Hello! I am Sanjana Sharma, a belly dancer from Mumbai! Here’s a short formal introduction:
Sanjana Sharma is a Mumbai based belly dancer. She has been learning and teaching from the past eight years. She initially trained at Veve dance for three years, after which she completed a belly dance instructor course at the Kohl Belly Dance Movement. After graduating from the course with flying colours, she was a senior instructor at the Kohl Movement for three years. She has recently started her own venture. She currently has branches across Mumbai, and is always on the lookout for new opportunities. She strongly believes that distance and space should not be a barrier to the noble art of teaching. In the course of her belly dance journey, she has trained over one thousand students. She is well loved and respected by her students, who swear by her simplicity and creativity, and are fiercely loyal.
Sanjana firmly believes that one must never stop learning, and constantly try to hone and refine their existing skills, while pushing to acquire new ones. In keeping with this belief, she has trained under internationally renowned belly dance gurus such as Moria Chappell, Sadie Marquardt, Ahmed Refaat, Yosry, Badr, Hossam, Joelma Brazil, Tommy King, Kazafy Muwashahat, Khaled Mahmoud, Vanessa, Zeina, Magdy El Leisy, Marwa, Ruby Lady, Veronica Simas De Souza, Fatima Jones, Ilhaam and Meher Malik. She regularly travels to international dance festivals such as Sadie's Dance Retreat in Switzerland (2017), the Mediterranean Delight Festival at Prague, and the Nile Group Festival at Egypt, not only to learn from the masters and her fellow dancers, but also to perform and represent India. She is constantly working on learning different forms of dancing while simultaneously trying to create her own unique style. She has been one of they key organizers at Kohl Belly Dance Movement's annual dance event, and her choreographies have been performed to audiences of hundreds.
Sanjana also firmly believes that dance is motivating and can be a form of liberation. To spread the gospel of belly dance, she often takes workshops at colleges. She has taught workshops (often with over a hundred students) at colleges such as SIES College, Saraswati College of Engineering and Pearl Academy. She is regularly invited to judge dancing events and competitions at college festivals, and has judged at Hinduja College, DY Patil, SIES, Tolani College of Commerce etc.
But this seems so dry, so formal, right? Well, which is exactly why we have this very heartfelt and insightful interview. Sanjana shares her life and her journey, no holds barred, and there’s something for all of us to take away from this interview! Read on to know and understand who Sanjana is as an artist, and as a person.
Why did you choose this form of art?
I ended up becoming a belly dancer purely by chance. I had just finished class 12th, and my holidays were going on. I was always a little bit on the healthier side, so I thought why not take up dancing - which will both keep me busy and help me lose weight. I wanted to take up two things, Yoga and Belly dancing, and honestly, all I could think about at that point was that I
wanted to look hot and sexy, and get fit. My understanding of fitness and sex appeal were both inextricably linked with being thin. Once I started with belly dance, I was completely consumed by it, and I ended up not joining Yoga at all. From then, which was about 8 years ago, till now, I have been going to classes regularly. I never quit learning, and didn’t take any breaks. It became a priority over my academics, and soon it became a career.
I think not only do I enjoy the actual dancing very much, I also feel that the dance form has helped me respect and love my body. Earlier I could only look at myself as a “healthy” girl, but because of belly dancing, I started to appreciate my body and notice the sexiness in my curves and the beauty that was always there. I slowly stopped linking the idea of beauty with being thin, and really started to admire and accept my body.
Another thing that really hooked me was the culture around the dance form. Once I started learning, it was like a journey that had no end. The more I learned, the more I started to understand the culture and the deeper I wanted to go. I think, in a nutshell, belly dancing has taught me how to work hard and persevere, to love my body, and to understand and respect and immerse myself in another culture. Even though the choosing was inadvertent, I am happy that it happened.
What are the struggles that you have gone through?
