The British ballerina who is working towards creating The National Ballet of India

At ‘The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet’ they follow the international syllabus which is from the 'Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing' in U.K.

Published: 28th November 2020 10:21 PM  |   Last Updated: 30th November 2020 03:15 PM   |  A+A-

Photo | Meghana Sastry

Express News Service

Barbie is a symbol of Ballet for children in India. There are so many versions like, Barbie and the Swanlake, Barbie and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Barbie and The Nutcracker which popularised ballet here. Lots of girls say, "I want to wear that pretty dress" and that's their inspiration to learn the dance form. India is one of the countries that doesn't have a national academy and Yana Lewis who has been dancing since she was 2 years old and teaching for 4 decades now is working towards creating The National Ballet of India.

Yana stretching by the mirror at the studio.

Yoga brought Yana to India and she instantly connected with the country, making it her home 22 years ago. Despite having a ballet school back home in the U.K, she said it was soulless and India connected with her spirituality. She landed in Chennai and on her way to Pune passed Bengaluru where lots of dancers asked her to teach Ballet. She came back as promised to conduct a three-week workshop and found that there's a lot of diversity here. Yana also has an RSA in anatomy and physiology which helps to understand and integrating Indian classical forms with Ballet.

Peter and Tanvi Mavuri in a scene from Sleeping Beauty.

It is a misnomer that ballet is only for girls, the ratio in 'Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet is 1 boy for every 100 girls." People look at the cute tutus and connect it with barbie saying, "it's only for girls". It's not just about being able to lift dancers gracefully that makes boys eligible for ballet, the gender itself is an integral part of the dance. Ballet is used all over the world across different professions, such as ice skaters, rugby players, footballers, gymnasts, and more for strengthening their feet, ankles, and other muscles. After the three-week workshop, she took some time off to travel the country to understand the culture. In 1996 she started teaching with Terrance Lewis in Bombay at the NCPA. She felt that Bombay is very commercial and returned to Bangalore which she was always drawn to for space, trees, and people.

She started working with established dancers and later took on children. Her initial hiccup was finding the right space, she started with hiring a gym, but their infrastructure posed a lot of problems. "Their flooring doesn't work for dancers, it smelt foul due to poor ventilation which required the use of AC and made it difficult for dancers as no dancer likes to feel cold, to add to this list, the music system was terrible." She eventually got her own studio space in Ulsoor.

Classroom session in progress.

Her other issue was to find good teachers. She says "Teaching is a gift. One can be an excellent dancer but unable to inspire students and pass on the skills is where one fails. 
I tried hiring teachers from abroad who were qualified and good dancers, but the cultural differences made it hard. One needs to understand and respect the culture of a place and I cannot work with people who don't. How to deal with parents, children, how to dress etc. is important. One can't walk into a class with a thin camisole here." The best teachers are the ones I have trained myself, Elina and Sushmita." A teacher needs to be highly disciplined to inculcate the same in the students. "My teachers and I wake up as early as 4:00AM and practice every day.

At ‘The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet’ they follow the international syllabus which is from the 'Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing' in U.K. Children are taken in as young as 4 years of age but they do not start with syllabus work. They start with incorporating games, stories and rhymes as storytelling is a vital part of ballet. They start by working on different muscle groups in order for ballet to start forming on the body. The focus is on posture, extension of feet and legs, external rotation of the leg and movements that travel. 

Elina is working with a student to fix her posture.

Initially it's a lot of coordination work which children find difficult to focus on the form while moving, they find it hard to keep their toes pointed opposed to when they are standing still.One of the most basic and important exercise is demi point which is walking on toes with heels off the ground which helps children strengthen their feet and legs before they get into Pointe shoes which are introduced only in grade 5.

Maya the senior most student tapes her feet before putting on her pointe shoes. It’s
important to secure a ballet dancer’s toes.

Yana says that "While it is easier to teach adults to point their toes and flex, they also don't have strength to maintain the form when moving they take longer in the beginning whereas children pick up faster. Muscle control comes to kids as they grow whereas, when you work with an adult body, they have built muscles from all kind of things they have done in their life which are not necessarily the right muscles for ballet." 
Teachers do not push the kids to stretch beyond what they can as the body is young and forming. Whereas, with older students who are past teenage Yana physically pushes them.

