Kamal Singh: India’s first ballet dancer at English National Ballet School

A ballet prodigy overcomes odds to break boundaries

Diaspora

October 18, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Kamal Singh: India’s first ballet dancer at English National Ballet School

Singh's natural flexibility allowed him to excel in ballet despite starting at a late age (Photo: Kamal Singh's Instagram)

Featured in Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 list in 2021, Kamal Singh has broken barriers becoming the first Indian to be accepted into the English National Ballet School in London, reputed to be one of the best in the world, and is now inspiring countless others to pursue their dreams regardless of social and economic barriers.

Growing up in Vikaspuri, South West Delhi, as the son of an e-rickshaw driver, 17-year-old Kamal Singh never imagined he would become a professional dancer, let alone in one of the rarest traditional arts seen in India: ballet.

“I always liked to dance at family parties and liked listening to any kind of contemporary-classical music, but the truth is I never really thought that I was going to be a classical dancer. It all started because I once saw a Bollywood movie on television called Any body Can Dance (2013). It amazed me, seeing so many dancers doing all kinds of dances. The ballet dancers were the ones that caught my attention the most, because it was something totally different. The women danced on their toes. The men made mind-boggling jumps and endless turns in the air like spinning tops,” Singh tells Media India Group.

But Singh initially worried that simply having interest may not be enough. Not only did ballet arrive very late in India as compared to many other countries, it has often been seen as an elitist indulgence, a right of passage for little girls from very wealthy families who are trying to expand their portfolio of unique hobbies.

Perhaps, at the time not many could have imagined that an Indian boy from a humble background could even attempt to make a career in ballet.

But, determined to pursue his passion, Singh looked for teachers in India and managed to find a free trial class at the Imperial Fernando Ballet Company (IFBC) about two hours away from his home in New Delhi.

Kamal explains that the complicated lifts he witnessed in ballet performances, both in real life and in videos, fascinated him: the men lifting the women, throwing them into the air expertly as if they weighed as much as a feather and elegantly lowering them again to the ground. But like much in the world of art and dance, ballet only seems effortless. In reality, it requires hours every day at the barre, ironing out minute details like arm and feet positions, and years of practice to literally mould the natural shape of one’s body.

Singh with his ballet instructor and mentor, Fernando Aguilera (Photo: Kamal Singh)

“I went for my first class under Master Fernando Aguilera and he was the one who saw my condition and my potential. I only knew that I was very flexible, but I had no idea that I could reach so far; he was the one who discovered my talent and offered me a full scholarship to become a classical dancer,” recalls Singh.

After travelling through Europe and America, Fernando Aguilera arrived in India in 1996 and founded the country’s first professional ballet school, which has now expanded to 12 branches. A graduate from the Ballet School of the Teatro Colón in South America and a ballet school in Argentina (Le Lión ballet) and a certified teacher of the Vaganova method in Russia, the birthplace of ballet, Aguilera is one of the few true ballet professionals or “maestros” in India.

Poverty or lack of opportunity was not the only challenge for Singh. He was starting his first ballet class at 17 in a classical dance form that professionals began practicing at 5-8 years of age. But when Aguilera first saw Singh’s unique, natural flexibility, he knew he had found something special, and not only chose to take on the challenge of training the young dancer so late in his career, he also gave Singh free tuition and let him stay in his home in Delhi, convincing his worried family to support his dreams as well.

“My technique is very strong thanks to my Master, who is the only one who trained me from scratch. Ballet is very different from all other dances because we have to prioritise rotation, flexibility and extension. It takes many years to achieve a good balance and bear the weight on the big toe. When we dance, we have to tell a story with the movement of the body and the expression of the face,” explains Singh.

Ballet tells a story with the movement of the body and the expression of the face. (Photo: Singh’s Instagram/Tim Cross Photography)

More frustratingly, ballet is one of the costliest dance forms to pursue, with years of professional training amounting to tens of thousand of dollars. However, with a combination of talent and determination, Singh’s hard work paid off, and he attended a summer programme at the renowned Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in 2019, where he participated as a principal dancer in the school’s reproductions of famous ballets like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Last year, he became the first Indian to be accepted into London’s English National Ballet School, known to be one of the best in the world. However, here too, Singh was face to face with a huge challenge that had dogged him from his birth, lack of money.

Again, Aguilera became his saviour and helped Singh raise the fees of GBP 8,000 for the intensive one-year course at the dance school famed for training dancers to be part of international ballet companies. Singh used crowdfunding platform Ketto, which was co-founded by Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor. Inspired by Singh’s story and ambition, another renowned actor, Hrithik Roshan also pledged GBP 3,200 to the fund, and today, it has attracted more than 20,000 pounds in donations.

Singh credits the popular response to his crowd funding appeal to the growing interest in ballet in India, and he says his success has inspired many other young boys to attempt a career in dance. However, he explains the main barrier is the lack of funding and institutions across India that actually offer professional training.

“In London, I met a lot of extremely generous teachers and choreographers who treat you as if you were part of their own family. But in India, the young people who want to make this a professional career, where will they learn ballet? There are many ballet instructors in India, but it is very dangerous to learn from them because they do not have a professional diploma or the experience and wisdom to train a dancer in the classical technique. I have seen many disasters and I am very sad for the the students because they trusted their instructor and the only thing they end up achieving is a little flexibility. So, we definitely need more ballet schools in India,” says Singh.

Singh believes there is scope in the country for the dance to truly take off, and as the stigma around male dancers dissipates, more talent will emerge.

“I want awareness to spread, but I don’t think it will take much time anymore, because I have observed that in India there are more males in ballet class than females! I think that after my story and hearing about these experiences, many of them have been encouraged and want to learn from my maestro, who was and even today is the person who supports me the most and who guides me, so that I can continue to progress in this wonderful career,” says Singh.

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