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On cloud NINE

Shona D'Sa Saldanha's gets a real high when she gets on her toes

WHEN SHONA D'Sa Saldanha's mother was expecting her, she hoped her daughter would be a ballet dancer. An unusual ambition for someone living in Bangalore, where most girls grow up to the beats of Bharatanatyam. But Shona grew up watching Swan Lake and Giselle and wanted, for as long as she can remember, to dance the ballet.

There was a pair of teachers at the Alliance Francaise teaching both ballet and jazz ballet, but Shona could only find someone to ferry her to and from the lessons when she was nine — about six years later than when most professional ballet dancers begin training. In Russia and many parts of Europe, children begin initial exercises in ballet when they are as young as three years old. At her first classical ballet lessons with Britisher Molly Andre, Shona discovered that little girls don't troop in to class, pirouette on their toes in pretty pink satin dresses, and get gracefully lifted by men with rippling muscles right at the start. Ballet is hard, hard work and it was more so under Molly, a strict disciplinarian — who wouldn't tolerate her girls laughing or joking around — and whose classes were rigorous, since ballet is a demanding dance. Five years to stand on your toes and a need to be careful all the time since even slight shifts in weight can cause serious injuries.

But Shona stuck to her lessons, no jumping around or joking. Just obsessive ballet. During the week it was classical ballet, and on the weekends, jazz ballet. After her first teachers left Bangalore, Shona had a series of instructors, learning from them as much as she could till she found herself showing her younger cousins how to dance... and enjoying the impromptu classes.

In 1999, gathering together a former teacher's students and some of her own, Shona kick-started the Shona D Academy of Dance in a corner of her house. Quickly, vinyl flooring was hammered into place and ballet slippers made for the younger girls. And Shona was doing what she loves best: dancing. "I get a real high when I get on my toes," she says. "Even when I watch ballet... I'm transported to a different place — I'm up there in the clouds."

Over 90 young girls have caught this infectious feeling from Shona as they troop in to her classes every week. The waiting lists are huge as parents increasingly turn to ballet "to keep their kids occupied and also because it has a certain social status," says Shona. But few students have her staying power. When kids begin class, they are very enthusiastic about ballet, she says, but as they grow up, they get "distracted by boys" and once in high school, drop out to study for exams. Parents apparently stop being keen on their kids learning ballet if it means compromising on important study time.

But Shona doesn't accept children if they've just been dragged to initial auditions by pushy parents. She watches them closely to see if they are enjoying dancing. In the end, it doesn't matter how good the kids are, she says, ballet is very disciplined and needs regular exercise. Kids will often have to do things they really hate, so they need to be keen on the dance. Shona stuck to ballet through exams and other pressures, largely, she says, thanks to family support. Albums are pulled out to show Family D'Sa Saldanha in the act. Mr. and Mrs. D'Sa Saldanha can be seen posing as king and queen in one annual dance school production, filling gaps in the cast. Lifting Shona in some pictures is her husband, Sameer Saldanha.

"There are lots of people who claim to know ballet," Shona says, "but then I dance with them and find they don't know the details." This irritates Shona, who uses Sameer to lift her as part of the routine. Great arrangement, except that Sameer has now begun getting embarrassed by classical ballet routines. So Shona is left on her own — she would love to be part of a troupe, but is now confined to solo performances and the odd fundraiser. But keeping Shona's spirits up are the kids she teaches for four hours a day, and of course, that heady feeling of getting on her toes.

Shona can be contacted on


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