Bob Fosse said, “Choreography is writing on your feet.” For Surat’s famous choreographer, Nikhil Dhingra, his profession of choreography is all about creativity.
When asked to tell something about himself, he modestly added, “I am a simple person.” Dhingra who is the most sought-after choreographers in the city of Surat began at a time when the diamond city was completely alien to the world of dance. He was born in Haryana. His father’s textile business brought the family to Surat, Gujarat. At first, the city gave a lot to him but after that, he began giving a lot to the city.
“My dad suffered a massive loss in his textile business when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s in Commerce in Pune. I was in the third year of my degree then. As soon as I heard about it, I came back to Surat and never completed my education,” says Nikhil. He adds that he always knew that he wanted to do something independently and stand on his own feet. He never was interested in his father’s business.
So how did he think of choreography? “Dance was actually my last choice. I tried my hand at fashion designing and took up a few franchises but destiny is what landed me on the porch of choreography. When I was in school, I was an average student when it came to academic studies. But I was always inclined towards sports and dance. It was the unrecognised passion of my childhood, which in my adulthood became a full-fledged passion and profession.”
He started ‘Vibe Dancing Studio’ in 2005. That was when he faced the maximum resistance from friends and family who never took choreography seriously. They told him that this was something of a passing phase which would fade after a few years. But Nikhil was determined to do something no one in his family or for that matter in Surat, had thought of before.
“I took a loan of 1.5lakh to start my first studio in Surat. I used to pay a rent of ₹5,000 back then. Since dance had no value back then and starting a studio for dance was looked down upon, it was very difficult for me. People told me, ‘School me teacher banno, dance karna hai to (Become a teacher at a school if you want to dance),’ and that made me feel very bad as no one understood me,” he says as he reminisces his early days of struggle.
In the beginning, he had only three students – two kids and a man who wasn’t seriously interested in dance. But now, more than a decade later, he has over 150 dedicated students per batch. So did he have the support of his family on his ladder to success? Nikhil says, “My mom was always in my support. But my dad hated my choice of profession. He did not talk to me for almost a year! He thought I would do nothing in life. Gradually, when I began giving money at home, things started changing. It wasn’t about money but that small gesture meant that I was doing something productive and earning a living. It was only after he came to one of my shows and saw what I was really doing and how so many people knew me, he understood me. I still remember he had cried that night and the pride he felt for me on that night was one of my greatest achievements in life.”
However, in 2010, a rough phase shadowed over his life. He says that success had made him ignorant and he had stopped focusing on his work. Even his mother, who had always supported him so far, told him that it was time to discontinue his profession. But he did not give up. The realisation that it was only him and his attitude that was responsible for the rough phase he was going through, helped him turn things around. Commenting upon this, he says, “I was thinking whether I did something wrong by choosing dance but that was because of my own mistake – I had an ego, success was riding on my head. But when I fell, I understood that I will have to work hard. I feel lucky that I realised and amended my ways before it was too late without blaming anyone else for my own fault.”
A husband and father of a young boy, Nikhil worships his work. After working until the wee hours of the morning he gets a few hours of sleep and is back at work at 7 in the morning. He fondly calls his studio as his ‘baccha’ and cannot really go on without work. It is choreography and the creativity that is required in it that keeps him going – it is like breathing to him. He suffocates when he doesn’t work.
He doesn’t like when someone is not punctual and turns up late for a session with him. He says this hampers the sessions of other people as well and is disrespectful to a teacher. He thinks a teacher deserves respect and is strictly intolerant towards unpunctuality.
Respect has been one of the major challenges in the span of his life. He says, “No one respected dance teachers back in 2005 – even those who worked for a decade before me – they weren’t respected. I am infamous for this in Surat because I value my talent a lot. I don’t entertain people who are late. People argue a lot about this thinking it is not a huge thing. But for me, it’s a huge thing. It is a question of respect. It is because of this that I have been teaching my son to respect all his teachers, even if they are going wrong somewhere, they deserve the highest level of respect.”
He adds, “If you don’t value your work no one else will. Money matters but respect matters more.”
A few other challenges he has faced is to make people understand the difference between dancing and choreography. “A choreographer doesn’t always have to be a good dancer,” he says and adds, “If I wanted to be a dancer, I would have gone to bigger cities like Mumbai or Bengaluru. I would have made a living as a background dancer, travelled the world on dance tours and that’s that. Choreography is different. It allows me to be creative.”
