How Dirty Dancing Saved My Life

Exotic dancing can be both sexually liberating and fracturing. Aastha Atray Banan meets the proud and shy ladies who take these dance classes

Grooving Meena Bagai shows her moves
Grooving Meena Bagai shows her moves
Photo: Apoorva Guptay

BEFORE SHE won that naked man called Oscar, Juno screenplay writer Diablo Cody wrote the acclaimed book Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, where she said: “For me, stripping was an unusual kind of escape. I had nothing to escape but privilege, but I claimed asylum anyway. At 24, it was my last chance to reject something and become nothing. I wanted to terrify myself. Mission accomplished.”
Unlike Cody, 48-year-old Meena Bagai sought exotic dancing as a way to become “something”. We’re in her expensive Lower Parel penthouse in Mumbai as she poses with a bright feather boa, eyes closed, moving her shapely hips to Nirvana’s Come as You Are. Much like the 1930s’s dancer Gypsy Rose Lee who emphasised the “tease” in “striptease”, Bagai’s ease almost make you forget that her son and daughter-in-law are busily lunching on Sindhi food just two feet away. It doesn’t feel surreal at all. Not after hearing her speak about her dancing for the past hour.
“I often see myself as an actress who’s super sexy when dancing,” Bagai flashes a charming smile. “I was dancing with girls half my age but I realised soon that my body was as sexy as anyone’s. I feel so desirable — and I don’t need a man to say it. Just look at me.” Bagai belongs to a group of women who take classes to learn exotic dancing to help them get their sexy back. Some do it in secret, some like Bagai are proud of it. Many have been doing it for years.
Often these classes are pitched (and gratefully accepted) as exercise routines — of pole dancing, lap dancing, burlesque and striptease. Instead of treadmills and weights, you roll your hips and try to make your body flow like a wave. Your rear sashays, your bosom heaves and your hands float. You might also throw in some pelvis grinds. Sometimes you use props — don’t worry, they’re not men — hats, walking sticks, feather boas, chairs and poles. But none of it is complete without the swept-out hair, the pout and “come hither” eyes.
Bagai’s teacher Shilpa Rane, 37, is a Mumbai-based professional instructor of exotic dancing who’s taught almost 200 women in the past three years. Rane remembers learning the dance in London from a professional pole dancer and being intimidated, even though she’d been a fitness expert for many years. “The kind of attitude these people exude is unbelievable,” she enthuses. “Only getting in touch with that hidden sensual side of yourself helps get it out. Though I was so fit, I never ever felt sexy. And somewhere I wasn’t even allowed to — because being sexy also meant ‘easy’. But this dancing made me realise what nonsense that was. That’s what I tell my students. Whatever you look like, you can be sexy. Just let go.”
SOME OF Rane’s students, though, are not so sure. They say they’ve gained a new respect for their bodies after watching themselves writhe openly in front of a mirror but they’re still nervous about social ostracisation, about being slotted into unpalatable “categories” of women. Advertising professional Simran Kapoor (name changed), 25, says the dancing has given her confidence but she doesn’t want to grab the wrong kind of attention by discussing it with people — it still makes her squeamish as she tries to square it with her middle-class Punjabi background. But somewhere deep inside, she says, she’s also glad to be a naughty girl. “I know now that at a party I can woo a boy by using my moves. And once I have a boyfriend, obviously I will use the stuff,” she winks. Then she adds more seriously, “It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being your kind of sexy.”
Another iteration is Namita Sharma (name changed), an outgoing 28-year-old who says she never worries about what people think of her — except that her conservative Rajasthani parents would probably be shocked if they found out she was doing such dancing. Her husband knows but she’s never danced for him — Sharma insists she’s taken the classes only for herself. “I’m a modern Indian woman and so I had major fun pretending I was a showgirl. But finding out your daughter wants to be sexy is not cool for parents, right?” she says. Then she switches back to her dare-all self: “What it taught me was that if I wiggle my hips or flaunt my boobs, I’m not a slut. I already knew that but now I know it for sure. Get that?”
Bagai is still grooving to Nirvana and looking out at her fabulous city view with a dreamy look. Who is this well heeled Mumbai woman who is getting her groove back with these exotic dances? Who is Meena Bagai? She got married at 19, got pregnant and was divorced in her 30s. So is this enough for us to psychologise her need to be sexy again? Let’s try: Just before her divorce, she lost her younger brother, faced the prospect of looking after a son who suffered from a hearing disability, and fell into depression. So is she now just trying to escape her life’s heavy baggage? One more time: She works for her father’s travel company, is a mother-in-law who hates cooking and loves to shop at Zara. So is she to be blamed for betraying the decorum of the upper classes?

‘Now at a party I can woo a boy with my moves. And once I have a boyfriend, obviously I’ll use the stuff. It’s about being your kind of sexy,’ says Simran

“I know I’m not interested for sure, but I get so many friend requests on Facebook — men, mostly. They keep asking me to put more pictures. Isn’t that so flattering? I love the camera. I love getting pictures taken. And they will be on my Facebook the next day itself. I look like my daughter-in-law’s sister,” laughs Bagai. Vanishkha, her 20-something daughter -in-law, grins in approval. Clearly, family support matters when you’re trying to feel sexy and not care what people think. “I saw a different side of me when I danced, and I knew that only I and my body could keep me happy,” continues Bagai. “I was swaying my hips and they looked as if they belonged to Marliyn Monroe. That’s the greatest gift.”
Aastha Atray Banan is a Senior Correspondent, Mumbai with Tehelka.