Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Last tango in Delhi

Navtej Sarna

Operating out of a poky barsati in south Delhi, the dance academy is a far cry from the Cinderella world of balls, champagne and the lilting Blue Danube. Is ballroom dancing, once considered an essential social grace today a ‘façade for something quite different?

THE house, when we finally located it in the perfidious bylanes of a South Delhi colony did not look anything like a dance academy. Like other residences in the area it was moderately stylish and eminently respectable. It was the sort of house that you could be certain had a backyard in which sodden nappies on washing lines dripped their wetness into the vegetable patch below. A sort of reassuringly middle-class family house. Not one likely to have a polished dance floor or to throw open it’s forbidding wrought-iron gates to people wanting to perfect their tangos.

As it turned out suspicions were not misplaced. A timid knock brought a stern faced matron to the door. “ This is not a dance academy,” she said rather huffily. She looked as if she might have said, “How dare you presume such a thing” under more propitious circumstances but perhaps her dal was on the fire or something, because she just slammed the door shut and let it go at that. She left us with a nasty feeling that we had started our dance lesson on the wrong foot.

We wandered down the road until all concretized symbols of respectability were left behind. The houses got smaller and pokier, the lane narrower and dusty and the passersby more friendly. We were soon directed to our destination, a little barsati nestling on the top of an undistinguished three-storied structure.

The narrow staircase was steep and difficult to climb but emblazoned on the walls at regular intervals were hand painted arrows pointing upwards, almost as if they were urging the reluctant climber onto greater heights. There was also graffiti to mull over when you might choose to pause for breath. Charcoal doodies, names, dates and paan-spit stain, as though a trail of men wanting to learn western dance had disgorged themselves of their Indian identities before entering the school. I begin to understand." Leave Rakesh Kumar on the wall behind you, spit out your paan, put on your dancing shoes and fox trot your way to a brand new image." My male escort and unwilling partner in this adventure was not to be move by this remarkable observation. “Its all that Naipaul you’ve been reading”, he muttered darkly, “and watch out for that step”.

The staircase ended abruptly without giving us the benefit of a landing where we could regain our breath, gather our wits and generally prepare to play the cool customers. In the event we were left panting at the door of the academy and I found myself asking breathlessly and rather needlessly whether they taught dancing. The old woman who opened-the door fixed me with a hard stare before she spoke. She took in everything about me, the defiantly aggressive expression I reserve for uncertain situations, my clothes, my escort ( who had by this time traded his dark staircase mood for a vaguely protective manner). “Yes”, she said finally and let us in. She was perhaps younger than she appeared to be, the wizened face more a sign of the difficult times she might have had, than an accurate indicator of chronological age. She was so obviously an Anglo-Indian that when she said “yes”, I had stood there waiting for her to add “man” and when she didn’t I was a bit surprised. Anyway she dispelled any doubt that may have begun to spring up on that score by announcing that she was Mrs. Roberts.

The rood was bare except for some uncomfortable looking steel chair arranged along the walls. Four other women sat in the room and peered at us interestedly while my partner worked out the cost of a single dance lesson with Mrs. Roberts. The timing and fees were absolutely and if you reflected on it –strangely, flexible. A course in ballroom dancing consisting of 15 lessons cost Rs 150. The lessons could be taken at any time that suited the pupil (the school remains open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m on all working days).

A single lesson. Costs Rs 20 and a practice lesion (“for those who know the steps but want to perfect the style”) put the customer out by Rs 15. The rates were reeled off by Mrs. Roberts in a bored expressionless vice, not unlike the one employed by waiters at the cheaper sweet houses to say “dosa-Idli-sambar-vada” within the space of a single inflection in tone.

She was obviously used to people wandering into the dance academy out of curiosity and going away without taking a lesson because she didn’t seem to care about what we would do. And when my friend handed over a twenty-rupee note to her, she slipped it into her purse and asked in the same expressionless tone what dance he would like to learn and would he pick his teacher please. The last seemed to stump him a bit and he looked perceptibly nervous as he hurriedly pointed to the nearest girl, The ‘chosen one’ gathered the pleats of her sari and gracefully glided into an adjoining room with my friend in tow.

Mrs. Roberts drew a tattered green curtain after them in a brisk businesslike manner and went back to her seat near the door. For a while all of us sat on our chairs pretending to listen to the music being played in the adjoining room, then Mrs. Roberts announced that she was going to get some milk. With that she brought out an aluminum milk-can and went out of the front door. The milk-can created a dreadful din as it escaped from her hands at some point on the narrow staircase and clattered down. This sent the three girls in the room into peals of helpless, spluttering laughter. With Mrs. Robert’s exit they seemed more relaxed. I tried to engage them in an exchange of girlish confidences. I asked what kind of people came to learn dancing.” Oh, all kinds”, one of them shrugged non-commitally. They clearly did not want to indulge in girls’ locker-room talk, at least not with me." But don’t you get some funny types coming here? You know, people who don’t want to learn dancing but expect something else”. I persisted. There was certain stiffening in their attitude. Or did I imagine it? The reply when it came was very defensive. “No we never get any difficult customer”. One of them said loudly. “We are all married women," added another some what unnecessarily.

I looked at the women carefully, my curiosity fully aroused by now. They were certainly not dressed to teach dancing. I would have thought that pants would be suitable because they allow the movements of the foot to be seen clearly, yet all the women in that room were wearing sarees. Not only that, the sarees mostly flimsy chiffons affixed with glittering sequins or embroidered in loud contrasting shades-were most unsuitable for a work place.

In a flash everything fell into place – the housewife’s dismay at her house being taken for a dance academy, the strangely flexible timings of the school, the student being asked to choose his teacher. I wondered where the deals were struck.

The strains of an Isaac Hayes number floated across from the curtained room. No calls for help yet. I decided to wait. A few minutes later, my friend emerged from the room. He shot a murderous glance at me and said “chalo”. That was the only word that passed between us for a sullen seven-day period following the dance lesson.

Behind the green curtain

AS man and boy, I have been through many a tight spot. But few can compete for sheer impact value with that charged moment in the dance academy when the ragged, dirty green curtain was behind me and I stood alone in a room with my chosen dance teacher, a gramophone of suspect efficiency and my fluttering apprehensions.

I might add that to a person accustomed to having teachers thrust at him when he would rather have wished them away, the idea of choosing one was astounding. But I had managed to do it by pointing most noncommittingly in the general direction of one of four bored instructresses.

But all that was behind me. The much scratched record was playing. The walls (peeling plaster and all) began to close in.

"Quick fox trot?" she asked.

I would have said "yes" to anything (well, almost anything) to get some action and relieve the tension. We moved through the basic steps.

A few times around the floor and I could feel her losing interest. Maybe it was my inane conversation. Maybe it was my general lack of initiative. Or maybe it was just the clamminess of my hands.

The music changed. My thoughts raced on as my feet followed the steps mechanically. Who was she? Was I merely supposed to dance out the half hour? If so, why the drawn curtain? A bit closer here. Look up, there. A casual instruction to relax. Relax!

A stolen glance at my watch showed that I had lived out 20 minutes of the bought time. My fox trot and pulse rate, I decided, were quick enough. I made a request to the teacher to be let off early as I had to catch a flight back into another world. I can still picture her, standing beside the gramophone, surprised into inaction by the innocence of one who came there only to learn dancing.