As a choreographer, he has to constantly update himself and keep adding his creativity in dance. Even the most mundane of dance compositions can be reinvented with creativity. He says that every choreographer is different. Giving examples of the famous choreographers of Bollywood, he explains, “Bollywood’s famous choreographers like Shiamak Davar, Remo D’souza, Farah Khan or Saroj Khan, each are unique in their own way as no choreographer is the same. While Shiamak Davar excels in using large props to improve the visual aspect, Remo D’souza energy-filled street style steps are his unique trait. Farah Khan’s talent to bring in emotions in dance is unparalleled while Saroj Khan weaves magic into steps by adding expressions and beauty that have now become iconic in the film industry.”
On asking whether he finds time for his family in his hectic schedule, he says, “I am very family oriented. I live with my parents and family. Also, spending time with my son is very important to me and I make sure that every day we spend at least a few hours together. In fact, one of the most unforgettable moments of my life is when my son was born and I became a father. We share the same birthday! Family has always been on top priority for me.”
Nikhil says he always wanted a daughter but he is very happy with what nature has gifted him. Talking about the female gender and the importance of respecting them, he shares one incident that he encountered on one of his many travels, which he felt was very unjust, “I was travelling in the train once when I saw a couple with their small baby travelling in the same coach. The couple were arguing about something and then suddenly, the man struck his wife! Right in front of the child! This is very wrong. What are you teaching your child? Later I incorporated this incident in my show ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and strongly condemned it. Everyone must learn to respect women and to respect their partners.”
When it comes to the point of respecting women, he says dance is one of the best ways to teach children how to treat your partner, “Salsa, which I considered to be one of my specialities, teaches you how to hold your partner, how to behave with them. I teach all my young students to respect their partners and while doing Salsa, you learn the right way of respecting women. I have always said this, ‘If you want to teach men how to respect women, teach them Salsa.’ There are many Salsa clubs in cities like Mumbai where women would dance with you because they know that they will be respected.”
Nikhil Dhingra introduced Salsa to Surat. He had started with Bollywood dance style but soon realised that he had to bring something new – something that would make his name in the field. He also used to travel to Mumbai every weekend to learn dance forms. He took dance lessons from Kaytee Namgyal, who was a teacher from Italy.
“I want to work until the last day of my life. I don’t want to die on the bed. I want to spread the values of life in my students – basic values – which bring in purity in dance,” he talks about his philosophy on life. He further adds, “I believe in spending money and living your life to the fullest while you can. Secure your family’s future but don’t be kanjus. You live only once.”
What does he dream about? “I want to cover 100 cities across the world by conducting dance workshops. That is my dream. Travelling gives me creativity and broadens my mind. Now, the only goal in my life is to work and travel.”
He believes that no one should force anyone to dance and he tells the same thing to the parents of his students. One must enjoy what one is doing, according to him.
When we asked him about getting exhausted from work and how does he manage such a hectic schedule he promptly replied, “Tiredness is from resting, not from work. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said the same thing in an interview recently – ‘thakaan aaram se lagti hai, kaam se nahi‘. It is only when you come home and lie down on the bed that you feel tired. You don’t feel tired while working.”
In a time when any kind of art is still finding its hold in India, the future of dance is bright – he says, “Choose whether you want to be a dancer or a choreographer. If you want to be a choreographer you can turn into a profession anywhere. But if you want to be a dancer, you need to get the exposure of the big cities. The future is bright.”
While bidding adieu, he sends out a message for those who are seeking their passion or wanting to make their passion their profession. He says, “First identify what you want, identify your passion. For today’s generation, their passion keeps changing in 2-3 years. Don’t give up as it is the darkest before dawn. It is important to believe in your passion and yourself, don’t stop, come what may. Also, stop thinking about what others will think, think about what you want to do. Understand what passion is – give all your life to it.”
Choreographer Nikhil Dhingra has also composed the choreography of various dance performances in Surat and other cities during weddings and helped add a surreal touch to it. To know more about his work visit his Facebook page here: Nikhil Dhingra’s Vibe Dancing Studio
One of his beautiful choreography compositions is this on the song ‘Laadki’ – have a look:
To see how dance brings happiness in life, see this video of yet another dance choreographed by Nikhil Dhingra – this is a flash mob:
(Interview conducted by Ankit Desai, produced in English by Heer Khant)