This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Sweta Akundi. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Dancing Over The Rainbow

“I tried committing suicide three times. Dance was what saved me.”

Those intimate words tumbled out of 40-year-old Abhina Aher in a practiced manner. It’s as if she had curated this experience through years of introspection to define her story. It was at the India HIV/Aids Alliance office in Delhi that I first spoke with her.

Dancing is what keeps the Queens going | Source: Abhina Aher

Abhina’s mother was a professional dancer. Her childhood as she remembers it, was looking up to her mother and wanting to be just like her. The only problem was she was assigned male at birth, and expected to ‘behave like a boy’.

Coupled with the agony of being misunderstood, was the loss of a parent. Abhina lost her father when she was three years old. Dancing was how Abhina learned to cope with the pain. “I would dance with a huge light behind me, so that I could look at my shadow. I would watch my fingers curl, I would watch the way my hands moved gracefully. I fell in a trance, I felt like a diva,” she recalls.

Abhina’s mother, however, did not approve of her dancing. Yet, it was she who taught her how to dance. “It was like an Ekalavya situation at home,” Abhina laughs, referring to the Hindu legend of the boy who was ignored by his Guru, but learnt all the skills nevertheless just by observing. Abhina would watch her mother dance and then behind her back, she would hold performances in drag for her neighbours.

Sometimes I feel like I was born to dance. Rhythm was always inside me,” she tells me. I wanted to know how dance helped her, and she said she felt like a different person when she was dancing – her true self.

Born to dance | Source: Abhina Aher

While Abhina is a leading transgender rights activist, she is first and foremost a dancer. She founded one of India’s most well-recognized transgender dancing troupes, ‘Dancing Queens’, 14 years ago. It began as a humble motley crew of transgender people – some of them beggars, some sex workers, and others activists – anyone with the passion and will to dance. Today the group consists of up to 25 members and performs across India including at esteemed venues such as the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai and Hijra Habba in Delhi.

Like Abhina, there are many more LGBTQ performers in India. 22-year-old Anwesh Sahoo, a belly dancer, also credits his love of dance to the female influences in his life. Anwesh had always loved dancing, but for the first decade of his life, he had to make do with watching his sister learn Odissi. Much like in Abhina’s case, his mother forbade him from learning dance, because of course, ‘Boys don’t dance.’ “My mum was scared that I’d grow up to be too feminine. I was already being picked on at school, I think this was her way of protecting me,” he says. “Not that I cared,” he mutters under his breath. It took a lot of persistence but Anwesh eventually managed to convince his mother to enroll him in Kathak classes.

If that was Anwesh’s first dip into the pool of dance, his first dive came in college when he saw a video of a gay belly dancer. Anwesh had just come out to his mother then. But on watching that video, he realized how much he had been restraining himself.

But there comes a time when things change for the better. Abhina’s turning point in life came when she joined the LGBTQ organization, Humsafar Trust. It was then that she put together the Dancing Queens.

She realized, “People think of us as ‘Hijras’. People who dance in front of your house and beg? That’s not who we are. We need to be respected and I figured talent would make them respect us.”

After the end of every performance by the Dancing Queens, one of them introduces themselves and talks about their struggles and desires as transgender people. However, while on stage, they must smoothen the edges of their identities.

Abhina has strict instructions for her dancers: They must act like ‘professionals’. “You can’t dance in a certain way, you know. If I clap on stage, people will jump to say, ‘See? How else can a transgender dance!’”

Abhina struggles to strike a balance between being a dancer and an activist. Many-a-times, the troupe is expected to dance for free in exchange of being given a stage to voice their concerns.  In the process of turning her dance into a platform for activism, she feels she has lost the freedom she found in it. It has to be a performance now.

That said, Anwesh enjoys the performance, the stage the limelight. His favourite part about dancing is the preparation that goes into it. He loves putting on make-up, jewelry and the costumes.

Dressing-up together is a huge part of the Dancing Queens’ performances as well. The group has found a kinship in the shared love for dancing. Abhina’s mother, who was once so strongly against her dancing, today is the nucleus of the Dancing Queens family. It took stormy arguments, eight years of silent treatment, and a whole lot of crying, but Abhina and her mother finally reconciled a few years ago. Abhina’s friends visit her mother during festivals; it is her mother that takes care of them after they’ve had a sex reassignment surgery.

Dance is like a light that passes on in the community. Like Abhina helped her ‘kids’, Anwesh was inspired to dance by a gay belly dancer, and today, when Anwesh puts up videos of himself belly dancing, 12- and 13-year-olds reach out to him, telling him how he gave them the courage to come out.

Boys don’t belly dance? Wrong | Source: QGraphy

On another other end of the rainbow is Vinu, a software engineer and an openly queer Bharatanatyam dancer. Vinu doesn’t understand the fuss over expressing one’s identity. “I dance because it comes naturally to me. Even though I am just learning someone else’s choreography, pieces that have been performed by hundreds of people for years, I still find peace in it. I like dancing, so I dance. That’s all it is about to me!” Far from being catharsis, the only period in his life when he did not dance was when he was coming out to the world.

Vinu is not alone in his views. Some, especially the ones taking dancing up as a career, do not want gender labels to overrule their identities as dancers.

Abhina doesn’t agree one bit. “I don’t want people to call me a beautiful dancer, who happens to be transgender. I am a transgender who is a wonderful dancer.”

Ultimately, in this intersection of dance and sexuality, it doesn’t matter which of the two takes precedence. What matters is that these dancers are inspiring a whole generation to challenge the norms of binary with a laugh, skip and twirl.

You must be to comment.

More from Sweta Akundi

Similar Posts

By Ritushree

By Srini Ramaswamy

By Srini Ramaswamy

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below