Ballet dancer

Kamal Singh: first Indian ballet dancer at the English National Ballet School

Kamal Singh: first Indian ballet dancer at the English National Ballet School

A ballet prodigy overcomes obstacles to break down boundaries

Diaspora

October 18, 2021

Singh’s natural flexibility allowed him to excel in ballet despite a late start (Photo: Kamal Singh’s Instagram)

Featured in Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 list of 2021, Kamal Singh broke barriers by becoming the first Indian to be accepted into London’s English National Ballet School, reputed to be one of the best in the world. , and now inspires countless others to pursue their dreams regardless of social and economic barriers.

Growing up in Vikaspuri, southwest Delhi, as the son of an electric rickshaw driver, 17-year-old Kamal Singh never imagined he would become a professional dancer, let alone in one of the rarest traditional arts in India: ballet.

“I’ve always loved dancing at family parties and loved listening to any type of contemporary classical music, but the truth is, I never really thought I was going to be a classical dancer. It all started because I once saw a Bollywood movie on TV called Any body can dance (2013). It amazed me to see so many dancers doing all kinds of dances. The ballet dancers are the ones that caught my attention the most, because it was something totally different. The women danced on their toes. The men did mind-boggling leaps and endless turns through the air like spinning tops,” Singh recounts. India Media Group.

But Singh initially feared that simply having interest was not enough. Not only did ballet come very late to India compared to many other countries, but it has often been seen as an elitist indulgence, a right of passage for little girls from very wealthy families trying to expand their pass portfolio. -unique times.

Perhaps, at the time, few could have imagined that an Indian boy from a modest background could even attempt a career in ballet.

But, determined to pursue his passion, Singh sought teachers in India and managed to find a free trial lesson at the Imperial Fernando Ballet Company (IFBC) about two hours from his home in New Delhi.

Kamal says the complicated lifts he’s witnessed in ballet performances, both in real life and in the videos, fascinated him: men lifting women up, expertly tossing them in the air like if they weighed as much as a feather and elegantly lowering them again to the ground. But like so much in the world of art and dance, ballet just feels effortless. In reality, it takes hours every day to to cross, ironing out fine details like the position of the arms and feet, and years of practice to literally mold the natural shape of her body.

Singh with his ballet teacher and mentor, Fernando Aguilera (Photo: Kamal Singh)

“I went for my first class under the guidance of Master Fernando Aguilera and it was he who saw my condition and my potential. I only knew that I was very flexible, but I had no idea that I could go so far; he was the one who discovered my talent and offered me a full scholarship to become a ballet dancer,” recalls Singh.

After traveling through Europe and America, Fernando Aguilera arrived in India in 1996 and founded the country’s first professional ballet school, which now has 12 branches. A graduate of the Teatro Colón ballet school in South America and a ballet school in Argentina (Le Lión ballet) and a certified teacher of the Vaganova method in Russia, the birthplace of ballet, Aguilera is one of the few real ballet professionals or “masters” in India.

Poverty or lack of opportunity were not the only challenge for Singh. He started his first ballet class at 17 in a form of classical dance that professionals began to practice at 5-8 years old. But when Aguilera first saw Singh’s natural and unique flexibility, he knew he had found something special, and not only chose to take on the challenge of training the young dancer so late in his career, he also gave Singh free tuition and let him stay in his house in Delhi, convincing his worried family to support his dreams as well.

“My technique is very solid thanks to my Master, who is the only one who trained me from scratch. The ballet is very different from all the other dances because it is necessary to privilege the rotation, the flexibility and the extension. It takes many years to achieve proper balance and bear the weight on the big toe. When you dance, you have to tell a story with the movement of the body and the expression of the face,” says Singh.

Ballet tells a story with body movement and facial expression. (Photo: Singh’s Instagram/Tim Cross Photography)

More frustratingly, ballet is one of the most expensive dance forms to pursue, with years of professional training amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. However, with a combination of talent and determination, Singh’s hard work paid off and he attended a summer program at the renowned Vaganova Russian Ballet Academy in 2019, where he participated as a principal dancer. to school reproductions of famous ballets like Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Last year he became the first Indian to be accepted into the English National Ballet School in London, known to be one of the best in the world. However, here too, Singh faced a huge challenge that had dogged him since birth, lack of money.

Again Aguilera became his savior and helped Singh raise the £8,000 fee for the intensive one-year course at the reputable dance school to train dancers for international ballet companies. Singh used crowdfunding platform Ketto, which was co-founded by Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor. Inspired by the story and ambition of fellow acclaimed actor Singh, Hrithik Roshan has also pledged £3,200 to the fund, and today it has attracted over £20,000 in donations.

Singh attributes the popular response to his crowdfunding appeal to the growing interest in ballet in India, and he says his success has inspired many other young boys to pursue a career in dance. However, he explains that the main obstacle is the lack of funding and institutions across India that actually offer vocational training.

“In London, I have met many extremely generous teachers and choreographers who treat you as if you were part of their own family. But in India, young people who want to make it a professional career, where will they learn ballet? There are many ballet teachers in India but it is very dangerous to learn from them as they do not have a professional degree or the experience and wisdom to train a dancer in classical technique. I have seen many disasters and I am very sad for the students because they trusted their instructor and the only thing they finally got was some flexibility. So we definitely need more ballet schools in India,” says Singh.

Singh believes there is room in the country for dance to really take off, and as the stigma around male dancers dissipates, more talent will emerge.

“I want to spread awareness, but I don’t think it will take long, because I have observed that in India there are more men than women in dance classes! I think that after my story and hearing about these experiences, many of them were encouraged and want to learn from my maestro, who was and still is today the person who supports me the most and who guides me, so that I can continue to progress in this wonderful career,” says Singh.