Yana is working with a student fixing her posture.

While I am a vegan by choice, I do not impose any dietary restrictions on my students. I just tell the parents to avoid giving their children sugar before a class as it makes it extremely difficult to deal with children when they are on a sugar rush and avoid feeding them rice or similar foods that take longer to digest. I cannot imagine dancing after eating a cheese sandwich". It helps having Sushmita on board as she understands the Indian diet better and helps them make healthier choices. I also educate parents on punctuality. When a kid comes late all the others in the class are distracted and everyone must start from a warmup session.

Elina poses outside a café in Bengaluru. She can dance literally, anywhere.

Elina (34) came to India at 15, her mother found out from an expat club about Yana and signed her up for it. She started at the age of 6 back in Sweden but wasn't very serious. She took special permission from school to attend classes with Yana here and took to it very seriously. She later went to London Studio Centre to pursue it further and did not like it one bit. She said -"Yana gives us personal attention, making us the best we can be which wasn't the case there, I didn't even push myself." She then went to Royal Academy to get her teacher training course. She studied in London for a year and continued her course from India through their distance education program. "I am an Asian girl and feel more at home here than in Europe." she said. 
Talking about discipline she said the uniform is not just the tradition but very practical. It helps a teacher look at a student closely and make corrections as and when required. Keeping the hair up in a tight bun gives you the lift and a sense of posture. "I can't imagine doing 32 turns in Swanlake with my hair whipping my face."

As a part of her routine, Sushmitha exercises in a park in Bengaluru.

Sushmitha (37) A girl who is always looking to do new things went to a jazz class during a semester break with her sister which she thought was more fun and ballet too serious but fell in love with Ballet. During jazz class Yana saw her potential and asked her if she would join the company. Sushmitha was mesmerised by Yana and the class which made her want to learn a lot more and said yes. "Yana believed in me more than I did, and I did things I thought I wasn’t capable of.She did her teacher training from Yana and started teaching after dancing for 10 years.

Senior students training in the studio by the bar.

Talking about challenges Yana says, just like Yoga Ballet has small classes mushrooming everywhere. It takes years of training to perfect the form while people take a 2-monthcourse and decide to open their own studio. Kids learning in these studios are in danger of injuring themselves and not getting the basics right. “A lot of kids come to me after learning in these studios to up-skill themselves and I have to break it to them that they have to start from a lower grade to catch up or even start from basics.”

A lot of students come back to Yana

Tanvi Agarwal practising by herself at the studio during a regular class.

Tanvi Agarwal (25) a researcher in the field of environment is a student of Yana who has been dancing for 12 years now. It was a book in her school library about a little ballerina that introduced her to the dance form. While she studied in the U.K and worked in Rome, she did take on classes but didn't enjoy it. She was thrilled to come back to Yana when she returned and said - "Yana focuses on everyone and comes down to their level, she gives her everything. A lot of other places only focus on advanced dancers and children who they can see potential in but not care about the rest."

Tanvi Mavuri, the lead role in Sleeping Beauty.

Tanvi Mavuri the lead role in Sleeping Beauty which was performed in December 2019 fell ill with dengue just 2 weeks before the performance. Her mum Jayashri and Tanvi say that the studio was planning to defer the performance if need be but Tanvi worked so hard the 1st week to recover and on week 2 resumed practice. She said - "It is only because of Yana, Elina and Sushmitha who motivate her to work so hard and made her bounce back this quickly". Even with sore joints, she worked hard every single day. She said - "The teachers worked so hard with me; they are such an inspiration".

Apart from the studio, Yana always wants to work with children from marginalised communities. She started a program with Sneha Dana where she worked with children infected with HIV. She had worked very closely with these children but had to discontinue this program after 4 years when the children were moved to a school 50 kms away. She didn't stop there; she took on children from 'Born Free' an organisation which rescues children from child labour.

Peter practising his moves during a class.

