“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.
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.
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.
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.