In India, and in several other parts of the world too, a career in dance is associated with financial insecurity. It is certainly not true of the world of dance alone. Indeed, other artists also truly fall prey to the stereotype of ‘the impoverished artist’. But young dancers in India, have a particularly hard time finding the balance between investing in dance full-time and making ends meet financially.
Why is it particularly difficult for young dancers? It could be argued that musicians and visual artists too, need to find this balance between creating art and staying financially afloat. It is not the intention of this article to belittle the struggles of other artists. It is certainly true that many musicians have to hold full-time jobs along with their musical practice. Visual artists too, need time to create works of art, which a full time job may take them away from. But why dance is still a little different from the other arts in the manner of finding this balance will hopefully be clear shortly.
Classical musicians in India usually perform solo and in that, their struggles are similar to that of dancers. But they also perform quite often as accompanists to classical dancers. In that, they do not incur any costs of performing. These are all borne by the dancer. Additionally, the dancer also pays them for their accompaniment. A dancer, however, does not perform for a fee at a musician’s concert. In that very simplistic sense alone, a classical musician’s struggle differs from that of a classical dancer.
A music group or band also differently manages finances from a dancer in India. They are often invited to perform at venues such as bars or festivals where owners of these bars or sponsors of alcohol companies get to make huge profits from selling their product at the venues, and therefore payments to bands are usually enough to sustain, at least the band as a whole, if not the band members individually. Of course, this is not always the case, but it is almost never the case with dance. Dance organizers often invite dancers on the premise that the dancers will have to bear the costs of their own travel, stay, and the payment to their musicians, due to poor or no sponsorship.
Bands also sell merchandise like t-shirts, badges, CDs that additionally support the bands financially. A dancer certainly cannot sell t-shirts bearing photographs or logos of himself or herself, nor is making a profit by selling DVDs of their work a regular practice.
Visual artists are a whole different story altogether. They create art, and then they sell it. Many painters and sculptors make a lot of money by selling their work at exhibitions. They are able to sell their art in a way that dancers and musicians perhaps cannot.
So, while their struggles are all legitimate and valid, the struggles of artists are often distinct and unique. Whatever their struggles are, each artist dreams of a world where they can focus fully on their art, without worrying about how to pay the rent, and support their families, their interests and most importantly, their art financially.
Teaching a Kalaripayattu move at a school in Delhi

It is this dream of being able to fully focus on their art that leads artists to other avenues for a stable income. Financial stability is needed to support art. But the time and effort art requires does not always leave room for a second job. This creates some turbulence in the career of artists, and dancers. Many dancers have been through this turbulence in their dance careers, including myself.

A year or two ago, I turned to a job for a stable income, and have returned to full-time dancing very recently. For as long as dancers can, they work and perform in a freelance manner, managing themselves as their own agents, and negotiating with organizers for payment. They also simultaneously build relationships with dancers, dance scholars, critics and musicians; and teach dance for some income. But like I was, all are used to the fact that being a dancers meant that there would be times when there is no money and there will be times when there’s enough.
At first, I too freelanced. I took up projects that interested me, I performed, and I taught dance. I, too, didn’t worry about financial stability or saving money for the future. Dancers can’t afford to think about the future, because there is too much happening in the present. You could lose an opportunity in the blink of an eye! But not worrying about finances, after a certain point, becomes an impossibility. Dancers, like everyone else, live in the real world in which money matters. One cannot dance one’s way out of paying rent, or electricity bills or buying food.
No one truly gets used to the uneasiness of financial uncertainty. So when the opportunity to teach dance at a well-reputed school presented itself to me, I seized it. After all, there are many stories out there of dancers who are engineers at IT companies by day, and dancers by night. And many stories of musicians who are digital media consultants by day, and musicians by night. The struggle between financial security and artistic creativity is legendary and historic.
But now that I look back at the last year or two of teaching, I realize that I had unwittingly paused my dance career by taking up a ‘job’. Adjustments that I thought were little, and plans that I thought could be postponed, turned out to be big adjustments and lost opportunities.
When commited to a job, a dancer may have to make a number of compromises. The number of times a performance opportunity has to be declined because it is during a working week, or how many times a dance workshop or a dance residency is missed because it clashes with work hours inevitably starts to weigh heavily on a dancer.
Dance is also a very physical practice. Arguably more physically exertive than some of the other arts. It requires a certain time of warm up before a rehearsal can even start. And it requires hours of practice. A ‘cool down’ is also necessary in order to avoid injury or strain to the joints, muscles and tissues. All this is, besides being physically exhausting, also incredibly time consuming. With a full-time job that leaves you physically and/or mentally exhausted, to then go into a physically demanding multiple hour rehearsal seems like an impossible task. To dance, one needs time and space. Not just physical space, but mental head space as well.
Too much time on the job, and too much time away from dance, is devastating for a dancer. It can quite easily lead to an identity crisis. I am a dancer, but I am not dancing! What does that make me? What emerges is a very real worry that after all those years of dedicated training, performing and building relationships, he or she would slowly fade away from the memories of rasikas and dancers. This worry began to plague me too. I decided to leave my job as a ‘dance teacher’ and get back to being the ‘dancer’ that I had always been. But this decision is not an easy one for anyone to make.
Performing in Anusha Lall’s ‘Tilt’

