

I know that when I am asked about the safety here people actually want to know about the everyday life. Judging from what is published in the foreign and also Indian media, India is definitely not a safe place for a woman. However, my experience has not been bad… I live in a decent neighbourhood, travel in the “women only” cart on the metro, and don’t hang out too much after dark. I avoid talking to strangers (or actually, turning any attention to them at all), and when I have to take a taxi, I ask my boss to book it for me, to make sure it is a reliable company, and he has the contact of the driver. So far I can say that India has been treating me properly in that sense!

The Dressing Room Scavenger Hunt

The Dressing Room Scavenger Hunt

India is a very different environment from every other place I have danced in, so little (and sometimes not so little) culture shocks surface frequently. To cope with this, one has to take things with humour, and consider it all like a game… For example, when it comes to the dressing rooms, it is often like a scavenger hunt 🙂 When I dance at clubs or restaurants, having a decent dressing room (or green room, as it is called here) is usually not a problem. However, events are a completely different story…

Step 1: find a green room.

People keep being surprised when I tell them that no, I will not do four costume changes in a public bathroom. Or, in the room in front of the public bathroom.

Step 2: find a green room with walls.

Sometimes the dressing rooms are more conceptual than actual. Flimsy fabric carelessly drawn around a metal scaffolding, flapping around in the wind (with an outdoor event). Once the green room did have walls, but no windows nor doors. However, it did have an opening in the wall facing directly the audience. 🙂

Step 3: find the loopholes.

My first instinct when entering a dressing room is to scan for security cameras. Most of the time the green rooms are open from the top, so there is also the risk of a wandering drone camera peeking in. Second scan is for peepholes. You would not believe how many times there are random men just standing outside the dressing room hoping to catch a “special show”. A colleague of mine even had a case when someone was trying to film her while she was changing

Step 4: secure your territory.

Sometimes the green room assigned is unisex, so you have to clear out the guys before each costume change… this can be quite an undertaking. If I am sharing it only with female dancers, their managers/coordinators/whoever tend to pop in without warning. And, of course, there are the random men running “accidentally” into your green room, even when it is yours alone. You can try to make sure the accompanying manager is keeping watch outside (a successful strategy depending on the attention span of the manager), or just make a big scandal every time it happens (the phrase “I will pack up and stop dancing” usually works wonders), or…

Step 5: … just learn to change your costumes in a way you are never uncovered 🙂

Being safe in India

Being Safe in India

It is well-known that India is a land of great diversity. So, of course, it also applies to the safety of dancers. Sometimes the security at work is organised to the level of being almost funny, but every now and then going out on stage can be downright dangerous.

In the Indian context I am a relatively tall person. However, there are people taller than me, and it seems that most of them are employed as bouncers at clubs and restaurants. 🙂 Usually they are doing a very good job making the dancer feel safe – when I spent two weeks dancing at a restaurant in Punjab, there was always a bouncer (or two on busier nights) following me during my show. It felt a bit like a game, really… I was just dancing away, and the guy was doing his best keeping up with me between the tables.

Sometimes the security is so tight that the dancer literally dances in a circle of bouncers. It feels very exclusive, but remeber, these guys are tall… so I am not sure how much dancing the audience actually sees. Sometimes there is a photographer inside the circle with me, so I guess they can just check the photos on Facebook later 😉

Safran and security team

With my security team in Ludhiana, Punjab

But things are not always so well organised. I’ve danced at shows, some of them even in five-star hotels, where no security whatsoever is present. When one drunk guy climbs on stage, an experienced dancer can handle it (especially it happens during a saidi ;). But sometimes it is a mass of drunken men, and then it gets scary.

Random guys veering into backstage, and popping into changing rooms is unfortunately a common thing here. Sometimes they are just harmless creeps, but sometimes they are drunk and feel they have all the rights in the world. Once, the party organisers had to build a barrier out of crates of stage equipment just to keep the drunk guests out of backstage. And, of course there were guys trying to dismantle it!

Another thing, which I fortunately haven’t experienced so far, is people throwing things at the dancer. And I am not talking about children tossing rose petals (this has happened to me 🙂 ). But my colleagues have been showered with water or alcohol while they are dancing. Sometimes glasses have been broken at their feet, or just hurled at their general direction.

How such incidents are handled, also varies. Sometimes the client or manager offers a half-hearted apology and insists on continuing with performances.  Sometimes security measurers are improvised – like creating a human wall of stage workers. And sometimes we just pack up and leave as quickly as possible.

And this whole thing only concerned the on-site aspect of dancers’s security. I hope to write more about general safety issues soon.

Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

India is a huge market for bellydance… although sometimes I really wonder why it is such a popular form of entertainment here, as the majority of audiences (and even people in the entertainment industry) are not quite sure of what oriental dance is. Here it is a common misconception that bellydance is essentially a Russian dance. It is probably because a few years back, when the popularity of the dance began, most of the performers were Russian. And even now, the majority of bellydancers here are Russian speakers, either from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus.