As I mentioned earlier, right from the end of Class 12, till the end of my MBA, I was belly dancing regularly. The first struggle was managing my studies along with a full time education in belly dancing. In fact, funnily enough, for me, my education was like my part time interest, whereas belly dancing was my passion and focus. Managing the two together was difficult, and has taken a lot of perseverance and sleepless nights to be able to overcome.
Even though I come from a well off family, I was not very comfortable asking my parents for money. Learning belly dancing costs a lot of money. I never thought it was appropriate to ask for discounts, because I really respect the time that my teachers’ put in. At the same time, I was a young student, and I did not like the idea of constantly asking my parents to pay my dance class fee. So along with studies and dancing, I also took up part time work in the field of events so that I could earn money and fund my dance education. College, dance class thrice a week to learn, assisting and teaching dancing, instructor training and side hustles here and there kept me extremely busy and wore me out.
Another thing that I struggled with was the daily travel. I stay in Navi Mumbai, and my training used to be in Khar and Andheri. For my instructor training, I had to reach class very early in the morning, and had to travel two hours each way. Early morning trainings brought along another peculiar problem. Since roads and trains can be quite deserted early in the morning, I often faced harassment. I was stalked, followed and catcalled, and so many times I felt extremely scared.
One of the most persistent problems that I’ve faced, and I guess this is common to a lot of dancers whose art forms are branded as excessively sensuous or sexual, was getting people to understand that I was not doing anything shady or immoral. People look at belly dancing and draw a connection to cabaret, and often end up forgetting that belly dancing is as much a classical dance form as Bharatnatyam or Kathak. It requires similar amounts of skill, hard work, dedication, and technique training. Looking at my body, people would berate me not only for wearing dresses that they thought were inappropriate, but also because I didn’t fit into their mould of beauty. Being body shamed while promoting a stigmatized dance form itself was a huge challenge.
I very firmly feel however, that these struggles that I have undergone have shaped and moulded me into the person that I am today. Of course I have a long way to go, but the confidence that I have in myself, my dancing, and my ability to handle even the most stressful situations is all because of the extremely rigorous period of struggle that I had to undergo. These experiences have really helped me grow, and even flower.
What’s the one moment you almost gave up?
After I finished my graduation, I was thinking about what to do. I was working at a belly dance company as an instructor, and I was not really earning a lot. And at that point, when all my friends were getting comfortably placed into well paying jobs, I felt that I wanted money and independence too. So after I graduated, I decided to continue studying, and chose to do an MBA. That was the one moment when I contemplated quitting belly dance. For three months, I limited my weekday engagements and took classes only on the weekend. I had joined a coaching institute to help me prepare for MBA entrance exams like CAT. But while doing the course, I realised that this is not what I really wanted to do. An opportunity came by, to go to Egypt to represent India at a belly dancing festival, and also to learn from the great masters of belly dancing. And I decided to grab that opportunity with both hands. And that was it, I was back to dancing. I did end up doing my MBA though, continuing in the same college as my undergraduate degree. But it was then that I found a path forward, and decided that belly dancing would be my career. I decided to do my MBA in marketing, and use my skills to promote myself and my dance form. I had the vision of starting my own belly dance school, which would be my source of both income and independence. So ironically, the one time I considered leaving dancing for a more conventional career, I ended up deciding that it would be my future instead. I honestly felt then, and still do, that belly dance is my calling, and I can do nothing but allow it to take me on its divine journey.
What was that one moment which changed your life?
Two years ago, I lost my grandmother. That was the first time I saw my dad cry, and I was touched by the fact that he only felt comfortable enough to cry in front of me. In front of everyone else, he had to be the one offering the supporting shoulder, but with me, he could allow himself to be sad and break down. I think it made me aware of my inner strength, and something just changed within me. Speaking of my grandmother, she was such a daring and
bindass lady. She was a total daredevil who was extremely hardworking, and very well respected.