Dancers’ financial troubles magnify when they choose to dedicate themselves fully to dance. So before we ask ourselves why dancers take up other vocations in order to support themselves, it is important to remember that. Without a stable income, she or he cannot even support or sustain the dancing, leave alone survive materially in this world. Like everyone else, they yearn for financial independence and stability through what they professionally chose to do, which a career in dance doesn’t always provide. A doctor, for instance, trains tirelessly for many years, and struggles, I’m sure, to pay for that medical education. But once a medical student becomes a doctor, and starts his or her practice, he or she can financially sustain himself or herself through what he or she trained for so long to become. And a doctor can do this without taking an evening job as a tutor or something completely unrelated to his practice, like a gym coach.

A dancer, more often than not, has to either teach or do some other job unrelated to dance to be financially secure. In today’s relentless capitalist world, the arts do suffer. Dance does suffer. It doesn’t make financial ends meet, and it does require full-time attention. It then also suffers in another way – because parents don’t want their children to get embroiled in this kind of work. I have even heard dancers discouraging their sons and daughters from following in their footsteps, saying ‘its too hard’. With parents not wanting their children to take up dancing professionally, they often don’t send them for training regularly either, and this in turn, also adversely affects a dancer’s income who may be trying to support himself or herself through teaching dance. It’s a vicious circle deeply embedded in today’s income-driven world.
Looking back at the era of the devadasis, it is peculiar that some look at that era as purely an era of shame, something that shouldn’t or needn’t be addressed or talked about when discussing the history of dance. Yes, the devadasi system underwent a period of decline, thanks to colonialism and a post-colonial need for an ultimately misguided sense of nationalist pride. And admittedly, despite its positives, it was still a patriarchal system controlled by a male guru, patron and priest. But the system itself was fiercely supportive of dance and its female dancers. Devadasis were educated, very well-respected and received extensive patronage. They were given so much support from their patrons – in terms of land grants, support for their offspring, shelter and so on. They were encouraged and were able to train in their art form for several hours in a day. It was their job to train, improve, invest and engage with their dance as much as they possibly could in a day, every day till they were physically able to do so. And they did.
It could be appropriately argued that the patrons were so generous because of the benefits to them. It is true that devadasis often had sexual alliances with these men, but more often they became life partners out of wedlock, rather than a one-time affair. And reading into the way things worked at that time, it appears that the patrons were not as concerned with sexual gratification by the Devadasis than they were with the promotion and support of their art.
Of course, things are different today. And in many ways, thank god for that. Dancers are not systemically obliged to perform sexual favours for patronage and support. Nor are they under the control of a potentially exploitative system, which the devadasi system could be. Without a doubt, the nature of support has changed. Patronage has also taken a different meaning in contemporary society. But in some ways, the support for dance has diminished from that time to now. Where temples and kings used to provide complete support, now government institutions and patrons do not. Dancers can rely on their families and friends for some support, but there are only a handful of dancers who have the financial support of their families, and many of them understandably take that support.
However, there are also scores of dancers who cannot afford to do that. They have bills to pay, and have to support families themselves. There are also dancers who have the option of taking that support, but don’t want to. Many dancers have embraced contemporary society’s need to be financially independent, self-reliant and proactive. And why shouldn’t they?

It is this need to be financially independent and self-reliant that leads dancers to intermittently put a pause to their dreams of dancing full-time. And I believe it is the love for dance, its magnetic pull and its utter ‘irresistibility’ that makes dancers also repeatedly release that pause button, for their own sake and for dance.

(This article is to appear in ‘Attendance’ journal shortly)