By Sunayana Basa
My love for dance came from different places. The dedication I had — that came from my mom. A dancer herself, she practiced in India before she married my dad and had kids, but she kept performing when she could – that continued with me. The camaraderie came from all the girls I danced with throughout the years. Dance was where I learned how to work with others and to use everyone’s ideas to create something truly magical on stage. And the passion for dance? That came from my Indian roots. In India dance is revered: something that many little kids, dabble with. For me, it was never a question of “if” I would learn how to dance, it was a matter of when and how.
I grew up in the Bay Area, a haven for Bollywood dance workshops and competitions such as Bollywood Berkeley. I remember watching the competitions every year in awe of the ambiance created by the set design, costumes, lighting, and more (you can see a few of my favorites here and here). Every year, captains and executive boards for each team are tasked with figuring out a theme for the dance, determining how to make a mix of the music, and coordinating hundreds of hours of practice, costumes, and funding for at least 15 other college students. Keep in mind, all of this is done while also attending classes and trying to get good grades.
When I went to college at Boston University, there was no doubt in my mind I would try out for their fusion Bollywood competitive dance, Jalwa. When sign up for different clubs were announced, I immediately sought out the Jalwa table and put my name down. I realized that there was going to be a lot of competition just by the sheer length of the signup list. I learned that during the audition we would get some time to freestyle – as soon as I got back to my dorm, I began choreographing a few counts of eight that would demonstrate my technique and my versatility.
From the amount I prepared and stressed for my audition, you’d think I would remember more of it. Truth be told, most of the audition process is a blur. I remember I auditioned with two freshman guys who both hadn’t danced before, and I realized that I couldn’t just turn to them if I forgot the choreo. All of a sudden, I was alone, no longer having a team to fly or fail with. I was the oldest on my dance team in high school, so none of the girls knew any more about the Indian collegiate circuit than I did. I was the guinea pig, and I wanted to set the bar high. I wanted to prove that I did have what it took to be on the teams we idolized for so long and that all the training we had done was enough for us to achieve that.
I wish I could say I got onto the team because I was the best, because my technique was flawless and I made others feel the passion I brought. Honestly though, after watching my audition video, I think I really got in because I smiled throughout. There were multiple times in the video where I didn’t finish my movements, or worse, forgot what came next. The one thing that was consistent, however, was the expression on my face.
Dance can be taught — you can learn how to point your toes, or how to be cleaner with your movements. All of that comes with hard work and practice. But the expression on your face, that’s more tricky. It is one thing to practice expressions when you are alone and dancing, but on stage with thousands of people watching and with lights blinding you, expression suddenly becomes that much harder. You are trying to remember a million things — which direction to go in, what costume you wear next, what to do if something goes wrong — and you don’t want the audience to know any of that. You have to be bigger, look happier, express yourself more than you think because the stage itself dwarfs you. To make an impact, you need to look like you’re having the best time of your life — anything else simply makes you look uninterested.
I spent one year on Jalwa. During this year, I laughed, cried, slept way too little, and danced almost every day. I was on a competing acapella team at the same time I was on Jalwa, and the combined rehearsals were, to say the least, rough. I got used to constantly jetting from one place to another, from class to acapella to dance. Any free time I had I used to stay on top of classwork, and on the off chance I had extra time, I would meet my friends outside of my performing teams. Essentially, for that first year, performing became my everything.
At first, I loved it. There was nothing else I wanted to do, and while it was tiring, I was so thrilled just to be on both teams that nothing could beat that. But as the school year trudged on and fall turned to spring, I started noticing the other things I wanted to try. My roommate, also in the business school with me, became more involved with different academic organizations and nonprofits. My friends who didn’t perform started to enjoy the springtime in Boston, spending their weekends exploring new neighborhoods and taking trips out to Martha’s Vineyard. And while I loved dancing and singing and all that I was doing, I couldn’t help but worry that I was missing out. I had only four years at Boston University, and only so much time in the day — did I really want to miss all of the memories I could be making doing new things because I was in a studio literally all the time?
This question weighed on me throughout my first year. I was already a quarter of the way through my time in Boston, and had yet to do anything truly new and out of my comfort zone. Sure, dancing on a college team and doing acapella was new, but performing was not. If I really wanted to grow and experience BU, I needed to have more time outside of performing. And having more time meant quitting the dance team.
It wasn’t easy to feel like I was “quitting” dance. This was something so ingrained in my life for so many years, and to all of a sudden not have a class or rehearsal every day felt like I was betraying what I worked towards. I remember drafting the email to the Jalwa captains letting them know I wouldn’t be joining the team again, and I remember feeling like I made a mistake as soon as I hit send. There was no immediate sense of relief, or freedom, or feeling like I made the right choice for myself. Looking back, I am still not sure if there even was a right choice — it was honestly just two different options for what I wanted to do, neither one more correct than the other. Maybe I subconsciously knew that then, and that’s why it was so hard.
Now, it has been almost five years to the date that I sent that email to Jalwa and stopped performing with my competitive dance team. In that time, I joined numerous clubs, worked as a teaching assistant, volunteered at nonprofits, studied abroad, sang with my acapella team, hung out with my friends, and graduated with a business degree. I still dance, but to a much lesser degree than I used to, and to be honest, that is something I am still getting used to. I always see videos of other dancers on Instagram and YouTube and think, I can still do that, only to attempt it in my bedroom and realize it’s much harder than I thought. I still try to go to workshops, even though they have gotten more difficult.
It is interesting — you train your body for so many years that your brain knows what the correct movement is supposed to feel like, but without the constant practice, your body just can’t hit the moves the same way. There have been so many times I have wanted to cry in frustration when I don’t get the choreo correct, simply because I used to breathe dance and never second guessed if I could do it. I vividly remember tears trickling down my face when I came back from a workshop where I thought I could keep up, but instead stood in the back of the class watching my peers learn the choreo instantaneously while I was still on my first eight count. It was the first time where I felt truly defeated by something I loved, and that was a hard pill to swallow.
As much as it sucks, everything in life does have an opportunity cost. And while I don’t regret all the experiences I did get to have by taking a break from dance, it is difficult to accept what used to come so easily to me now takes time and patience. People stop their craft, whether it be dance, singing, or any other form of art, for multiple reasons. Maybe you got married or had a baby. Maybe you got injured, or you were taking care of someone who needed you. Or maybe, you just needed a break. That’s okay. Life happens. Sometimes, priorities shift, and you realize you need to be doing something else at this time.
If there is one thing I learned from stopping dance and getting back into it, it is that showing up is the battle. That’s it. I’ve had to force myself to get out of my own head and go to a studio or to a class when I was scared I’d see myself fail. It is still hard, but it has gotten easier than before. You’d be surprised at how much you remember, and humbled by how much you don’t anymore. I’ve realized that by showing up, I am always one step closer to being back where I was. And as cheesy as it sounds, your art is not always an all or nothing situation. Sometimes you take steps back and just have to work yourself up again. And that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, the dance is still there.
Sunayana is from Marin County in the Bay Area, but went to Boston University and graduated in 2018 with a degree in Information Systems and Finance. She is currently back in the Bay and working as a consultant at PwC