Peter (26) started in 2008, the boy knew nothing about Ballet, he hated going to school but would do anything else. He had only studied until 3rd standard. He liked dancing though. He was sent by Born Free to Ahmedabad to join Mallika Sarabhai's school but didn't like the dance form much. While they were finding him a dance school of his choice in Bangalore, Peter had seen Yana dance in Cubbon Park and fell in love with it. That's how Ballet happened to him at the age of 8. However, the boy only knew Kannada and Tamil, and language became a barrier. To overcome this, he dropped out of ballet and went to school to learn English at St. Patricks. 

Elina teaching kids from Parikrama.

He performed in his school culturals in 10th standard when Yana spotted him asking him if he would like to return to ballet. He came back and completed his degree. He has a B.A in economics, sociology and political science. He has never stopped dancing ever since and ballet brings him a lot of joy. His friend Anand who practised kalarippayattu and gymnastics benefited a lot from Ballet. He is currently in Hamburg contemporary school. Yana not only helped him with his audition but also helped raise funds for his education and living expenses.

Parikrama kids love the ballet class. It helps them focus on their studies as well.

She and her teachers work closely with Parikrama students who love this program. The principal Lata has been working with Parikrama since 2006 with teaching computer science and has been a principal for 5 years now in the Jayanagar school. She says children in 10th std are seen crying as they are missing ballet. Children love it and are very dedicated.

Suresh's brother who went on a school trip was washed away in the water 4 days before the performance. The body was found on Thursday evening and the performance was that weekend. Despite his situation, he told the principal to tell the ballet school that he will perform that weekend. "They have invested so much in me and a performer cannot be replaced with no practise". His parents attended the show as well. 

Suresh playing the role of a wolf in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Lata said - "The discipline they need for the dance form helps these kids in every walk of life. These children are very lucky to be exposed to things they can never afford. She tells the students to check out the prices online and see how much these classes cost. They need to understand the value". 

Tejas focusing in class. The gender ratio is 1 boy to every 100 girls.

Tejas (15) A boy from Parikrama has always been an athlete and been dancing for 9 years now. His parents and teachers have been supporting him, he failed many times, but Yana encouraged him.He now loves dancing and it has also helped him build muscle strength that that he needs for sports and helps him focus better when it comes to studying as ballet needs a lot of discipline and dedication.

Talking about the future for her students, Yana said in a country like India where it was unthinkable for parents to let their children consider the arts as a career option, people are slowly opening to the idea. While her foundation is expanding and there are opportunities to teach, that isn't the only option. The psychology of dance is a huge topic and one of her dancers has a double major in “Dance in Psychology”. Kinesiology is another option where it is important to understand movements, muscles and more.

During a break, Ramya is seen plugging her ears for music and practising on her own.

Ramya (31) an architect grew up in Chennai and had read about Ballet in encyclopaedia and other journals. She never had an opportunity to learn as “We had no ballet schools then". She moved to Bangalore for work at 22 and looked for jazz classes and to her surprise found a ballet school.However, there were no slots available. She took jazz classes, when Yana saw her potential for Ballet, she took her on. Ramya had developed scoliosis around the age of 15due to which she had a lot of back pain and thought she would never be able to do ballet.

Ramya plays a lead role of a witch in sleeping beauty.

Given that Yana understands anatomy very well, she has worked with her and Ramya is free of pains. She said - "Yana really invests in her students."

A family that dances

Irene and her oldest daughter Maya seen training in class.

Irene Manning (53) from Virginia has been dancing for 24 years which started in her bedroom and family performances. Her family saw potential and enrolled her into professional classes.

Irene practising a scene from ‘Sleeping Beauty’

As she grew older, she had to take a break for many reasons and when she wanted to return to ballet in San Francisco at 32 it wasn't easy, she wasn't received very well. When she moved to India, she joined Yana's class and has enjoyed every moment of it. She said, "Everyone's welcoming and supporting and yes, I have to work much harder."

Maya is the senior-most student and incidentally has been named after her favourite ballet dancer in a movie called 'Company'. This is her performing in ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballethas performances once in two years as it takes immense training and preparation. Last year they held two performances, ‘A Night In A Toy Store’ which was mainly for the junior dancers and kids, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was for the senior dancers.

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