I feel sorry for the dancers and their families who believe they are paying for more than stage practice in costume and makeup.
Dance and music are communication arts and it’s natural to want to share the art with audiences. However today, many dancers (be it beginners or seasoned) are paying the organisers to perform before the audience. Is this trend right?
There is a lot of buzz these days about the mushrooming of programs and "competitions" providing classical dance performance opportunities. Some vet applicants to maintain minimal standards, most give the stage to any aspiring dancer/musician who pays the application fee.
Dance and music are communication arts and it is natural to want to share the art with audiences. It is also a fact there are more kal-ke-Kalakars then performance opportunities that pay the artists appropriately to their standard or at least without out of pocket expenses.
So how good or bad is it to "Pay to Dance"? There is no absolute black or white answers as there are significant variables in the motivations and abilities of organisers as well as the aspirations of the performers.
Decades ago, Sanjukta Panigrahi, the great Odissi dancer who made Odissi known around India as she and Kelubabu tirelessly introduced it everywhere trains ran, saw the rise in the popularity of learning classical dance lead to some dancers paying organisers to perform. This, of course, was for full 2-3 hour performances with full publicity for the soloist rather than today where a dancer pays for ten minutes performing almost unnamed for parents of other youngsters waiting in the wings.
Sanju-nani shared her amazement at this practice with me saying, “I can perhaps understand how a young dancer might do it once, but how can any self-respecting serious dancer do it twice?" I personally agree 100% and have performed gratis for charity, temples and award ceremonies but find it depressing to consider paying out of pocket to dance.
The slippery slope is quite steep from dancers paying “reputed” organisers and sabhas to add them to the recital lineup to young and not so young dancers paying to have a few minutes in the limelight with an empty hall and to get a paper certificate of participation.
I feel sorry for the dancers and their families who believe they are paying for more than stage practice in costume and makeup. If they are actually in an environment where the paper certificate has some genuine impact on future opportunities, then it is indeed mutually beneficial.
I have always maintained that the audience's response to a dancer's performance is the only real certificate. You can't come on stage and hold up a piece of paper to prove your ability. Here there needs to be a distinction between passed examination certificates and mass participation certificates. Neither equal the award of the audience's judgement but at least the examination certificate indicates they have had some reasonable balance of theory and practical training.
I also totally understand those who love dance, want to share, and are not at a standard to qualify for invitations to perform being happy to pay a sponsor and possibly include a family holiday along with the thrill and excitement of performing.
The varying levels of artists at these events means the audience size can range from half a dozen to almost full house if they actually vet applicants, offer adequate publicity and control lengths of programs to maintain viewers interest and curiosity without turning attendance into a grueling experience.
I was impressed with a scholarship competition organized by Nupur Nritya Kala Kendra in Haldwani. Instead of children performing simply for a certificate, significant scholarships were awarded to the best in each category of the arts in competition. This encourages young talent rather than simply supporting the organiser’s pockets or public profile.
What is the alternative for dancers who want to dance? Frankly there are many if sharing the love of dance is the motivation. Any orphanage, old folks home like those under HelpAge, CanCare facilities for children undergoing cancer treatment and similar groups would be delighted to welcome a dance demonstration. Every Rotary, Lions Club, and ladies groups need programs for their weekly meetings and would be open to a presentation explaining and then sharing classical dance. Neighborhood government as well as private schools will be open to a small cultural presentation if it is connected to a holiday or educational understanding of poetry, region or even the mathematics of tala.
Young or experienced dancers who are at a proficient/professional standard should not be asked to pay to perform. This is insulting to the art and the artist. If an organizer cannot provide a performance fee along with a platform for upcoming performers, they should cover all expenses.
After I had completed 5 years of dance training in India, after 17 years training and an M.A. in dance in the USA, I decided to return to see if continuing in classical India dance was viable as a career choice or simply self-indulgence similar to the self-published “vanity press” of many poets. It wasn’t until I had worn out costumes with 250 school performances and successful solo recitals that I felt justified in returning to devote more years of study in India.
Performance opportunities are a challenge for both aspiring and experienced performing artists. Group choreographies have become one solution to giving more dancers a chance to be on stage, especially those unable to “hold” the stage as a soloist for a full program. Several dancers have created festivals to provide mutual invitations. Senior artists self producing new work with private or government sponsorship is another category altogether.
Solo dance artists should consider carefully the credentials of organisers who offer a platform without remuneration or asking for payment and ensure that the situation justifies participation. The balance of self respect weighed against the desire to be on a stage deserves reflection for dance students, parents, young kal-ke-kalakars and organisers. And fundamentally, sharing art to the best of one’s ability should never be seen as a competition with anyone except oneself.
The writer is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at email@example.com.