On a recent snowy Sunday, the walls of a nondescript apartment complex in a Beijing suburb reverberated with a steady rhythm.
In a small exercise room, 14 young Chinese students stomped their feet on the cold wooden floorboards, as their teacher, sitting upright and cross-legged, clapped her hands to produce a quick beat.
A typical scene, perhaps, in any Beijing arts school. This, however, is a Chinese dancing school with a difference: every Sunday morning, young Chinese from across the city gather here not to learn Peking Opera or ballet, but Bharatanatyam.
Founded in 2005 with only a couple of students, Jin Shanshan’s dancing school today trains two dozen students — from 5-year-old beginners to professional dancers.
Jin (40) is perhaps China’s only professionally-trained Bharatanatyam teacher who has studied extensively in India. She was introduced to Indian dance as long as 25 years ago, when she met the famous Chinese danseuse Zhang Jun.
Zhang brought Indian classical dance to China in the 1960s, when she was one of the founding members of former Premier Zhou Enlai’s initiative to set up an Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble. Zhang travelled to India to visit schools, studying with Uday Shankar, Birju Maharaj and at Kalakshetra in Chennai. Zhang subsequently started a school in Beijing to teach young Chinese Bharatanatyam and Kathak; Jin was one of her students.
The renowned dancer passed away last year after a battle with cancer. Her star student is looking to keep her teacher’s legacy alive through her own school, which she started seven years ago with modest ambitions.
“Back then, I only planned to teach my daughter, and a few friends encouraged me to start teaching their children,” Jin told The Hindu in an interview. Today, she teaches two dozen students every week, holding classes for beginners, intermediate and advanced dancers. Her youngest student is only four years old, while her most advanced protégés are college students in elite Beijing arts academies.
She plans to expand her school into a centre for culture that introduces Indian arts to China, and soon hopes to bring renowned Indian dancers, artists and musicians to Beijing.
Jin cites the eminent dancer Leela Samson as “a great inspiration.” She first met Samson when she travelled to Kalakshetra in Chennai in 1998. “She is my guru, who inspired me and showed me the attitude one needs to have to become an artist.”
Jin believes Chinese interest in Indian culture is growing, evinced by her steadily expanding classroom size. “Too many people in China learn Western ballet and piano,” Jin said. “Chinese people love Bollywood, but they are now also beginning to realise the charm and beauty of Indian classical dance.”
Most of her students come from well-to-do Beijing families. Xu Yan Ling enrolled her 5-year-old daughter Shi Shao in the school two years ago, after she saw Jin perform at a Beijing university.
“I want to give my child this unique education, to expose her to a different culture,” Xu said. “Zhang Jun made Indian dance very popular in China, and Shanshan is continuing her work. So we want to support her.”
Jin’s class is also popular with Beijing’s small but growing Indian community. Padma Raman from Chennai, who moved to Beijing in July, enrolled her 8-year-old daughter Smriti in Jin’s school.
“The level is really high,” Raman said. “The first thing that amazed me was how the Chinese kids were getting the mudras perfectly. Even my daughter was not getting it right but they were! Shanshan is better than some Indian teachers we have seen, and she is really following the Kalakshetra way.”
Jin takes her classes seriously, and says she also wants to instil in her students “the Indian values” she learnt through her own education, particularly at Kalakshetra. At the end of every class, the students pay their respects to their teacher, bowing to her before leaving the room — much to the amusement of a Chinese parent, who confided that her child was usually a terror to her primary schoolteachers.
Complaints from students are not tolerated. When one young student at the end of a particularly tough routine puffed out her cheeks in exhaustion, Jin admonished her. “Nobody behaves like that in India!,” she said. “Always keep your posture!”
(For a video of Jin’s school, go to >thne.ws/11dmyeg )