Why We Need to Stop Judging Men on the Dance Floor

Social Commentary

Why We Need to Stop Judging Men on the Dance Floor

Illustration: Arati Gujar

It was just a few days after the revolutionary Sec 377 verdict, the buzz was wearing off, heartwarming stories about India’s queer community were written, read, and shared with #LoveisLove. All hope is not lost, I kept telling myself, overwhelmed what the right to be yourself means for everyone in the country – queer and straight.

But it just took a few moments around the people in my housing society to realise just how rigid gender roles can be.  

At a society meeting, a notorious middle-aged man jibed at one of our neighbours – a classical dancer with a streak of elegance. “Aye, baidichaap (woman-like in Gujarati),” the man called out to the dancer. He and his coterie of “macho men” laughed gleefully and left for a drink. I was aghast, ready to confront the men but the dancer shrugged it off casually, telling me he’s learnt to ignore such bullies. “In India, people liken me to a woman very often,” he told me. This is probably the reason why boys are discouraged from pursuing dance even as a hobby, leave alone a profession, he added. “No traditional Indian family wants a boy doing ‘ladkiyon-wali harkat.’”   

It was only a few months ago that Karan Johar got trolled for dancing at Sonam Kapoor’s wedding with people on Twitter calling him a “chakka” and even certain sections of the media labelling his dance moves “bizarre” and “unusual”. Because a man who displays any form of grace must necessarily be feminine. A man who wears ghungroos, alta, or simply moves his hands and hips gracefully is obviously feminine. We probably expect our men to dance to vulgar lyrics with their shirt buttons open, thrusting their pelvises inelegantly, celebrating their lack of finesse and revelling in it.

In a country that boasts of a rich history of celebrated male classical dancers, teachers, and choreographers, we’ve taken two step backwards by turning away young men from dancing. It was in the 18th century that Bindadin Maharaj, one of the earliest proponents of Kathak’s Lucknow gharana, performed in the courts of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Lacchu Maharaj, Shambhu Maharaj, Pandit Birju Maharaj, their entire line of descendants took the culture of classical dance forward. Kathakali is still a dance style dominated by men, who played women characters. We even worship Nataraj, the god of dance, and it is Shiva’s powerful taandav that will eventually spell destruction for the cosmos.

To some extent it is the shift in our primary forms of entertainment, our pop culture, that has geared more toward making heroes out of men which has shaped our understanding of gender expectations.

How did we go from appreciating Kathak to ridiculing KJo? How did dancing, especially, the classical forms, become a stigma for men?  

To some extent it is the shift in our primary forms of entertainment, our pop culture, that has geared more toward making heroes out of men which has shaped our understanding of gender expectations. Whether it was Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man of the ’70s, Akshay Kumar’s Khiladi of the ’90s, or Salman Khan’s Dabangg avatar of the noughties, men have come to be portrayed as the tough guys who save the day – at the cost of “softer” values. And though these films are peppered with song and dance, the dance moves are loaded with aggression: Women are stalked, floors are rolled upon, and pelvises are thrust.

The anomalies to that are the disco phase, which had its moment under the sun with Mithun Chakraborty and Rishi Kapoor; the Hrithik Roshan era; and contemporary dance films like ABCD and its various sequels. But these are blips, and classical dance resides in the fringes. A lot of googling threw up only two searches – Kamal Haasan in Sagara Sangamam, a 1983 Telugu dance film and Haasan and Prabhudeva’s item “Saravana Bhava” in Kadhala Kadhala, a 1998 Tamil film. The movies and songs are what a majority of our young boys and girls consume, and it sets ideas about what being a “real man” entails.

In a popular op-ed “The Boys Are Not All Right” in The New York Times, Michael Ian Black writes, “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others. They are trapped, and they don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about being trapped, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine.”  

What we need to embrace today is a masculinity that is more inclusive – where men are more than just dominant and emotionally vacant.

The same is the case with most Indian men who are exposed to a patriarchal model of manliness. Then there is the question of financial viability of course, where men’s role is limited to being the breadwinners. Natrang, a popular Marathi film, very effectively exhibits the ugly side of this discriminatory gender bias in rural India, wherein a male artist pays a heavy price to pursue his love for dance.

Fighting the stereotype are dancers and teachers like Vijay Madhavan in Chennai who left his full-time job as a software analyst to become a Bharatanatyam dancer and now runs his own dance academy. He may be an outlier but any effort toward changing the way we interpret dance and masculinity needs to be lauded.

An essay in the The Conversation on men and dance, which speaks about the discrimination that male ballet dancers face in Australia, points out, “There are a lot of positive outcomes for boys dancing. It’s not just a form of self-expression and creative outlet but it offers great physical challenges too. By encouraging boys and young men to dance, we’re teaching them more unrestricted forms of expression rather than the straightjacket of masculinity.”

What we need to embrace today is a masculinity that is more inclusive – where men are more than just dominant and emotionally vacant. But apart from this, it’s also the sheer joy that dancing or simply watching someone dance gives us. Remember our very own “Dancing Uncle” Sanjeev Shrivastva, the portly professor who broke the internet dancing to Govinda’s “Aapke aa jaane se”? We need more such men to dance their heart out, with or without ghungroos. We need these men – to simply dance like a man.

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