“I found the most talented kids in the world, here in Mumbai”, exclaimed famed ballet teacher Yehuda Ma’or, when he excitedly told me about the boys he was training at an inner-city dance school. “They are diamonds in the rough. You have to make a documentary!” He had recently arrived in India and he was so excited about the untapped talent that he was finding. So began my journey, three years ago, to follow and film the lives of these dedicated Indian dancers, who are now in the most prestigious schools in London, Paris and New York.
“Welder’s Son from Mumbai Accepted into The Royal Ballet School in London,” were the headlines that went viral around the globe as Yehuda’s student became the first Indian to enter this elite academy. Ballet dancers can best be compared to Olympic athletes. Behind that headline lie struggle, passion, heartache, and hard work. I know, because I was a professional ballet dancer and had attended the “Harvard” of ballet academies, the School of American Ballet, followed by a successful performing career. It is the most competitive performing art form and worldwide only 3% of students will ever make it to the professional level. India has a rich 2000-year old dance tradition, but ballet never took hold. I have been given access into the private world of these dancers, artists in the making, and I am viewing firsthand a new thread being woven into the tapestry of India’s culture.
It started with a school: the Danceworx school in Mumbai and Delhi, founded by Bollywood choreographer and Reality TV judge, Ashley Lobo. Ashley spent over 20 years teaching a generation of dancers in India and giving scholarships to those in need. He invited Yehuda to teach because he knows that ballet is the cornerstone and foundation for international dance, be it classical or contemporary. The students came to study hip-hop and Bollywood style dance forms, but were required to attend ballet class. What started as a pre-requisite became a passion. Most of these students had never heard of ballet and didn’t have any preconceived ideas, they just found an athletic dance form and a teacher who demanded that they be their best and required the highest level of discipline.
I noticed that the dancers who were excelling and most dedicated were the ones on scholarship; their fathers were hawkers and taxi drivers. Before they came to the school, they had discipline problems, started fights and had difficulty with academics. But one would never know that from seeing them in class.
One student told me, “ballet changed my life, I learned discipline and respect.” Arts education improves academic learning, even for kids living in the deepest levels of poverty. It gives them self-esteem and motivation and respect for themselves and others. They develop good work habits, learn how to focus, enjoy the satisfaction of completing projects, become better team players and more responsible members of society. They are given life skills to succeed, no matter what professions they ultimately pursue.
Yehuda arrived in India at the age of 70, with little more than his suitcase and a photo album of memories. At Danceworx he found students who were eager for his knowledge and he poured his heart and soul into them. He affected the lives of his students and they breathed life into his. They became family to him, and India became his home.
Arts can change lives, and I hope our documentary, Call Me Dancer will empower and inspire others… in India…and everywhere.
We need your help. Not only are we continuing to raise financing, but we are looking for partners to help complete the film. Reach out to us, sign up for updates and make a tax-deductible donation on our website. Any amount is greatly appreciated and will be credited in the film.
“I pay my respects to these dancers for their work, fight and strength. I hope their story will be known and their example will be followed by many young Indian dancers.”
Zubin Mehta, famed Indian Conductor
Leslie Shampaine has been producing award-winning programs for major broadcasters such as PBS, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, CBS and Al Jazeera. Her work ranges from documentaries to cultural and educational series and includes 8 years as part of the production team for the Emmy award-winning Kennedy Center Honors. Before entering television, Leslie had a 13-year professional career as a ballet dancer and worked in the US, Europe, and Israel.