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India’s Women Find Empowerment in Exotic Dance

by Mandy Van Deven

Anyone who has ever sat through the frequent and painstakingly choreographed musical numbers in a Bollywood film can tell you that dance is an integral part of Indian culture. From Bhangra in the Punjab province to Kathakali in Kerala, each part of the country has its own distinctive combination of body movement, facial expressions, and hand positions which form the regional style. But nowadays in urban India, dance is not simply used as a form of cultural expression. Women of means are being seduced by a type of dance that is a little more, shall we say, exotic.

Lessons for striptease, burlesque, lap dancing, and pole dancing are the newest class offerings at local fitness centers and dance studios in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. Housewives, college students, magazine editors, and professional businesswomen have found a common way to explore their dormant sexuality and burn calories by swaying away the stress of living in a demanding modern society. These women juggle the same roles as their Western counterparts—wife, mother, professional—and the contemporary affluent Indian woman finds a space of her own to relax, have fun, and get in touch with her inner diva while taking lessons in exotic dance.

When asked about the appeal of these erotic moves, Sneha Krishnan, editor and co-founder of the feminist webzine Sa, says, “I think one big reason is Bollywood. Sexy dances have become, increasingly, the symbols of liberation in Bollywood cinema, and as always, Indian women are following.” The bikini is the newest fashion sensation appearing in Hindi cinema, and if you pair exposed flesh with certain sensual choreography, you can see the “adult” appeal.

The influence and increasing prevalence of American pop culture also plays a part. Every Café Coffee Day, the Indian version of Starbucks, plays a constant rotation of MTV videos that glamorize the openly sexed up moves of pop starlets like Britney Spears, Katy Perry and the Pussycat Dolls. The Dolls themselves were a burlesque troupe before entering the mainstream, and their music is used in the classes to inspire the student’s inner vixen to come forth and be a “hot freak” like the quintet. Fulfilling the simultaneous desires to craft thin yet curvaceous bodies and claim a sex appeal of their own, exotic dance classes help women shed pounds and inhibitions, see their bodies as beautiful, and demand a right to their own sexuality.

“These classes have become popular with young Indians in particular because they are seeking out innovative ways to stay in shape, and they give them a confidence that comes with doing something different and unique,” says journalism student Hamsini Ravi.

Aparnaa Venkatesh agrees, “A lot of women attend these classes because they want to express their sense of freedom and identity, or perhaps because of the thrill factor of doing something that doesn’t toe the line of conventionality.” This brand of freedom, however, still has some constraints.

One may find personal empowerment while gyrating around a pole, but that doesn’t mean the behavior is socially sanctioned. Most women who attend these classes aren’t ready to admit to their families how their afternoon trip to the gym is spent. Indeed, it was a challenge to find women willing to speak to me for this article. Instead of being completely forthcoming with more conservative family members and friends, many women tell their loved ones they are simply going to work out. However, some students attempt to convince their friends to join them, and the ones who are more daring bring what they’ve learned in the classes into their intimate relationships.

“For some women, showing boyfriends and husbands new moves would definitely be a motive,” says Krishnan, though she is quick to add that some men would see the dance as immodest and unsuitable for one’s wife. For those unperturbed by the private show, the classes’ reputation is bolstered by husbands and boyfriends responding positively to the, er, stimulation. Men want to feel wanted by their partners as much as women do, and these classes help the students feel at ease when expressing their own desires.

Those more prone to moral policing may be uncomfortable with what women learn at places like Mumbai’s Dare and Bare, but the students overwhelmingly report positive results. A woman may enter the class with apprehension, but after learning to break free of taboos, she leaves feeling rejuvenated, more confident, and comfortable in her own skin.
Exotic dance isn’t likely to make its debut in Bollywood in the near future, but that won’t stop some women from suggestively swaying their hips in the privacy of their own homes.

About the Author
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.

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