Dirty Dancing

Fayes T Kantawala grew up seeing dance as the most natural art form. But in today's Pakistan, it is a problem

Dirty Dancing
Turner Classic Movies has recently returned to my roster of cable channels here in Lahore, and with it, a grainy reel of childhood memories has flickered back to life: seeing Deborah Kerr teaching Yul Brenner how to dance in The King and I; watching Auntie Mame and not knowing quite how to react to something so gloriously, self-affirmingly camp; longing to recreate the aquatic ballets of the 1950s and marveling at how people can smile underwater without blowing snot bubbles; flipping through the channels and coming across Gigi again; or watching a weeklong Greta Garbo marathon, mesmerised by her eyebrows or lack thereof. (“Ah Vant to be Alune” was my standard reply for a full month, to everything from “What time is it?” to “Why are you staring out of the window dressed in a bedsheet, again?”)

But of all the gems of mid-century American cinema that I was lucky enough to still see on rotation, musicals were my favorites. I think like many desis I didn’t find it all odd that the stars like Ethel Merman of Gene Kelley would routinely break out in song and dance. I mean, they still do it in Bollywood, so the idea that the musical was a dead art form never really made sense. (The bias would lead to a rabbit’s hole of an essay on white-centric privilege, perhaps best left to another time.)

Not quite for the Punjab government?

Anyway, the dances were my nearly always my favorite part. I am hard pressed to figure out whether I liked the movies because I liked dancing, or the other way round. I can tell you that when I was four and visiting my aunt, we saw the movie version of The Chorus Line and I’ve never quite been the same since. When you’re a kid and watching something slightly above your pay grade, you tend to gloss over the part that you don’t understand and just enjoy it for what it is (it took me decades to figure out that Gigi is about high class escorts). But The Chorus Lines holds a special place for me. For those unfamiliar, the movie is based on a Broadway show that is about auditioning for a Broadway show and it’s set in the 1980s since it’s just that brilliant. Because it is about dancers talking, singing and dancing about, well, dancing, it instilled in me very early on an appreciation for the art form – from ballet to tap to jazz and modern.

There was not much of an occasion to dance in Pakistan, (and definitely not the way they did in the movie; it was harder than you think to find leg warmers in Liberty Market), so when I was at college I took a number of dance classes since they counted as elective courses. Indeed, I took so many that I actually graduated with a dance minor (cha cha cha). I will never stop bragging about the fact that I am proficient in ballroom, samba, jazz and African dance. I went to a college that happened to have a very prominent performing arts program. The advantage was the all the teachers were very good and there was a plethora of courses to choose from. The flip side was that most of the students who took these courses tended to be professional performers who could bend like pretzels, sing like Adele and act like Meryl, which was a tad bit intimidating to an enthusiastic novice like myself.

But I loved every minute of it and long after I stopped going to the dance studio myself, I have sought out dance recitals whenever I could. I think dance is the most immediate of art forms, more original perhaps than even painting, because it requires no tools. It is movement as expression, and the one thing that is common to all cultures all over the world.

All cultures, except ours – or so the government allegedly believes. The Punjab School Education Department (PSDC) is reported to have announced a ban on dances at school functions because some (no doubt uncoordinated) members of government find it offensive. Dawn News reported the ban, and used the head of the PSDC, Zahid Goraya, as a source. It was also reported in other papers, which added that one of the reasons for the ban could be because people claim dances could possibly sexualise children(!). Which people, they do not name.

The reasoning is as repugnant as it is facile. Kasur still remains the largest child sexual abuse scandal in the world and dancing was not the culprit. A culture of socially encouraged pedophilia was.

But the Punjab Government is actively denying the ban was ever real, and that the papers have been misreporting. I hope this is true, that dance isn’t under attack in schools, but it does bring up a problem that sadly isn’t limited to this ban/not ban. The problem is with our attitude towards dance as a whole. Once I moved back to Pakistan and dance recitals only came in the form of painfully unimaginative choreographed lunges at weddings, I began thinking about why it was that, despite our heritage of bhangra and kathak, we as a nation are averse to dancing publicly. I believe, and have long since maintained, that it’s because we are uncomfortable with the body. Don’t show it, don’t dress it, don’t move it, don’t enjoy it, don’t adorn it. Pretend it’s not there.

It is a toxic, self-hating approach, and pervades almost every part of our culture; from the way we move, to what we wear and where we feel safe enough to wear it. It affects all sorts of art: dance, figurative art, portraits, sculpture, theatre, writing, filmmaking. Everything.

Maybe it comes from some Saudi-derivative attitude to the body. Or perhaps it’s a hangover from Victorian colonial morality. Frankly, I’ve long since stopped trying to find the vein that pumps this misinformed cultural chemotherapy into our consciousness. For what it’s worth, dancing is not wrong. It’s exercise, it’s love, it’s expression and above all it is a route for self-acceptance. Dancing reminds you to love your body, because it’s the only one you’re ever gonna get. Dance is amazing. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com