Little Big Things: The 23‑Year‑Old Attempting to Become a Full‑Time Contemporary Dancer
In Little Big Things, we bring you stories of people who have rejected conformity and achieved success on their own terms.
Anahita Grewal likes to move. She’s been dancing since she was 8; she played basketball throughout school; when her parents chose to put her in piano class, she chose to run around the piano rather than sit down at the instrument.
But dance was special. From an initial stint with jazz at age 8 to a 10-month experimentation with kathak at age 10 to exploring ballet and modern contemporary now at age 23, Grewal says she has spent most of her free time growing up in dance studios. “Something that involves me moving has always been my thing. It’s a good mental release for me.”
But when it came to translating the skill and passion she had acquired for the art to a career, Grewal was riddled with uncertainties. Her parents had always stressed being active as a hobby — “video games were never a thing in my life. If I wanted to do something, it was to get out of the house and move” — but when it came to choosing a career, the priority was to get a quality education, preferably in a commerce field, and ideally abroad. By Grade 12, Grewal had been told this several times, and she was used to it. She recalls thinking, “There’s no way I can venture out of this. I was really scared of attempting something like [professional dancing] at that age because I didn’t think I could make a career out of dance. I thought it’s a joke, that ‘I’m not going to be taken seriously’ and ‘I’m not going to be good enough.'”
It was drilled into her that “if I want the same quality of life that [mom and dad] have provided me, which is a ridiculously privileged life at the end of the day, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to achieve the same thing if I do something like dance.”
Stack on top of that the lack of opportunities outside of Bollywood dancing in Mumbai at the time, and the lack of awareness she had about dancing school prospects across India, Grewal decided to follow her dad’s plan for her: she enrolled in a business school in Vancouver, Canada, earned for herself at a couple of tech startups, and hated every moment of it. “It was fucking awful,” Grewal says of the desk jobs. “I sat on a yoga ball; I couldn’t sit on a chair. That’s how fidgety I was as a person. I would just be rolling on the desk, thinking ‘I can’t do this.'” She would often find herself researching dance programs online, which eventually gave her the hint — that maybe dance is her calling, after all.
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Convincing her parents, however, was another ball game. Their reactions were predictable: they told her she’d be throwing away her life, the education she had received until then, and the money they had invested in her education. “And I was like, you grow and evolve as a person; what I wanted at 18 is obviously going to be different from what I want at 22, 23,” Grewal said, adding she wasn’t asking for permission; she was going to dance, pay for the program herself, and if they let her live in their house in Mumbai, great. She was told she was being naive, young and silly, which she says came from a place of understandable concern, but did not deter her in the slightest.
“If I ever want to do dance, it has to be right now,” Grewal says. “I’m only going to get older, my body’s only going to get weaker, have less energy. I communicated that urgency [to my parents]; I can’t just work for three years and then play around with dance. I don’t want to be the person at the age of 40 or 50 thinking I wish I had done this or that. And have this resentment for my entire life that I didn’t do something I desperately wanted to do.”
Now at a 10-month diploma program at a professional dance academy in Mumbai, Future School of Performing Arts, Grewal says she’s loving it. “I am very happy with the fact that every day I’m waking up with muscle soreness. It makes me feel like I’m doing a lot of work. I think this is a really great sacrifice; I don’t give a shit, I’m doing it.” She trains for six to eight hours every day in jazz, ballet, contemporary, hip hop, along with pilates and yoga, while also learning the theory and history of dance. She’s also holding down a part-time content writing job through which she supports herself.
But the uncertainties haven’t disappeared completely. “Because I have been dancing for a really long time, I knew my body is going to feel like shit, but I know I can push myself; I know I can achieve certain things in certain amounts of time. So, the physicality doesn’t bother me at all,” Grewal says. “But it’s a mental game — am I making the right decision? Am I wasting time? I don’t know what’s happening after the program; should I be meeting more people? Should I be networking with more dancers? Should I be looking into more companies? Do I not have all the information for all dance prospects in India? How much money am I going to be making? It’s endless,” she adds. “But luckily, I have actual dancing to distract me from that. There’s not much time to think of other things. I just exhaust myself to the point where I can’t be worried anymore.”
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And Grewal has interpreted the art form to her needs, to her personality, already. “For me, dance was a way to move. I always struggled with expressive emotions. I don’t think you have to be very expressive as a dancer.” For some forms like musical theater and jazz, sure. But for forms that are her current passion, such as modern contemporary, “you can have a blank face and that works for me. Any personalities are conducive to dancing as long as you enjoy the physicality and movement of it.”
But dance culture can be toxic, Grewal says. From policing how she expressed herself, to commenting on her appearance when she put on weight, past instructors have often made her feel self-conscious. Now, for Grewal, dance itself has become a vehicle for liberation from beauty standards. “It doesn’t matter that you have one roll of fat or two; my body is getting me through six to eight hours of dance every single day; that’s a lot. I’m so glad I can do this plié or a difficult jump or a certain number of turns. My body is putting in the work every day to achieve something; it’s functional and it’s rewarding,” she said. “How you look from the outside, whether you [have] a wider build or slimmer build, a short or long torso, as long as you’re strong and you can do certain things, whatever happens outside of it is just irrelevant.”
At the end of the day, Grewal says, “I’m here to dance, to learn, to have fun.” If any aspect of it doesn’t resonate with her personality, she adds, “I’m not going to do it.”