The three-year-olds are giggling. “Are you ballerinas or are you little baby elephants?” asks Kokila Hariram, pirouetting nimbly in the centre. The pint-sized dancers in soft pink ballet slippers squeal, “We’re ballerinas.” Kokila raises her arms above her head and says, “Then let’s stand on our toes.” Twenty tiny girls oblige, looking at her adoringly.
As the class ends, they file out yelling “Bye Koki!” One of the mothers looks shocked and apologises, “I’m so sorry. I told her to call you ma’am.” Kokila grins “Don’t worry, mummy. Everyone calls me Koki.” She then hollers, “Bye daddy,” to a startled looking man, rushing out after picking up his daughter. “I know all the kids’ names, but everyone else is mummy, daddy, akka or anna,” she says. “And yes. I’m ‘Koki’ to everyone.”
The Academy of Modern Danse (AMD), started by Kokila and her husband Gautam, is the city’s first formal Western dance school. To mark their 15th anniversary the school recently staged a massive dance performance featuring more than 400 students. “My first batch of students came back to perform. Mothers of students danced. Even my parents flew in from Brunei to participate. My dad’s 67 and my mom’s 66: they ended the show with a semi-classical performance set to instrumental music.”
Perhaps a career in dance was inevitable, given the fact that her mother was a Bharatnatyam dancer, and her father had a flair for flamenco. “My mom had a dance school in Brunei, where I grew up, and she made us dance from when we were two.” However, as the eldest child (she has a younger brother and sister), Kokila was sent to London to do a degree in law. “This was in the late 80s. The only careers people understood were law, medicine and engineering. But luckily I was staying with my aunt, who’s a ballerina. She enrolled me at the Pineapple Studio in Covent Garden to do a four-year Bachelor’s in Performing Arts.” Kokila decided to juggle law and dancing, paying for her classes by working for a hair dressing salon.
Once she finished her London dance degree, she moved to Chennai with her parents as her father had just been transferred here on a World Bank project. “I sat around for two weeks wondering what to do, then discovered a ballet school at the Russian Cultural Centre. The Anglo-Indian lady teaching ballet looked at my dance experience and said, ‘We’re doing baby classes here in comparison’. But I wanted to join. At least I could stretch and use the bar.” This is where she met Gautam, who she (and the rest of Chennai) calls ‘Padhu’. He was choreographing shows along with Jeffrey Vardon (who runs the Hot Shoe Dance Company in the city.) “All of us started working together and along the way Padhu and I fell in love. But we weren’t sure where we were going…”
Friends suggested they start a dance school. “I went to Singapore to do teachers training, specialising in modern dance for two years. We wanted to make this a proper school with exams, not just a studio. I also got certified by the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing, Australia.” Returning in 1996, she and Gautam got married, then started looking for locations for their school. “When we asked companies for sponsors, everyone laughed. They’d say, “Western dance? Exams? Who will come?”
Gautam suggested they go back to the Russian Cultural Centre. “After all, this is where we started out.” There was a dance room available for rent on an hourly basis. “Finally on Janaury 18, 1998, we opened the school with jazz classes and six students.” Two years later, Kokila started teaching ballet, as the school expanded. “I had just had a baby. I would leave my son in a corner and teach. He grew up here, being fed, carried and brought up by students. He was learning hip hop by the time he was three,” she says.
Today the AMD offers multiple dance styles, from contemporary to salsa. “Many of the students who started here as five and six year olds have stayed with me for 15 years, some of them are now teachers themselves,” says Kokila. “My beginners’ class will have a 30-year-old and an 8-year-old. Often the little ones teach the adults. So no one says, ‘Uncle, Aunty’ here. It’s always ‘Akka, Anna’.”
She clearly has a soft corner for the kids, at least three of whom interrupt this interview for a quick chat or a hug. “My adult classes can be challenging sometimes,” she says, confessing that she keeps an infamous ‘stick’ to “threaten to beat the big people with.” Oblivious to age, she makes everyone “stand in a line, switch off their phones and spit out their gum” before class. “With the kids, I don’t have to be strict.” It does mean, however, that she often needs to be more than a teacher. “Parents tell me my name ‘Koki’ gets things done at home”, she laughs, and “Sometimes they even call me to tell the little boys to eat their vegetables!”