To give you an example of what people think, here is a dialogue I witnessed backstage between a Bollywood dancer and Amira, a dancer from Argentina:

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance ;)

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance 😉

-“Where are you from?”
– “Argentina.”
– “I did not ask what your name is, I asked where are you from?”
– “I’m from Argentina.”
– “Oh, so you travelled to Russia to learn bellydance before you came to work here?”
– “No.”
– “Oh, so you came here to learn bellydance?”

As I come from an even more obscure country than Argentina, my struggles with the event anchors who want to announce me as a Russian dancer performing a Russian dance, are greater. I tell stories about Egypt, and draw maps of Northern Europe on napkins. Sometimes however it still remains confusing – by the end of one show the poor anchor was convinced that Estonia is located right in the middle of the Arab world. 🙂

It is not just the bellydancers who go through this. It is also the Egyptian tannouras who sometimes have to explain that they did not learn their art in India, because the sufi traditions also exist elsewhere.

But we don’t give up… we go from show to show, correcting, explaining, discussing… and as my French colleague Leela says – every time we do it, it is like a drop of water… and one day, we will make it into an ocean.

Like dancing in a Bollywood movie

Like dancing in a Bollywood movie

Wedding entrance

Photo by Suhas Goel

I’ve been dancing in India for almost three months now, and I have performed in a lot of different venues. There are nightclubs and restaurants, parties at people’s houses and corporate events in hotels… But the most impressive venues are the Indian weddings.

A wedding is the highlight of an Indian life, so no expense is spared. I’ve read of cases in the newspapers where people have taken out a loan on their house to be able to give their children worthy weddings. With the accompanying events a wedding can last for a week, so wedding planning is a significant market.

Indian wedding

Photo by Suhas Goel

There are special venues dedicated for the wedding events – wedding halls and farms. The latter have very little to do with farms in our sense, there are no lambs or ducks running around 😉 The term just stands for an open air venue. Both, the halls and the farms are lavishly decorated – dancing there I often feel as if I am on a set of a Bollywood movie. A wedding venue has a grandiose entrance where the guests are photographed as if they were on a red carpet, a stage for the happy couple, a stage for performers, and different seating options scattered around the place. The venue is usually edged with a buffet serving food from all over India and often from abroad. And all that is decorated in an extravagant manner, with yards of fabric, colourful lights, floral decorations, fountains etc. In many cases all this beauty is created for one night only, and the for the next event a new dream setting is built.

For a Westerner an Indian wedding is a bit unusual. We are used to having the whole celebration revolving around the couple, but here they arrive only towards the end of the night. And even that they usually do separately: the groom shows up first, and the bride follows later. But the guests are not bothered by their absence – they spend their evening conversing, eating, dancing and watching the show.

Photo by Suhas Goel

Photo by Suhas Goel

The entertainment program is usually very tight, there is always something going on on the stage. In addition to an oriental dancer (or dancers) there are performances by musicians, singers, tannouras, bollywood and bhangra troupes etc. The Indian audiences love extravagant performances, so we use a lot of props here – wings, fan veils, sword, dancing on a tabla etc. Sometimes the props are provided – for example, I have danced inside a 12-foot balloon!

It is a common misconception in India that oriental dance originates from Russia, and that all bellydancers are Russians. So I spend a lot of my backstage time explaining what will really be presented on stage, and how they should announce me 😉

And when in front of the audience, I think the interest is mutual. I enjoy observing the women in beautiful sarees, the older gentlemen dancing their hearts out, the colourful turbans and polished mustaches of Punjabis, the kids dressed up in traditional Indian clothing… these people sure know how to celebrate a wedding!

The original of this post was published in Estonian in the Estonian bellydance newsletter RaksEstonia.

The Roses of Dwarka

The Roses of Dwarka

Already before I came to India Najla told me that one of the most important aspects to working here is the community feeling with the other dancers. Because here, unlike with my recent contracts, a number of dancers work and live together. And, the bond that has developed between us is special indeed.

In our little flat in Dwarka (a sub-city of New Delhi) we are representing four different countries, four different languages, and four different stylisations of bellydance, ranging from Saida Helou to modern Egyptian. The diversity means that we can spend hours discussing dancing, cultural differences between us, and of course, India! We’ve even developed our own set of jokes, complete with theme songs and all!.

Working dancers are, of course, night creatures. During the busier times, after we get home from work we sit in the living room with tea, biscuits and Nutella waiting up for others. We work different venues and different events, so those nighttime tea hours are like briefing sessions – we discuss who worked where, what happened, and most importantly, what was the food like 😉 Food is a very important aspect of a dancer’s life, so sometimes I would arrive home from work at 1 a.m., only to find a Ukrainian girl, still in her stage make-up cooking borsch in the kitchen 🙂 When the schedule is less busy, we still stay up late – it is not uncommon that midnight finds some of us rehearsing while others make pancakes.

The beauty of it all is that there is no rivalry or conflicts between us. We trade recipes, give each other fitness tips, go shopping and sightseeing together. Basically, we are like a little circus family 😉

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