After this, I got the opportunity to travel to Europe for two months. I visited nine countries, and learnt dancing from people from everywhere. There, spending time with myself, I had a chance for self reflection, and I really grew. I became more confident and sure of myself. I had this very strong feeling that I wanted to start my own thing. I didn’t want anyone to be my boss, or work for someone else’s company. I felt so motivated, and felt that it was time for me to start my own thing.
So I did it. That one step of daring, that leap of faith, changed my entire life. I left the dance company and started my own classes. I made my own portion and designed my classes as I thought appropriate, with no one to tell me what to do and how to do it. It was my p attern, my structure, t he product of my blood and sweat and the culmination of years of hard work. And once I started teaching, I felt more and more that I needed to keep on learning more, to keep on updating my skills so that I could pass them on to my students.
Have there been moments when you have gotten completely lost in the art?
I think I am lost in belly dancing so much, that sometimes I completely forget other things. The harder and more demanding my studies got, the more I realised how much more natural and inherent dancing felt. It was my happy place and it was what I felt most comfortable doing.
When I’m learning, I don’t feel stressed out or anxious. Instead, I feel elated. And I know the joy is not only that of learning something new, but also in knowing that I will be able to do it and I will be able to excel in it. Dancing is my forte; I am always lost in my art. When I teach too, I am completely immersed in the art form.
But I honestly think the best answer to this question is when am I not lost in my art? I go anywhere, I do anything, my body catches the music and I find myself dancing. If you see my social media, you will see my dancing in a boat, on the beach, on a cart, in the middle of a party, I dance everywhere and all the time!
How has your art helped you to get through a difficult or challenging phase of life?
After coming back from Europe, which was a belly dancing learning trip as well as a vacation, I quit the company that I was working at and planned to start my own company and my own classes. But the transition wasn’t smooth or easy. In fact, for some time, I was extremely depressed. I felt sad and bereft of any motivation, and I was plagued with anxiety and self doubt. However, I just pushed through all of this because I had faith in my art, and started teaching again, this time for myself. As I taught and practised, I realised that I was healing, that dancing was healing me. It took me out of the depressive state that I had fallen into. I was getting back to my usual bubbly self, and I was starting to get back my motivation and zest. I decided to fill up my schedule with as much dancing as I could, and worked extremely hard. I feel that without my art, without the anchoring that it gave me, I could have very easily lost my
way. But because I knew what I had to do, I ultimately figured out how to do it, and the phase passed over without me even realising. And I was myself again, stronger and more dedicated than ever. My students inspired me a lot. I saw them working hard and striving to push themselves and learn more and more despite their busy schedules and hectic personal lives. It made me feel that if they were giving up so much for the art, it must give them something, and it made me more aware of the blessing that my art had bestowed on me.
When I started learning, I didn’t think of using dancing to make a career or earn a living; I was just following my passion. And slowly, as I went deeper and learned more, dancing became my life. It is my life now.
Who do you look up to, and how have they influenced you?
My biggest sources of motivation and inspiration are definitely my parents. I see how hard my dad works, and how he's always active and energetic. My mom, who is a housewife, the way she handles the house and the family and takes care of all of us, and encourages all of us to do better and never give up. They have given me a value system and a moral compass that forms the foundation of who I am. They always tell me that I need to be patient and strong, to never give up, to always have a positive attitude, and most importantly, to always be humble and never stop learning. They encourage me to take my time when I'm learning or exploring something new, and always advise me to respect the learning process. My mom and dad have definitely had a huge influence on my work ethic and the way I look at the world. Then there are my ever supportive siblings, and my boyfriend. All of these people, my family, are my pillars of strength. It's inspiring for me, the way they help me to both understand and achieve what I want. Even in their own lives, the way they have worked, with complete sincerity and dedication, is something I want to be able to replicate in my own life.
Each and every artist who I have had the opportunity to interact with and learn from has also touched my art and me in some way. Their art, their personality, and their passion is something that constantly intrigues and influences me. I draw strength from the belly dance community.
More than anything, I am always alert, and sometimes random things in nature, or random works of art provide both inspiration and solace. It's just a question of being able to keep your eyes, ears and mind open.
Who are your favourite people to work with?
Honestly speaking, my favourite people to work with are my students and my team members. Working with them is very rewarding, and when I see how dedicated and completely involved they are, it makes me feel like I am doing something right. It is a treat for my eyes and my soul to see them push themselves and to become better at the art, and it’s personally very gratifying that I am able to facilitate their journey. The sessions I have with them are the ones where I feel light, giddy and happy, and I can (and do) keep on going for hours and hours.
Working with models, actors, or celebrities is also something I’ve come to enjoy and respect very much. Because of the nature of their professions, I see in them a single minded dedication and a commitment to learn the steps in the here and now, no matter how tired or busy they are.
Currently, I am working with Melvin Louis, and he is definitely on the top of my list of people I like working with. He’s a fantastic dancer, and over the years has also become a good friend. I love the clarity and honesty of our working relationship, which makes it a pleasure to work with him.
When you feel a creative block, what’s the best coping mechanism for you?
Even though this doesn’t happen with me too much, it does happen occasionally. When I do start to feel that I’m burning out, I take a step back and relax. I take a day or two days off, and give time to myself to rejuvenate. Creativity only comes when the mind is well rested and relaxed, and it’s important to sometimes prioritise your mental health over the crazy work commitment’s an artist’s schedule has.
For me, taking a break means trying to live in the present moment without thinking about what happened before and what will happen after. Even if it’s just staring at a tree or looking out from your window, it is all my mind is doing at that point of time. I think we place a lot of importance these days on productivity and output, but it’s equally important to relax and chill, because that’s the only way to not burn out in the long term and stay healthy and sane.
Other ways to counter a creative block might be meditation, or trying my hand at something completely new and uncharacteristic for me, which allows you to get away from the pressure of doing your best and allows you to just enjoy the process of doing an activity.
Is there a specific place that stimulates your creative cells?
For me, there isn’t one place that makes me feel more or less creative. As I’ve also mentioned earlier, I am dancing anywhere and everywhere, and all the time. I feel like the more curious and interested you are in picking up new things, the more your mind keeps mixing and matching things. Another thing I’ve realised over the years is that practice and drilling is actually a creative endeavour. When you train your body to perform some steps so naturally that they become muscle memory, it allows you to experiment with other things. For example, if I have already become comfortable layering a shimmy with a chest movement, I can now add arms to it and make the step even more challenging. That only comes with practice. One of the misconceptions about belly dancing is that it’s only about your chest, belly and hips, and this could not be further from the truth! Every part of your body can and should be used in your choreography, from head to toe. And to do that, you need to work on each part separately. You need to drill each move so as to make it feel natural and effortless. Then there’s body conditioning, calisthenics and HIIT to make sure your body has strength. Finally, you need to
keep experimenting with and learning other dance forms, such as contemporary, jazz, ballet and kathak, so that you constantly have new things and steps to play with.
So for me I don’t think there’s a particular place. It’s more about finding something new and interesting and drilling it till it seems like the most natural thing to do. For me, that learning is a place where you stimulate your creative cells!
Do you have any favourite venues to watch performances or perform at?
Again, I am usually not the kind of person who relates with a place so much. For example, when there’s a hafla - which is a belly dance social gathering and get together - I thrive on the energy that the dancers create. The venue honestly doesn’t matter! It’s the people, it’s my students and teachers and the other dancers that give the space it’s character, rather than the physical aspects of the space. I feed off the positive vibes, and the love and the joy that floats around at gatherings such as these. For me it’s all about the energies and the warmth.
How has the local audience evolved in the last few years, and how do you feel you have contributed to that process?
So it’s been 7 years that I’ve been belly dancing, of which the initial three years I was working under someone. It’s been about a year and a half that I’ve started on my own, and I have seen a drastic change in the audience since then. I am generally very social and outgoing, and I feel like the more I’ve started to talk about belly dancing as an art form and as a leisure pursuit rather than something overly sexualised, the audience has responded positively. I have young students who are in school, professionals such as doctors, lawyers and airhostesses, to housewives and students, and I have been able to get across the message that belly dancing is not something to be looked down upon, or something that only people with conventionally thin or perfect bodies do. I also keep talking about belly dance on my social media. So I do think over the years audiences have become more accepting and welcoming. In fact, this is something I always like to mention, that earlier I would have to convince students’ parents on the phone to let them do belly dancing, or convince them that they were not doing something sinful...and from there we have come to a place where parents, in fact, fathers are calling me up and enquiring about belly classes for their daughters. Another really positive change that I see is that I have started getting male students too. So even the idea that belly dancing is only for women is slowly losing ground, and the dancers are getting more and more diverse. I also feel that audiences that way have expanded, and are looking at a belly dance show as just another form of entertainment or art performance. From moving to the understanding of oh belly dance is just about isolating your chest, belly and hips, to the understanding that belly dance is a dance form that comes with it’s own culture, the shift has been huge. I feel that too, over a period of time, helps people be more open minded about learning or watching belly dancing.
Of course being an artist comes with its own struggles. But what’s the most fun part of doing what you do?
The most fun part about belly dancing for me is...that I’m just following my art form! To be able to teach people something that you love, something that you’re so passionate about, that is an amazing feeling! For me, to have a clear path, to know where I have to go, it keeps me really happy and grounded and focussed. To constantly learn, and then to teach, and to be constantly immersed in this world, picking up new things from friends and teachers and students, really really keeps me happy.
For the past couple of months, I have been teaching for 40-50 hours a week, which translates to around 200 hours a month! Every day I’m in a different place, different studio, with different students, traveling from home to studio to a private, and I just keep on going, and I know this is only because my dance give me the drive, the passion. It is a love for the dance form, for the culture, for my students, and for my students have keeps me at it. And even though it is a class and we learn new things, I make sure that people have fun while they learn. It should not feel dry or boring and it doesn’t, because all of us are approaching it in this very positive, very interested way. Being serious about a dance form doesn’t mean you stop enjoying it, not at all. If you don’t derive joy from what you’re doing, it becomes monotonous and starts feeling like a burden. And because I love belly dancing so much, that hasn’t happened with me. The more you give the dance your everything, the more you get back, and the more fun it is for everyone!
I’ve also seem very dedicated students slowly move on to other passions, such as acting or modeling or whatever...but they acknowledge that belly dance has been an integral part of that journey. I feel that belly dance, and more importantly, the commitment that we make to it as dancers, helps us navigate our life and find our way, and in the process, hit upon something that you are even more passionate about. It allows you to realise who you are and what y ou want, and then gives you the discipline and confidence to go get what you want. I’ve seen this happen with my students over and over again, and it makes me very happy!
Entertain/shock/inspire or excite - what do you like doing when you’re on stage? And how do you feel while you’re there?
I am a ball of excitement when I perform! I am elated, I am thrilled, I’m happy and joyful, but mostly, I am overflowing with emotion! Even if the genre is intense or serious, I feel this electric energy run through my veins. I’ve experimented with many different genres and styles of belly dancing, and each piece is different, in that it has a different style and mood, and is challenging in its own way. Each style, each choreography, has a different sense of aesthetics, which has to be adhered to. Putting all this stuff together, polishing it to the point of perfection. I generally never say no to an opportunity to perform, even though I’m so busy and sometimes finish my choreography only the day before, or the night before.
I mostly dance for myself. Of course I want to entertain my audience. But I don’t aim to inspire or shock, I only aim to be as authentic to the arm form as I can, and give it my best!