(January 7, 2022) An excited Asif dances his heart out to the beats of the dhol at a Dahi handi celebration in Mumbai, reprimanded by his uncle for participating in a Hindu festival. The opening scene of Yeh Ballet, a Netflix biographical film of an Indian ballet dancer, Amiruddin Shah, speaks volumes about a boy from the slums of Mumbai who made it to London’s Royal Ballet Theatre. “It’s true. My uncle was against a Muslim dancing at a Hindu festival. But I kept doing what I liked,” smiles Amiruddin, who is today a corps de ballet member at Miami City Ballet, in an exclusive with Global Indian.
Rags to riches – A ‘balle’ to ballet
The 20-something’s rags to riches story is inspiring. From doing odd jobs in Mumbai’s slums to becoming the first Indian ever to be selected at the Royal Ballet Theatre, Amiruddin’s story is about patience, perseverance, and resilience.
Amiruddin’s story unfolded in the Sanpada slums. His father left his village in UP over three decades ago to eke a better life in the City of Dreams. Struggling to make ends meet, the children chipped in. “From selling eggs to slippers, shoes, mango pickles on the roadside, I did everything,” recalls the Indian ballet star, the youngest of five brothers and two sisters.
Despite studying at a government school, he hardly attended classes. “We went to school because free meals were provided. Not too great, they sufficed, and many families sent their children for that full meal, and to keep them away from trouble,” says the boy, who grew up amidst violence. “When you see people dropping dead in street fights, you begin to look at things differently,” reminisces the Indian ballet star.
With no clear interest in studies, it was dance that called out to the young lad. “I was sort of dyslexic and never understood how to write or count. It seemed too difficult – I felt comfortable and at ease with the arts. Dancing made me feel alive,” chirps the street dancer.
Then came a Danceworx jazz and contemporary dance programme for underprivileged students. His older brother Nizamuddin introduced him to it, and he even impressed the instructor. This led to him trading places with his brother who was already enrolled. “Both couldn’t be a part of it due to financial constraints, so my brother stepped down,” says an emotional lad, who felt trapped seeing his brother give up his place.
The right place, at the right time
That was when Israeli-American ballet master Yehuda Maor spotted his natural talent and persuaded him to ditch hip-hop for ballet. “He kept looking at my arched feet while (I was) stretching, and knew I was made for ballet,” reveals Shah. New to ballet, he hated every moment, especially, comprehending English commands as he didn’t know the language. “It was nerve-wracking to be doing a dance form I had no clue about,” adds Shah.
The initial years of training were exhausting as Yehuda was a taskmaster. For someone who began ballet at age 12, Amiruddin was working hard to make up for lost years. “Yehuda was packing all those years of (lost) training. It was so intense that I hated him,” he laughs. Today, he calls Yehuda his mentor, someone who changed his life for good.
In less than three years, Shah had aced the language of ballet. Spreading his wings, he won a scholarship to study at the Joffery Ballet School in New York but couldn’t make it as his visa was rejected. Demotivated, his fortunes changed when he won a one-year scholarship at the Oregon Ballet Theatre.
“My study expenses were covered, I needed money for lodging and food. We needed $20,000 – Yehuda paid half, and the rest we raised through crowdfunding in six months,” recalls Shah. In the US, his excitement soon faded as he had to learn the Balanchine method, a technique quite different from what he knew. Adjusting to American ballet was tough, “They were so quick on the toes, and it felt like the dancers were flying. The speed was killing me. It wasn’t the right institution so Yehuda and I decided to quit the school,” he adds, very disheartened at quitting.
Back to basics
Back in Mumbai, he continued practicing with Yehuda but with a new perspective and zeal. He was then selected by the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York on a half scholarship, but with his funds depleted due to the Oregon Ballet School stint, he had to bow out.
News of an Indian boy making it to the American Ballet School spread like wildfire. “BBC called me the Billy Elliot of India, and it went viral in the UK. The director of Royal Ballet Theatre saw the news, and offered me a full scholarship in 2017,” smiles the first Indian to ever receive the Nadia Nerina Scholarship (for talented students from beyond EU for three years), and first Indian to study at London’s Royal Ballet Theatre.
Studying in the same ballet school that trained the likes of Sergei Polunin gave Amiruddin goose bumps. “He is one of the best ballet dancers in the world, and at just 19, he became Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer. This was enough validation and motivation,” enthuses the 20-something Indian ballet star, who finished a higher level of education in arts & ballet from the University of Roehampton.
Royal Ballet was intense. He repeated a year due to constant injuries, and lack of nutrition. “The body has to look a certain way for ballet. Since childhood, with no nutritious food, it showed in my stamina, led to injuries. I had to give myself a year to heal,” says the Indian ballet star, who performed in Giselle, Sea Interludes, and Elite Syncopations during this period.
Shah also started The Art Door, an app platform to help global artistes collaborate virtually or physically. “Art has the power to change the world and it’s important that we have a platform to join forces.” It helps artistes create high-quality professional digital artworks.
From the slums of Mumbai to London’s Royal Ballet Theatre, his perseverance is inspirational. Director Sooni Taraporevala was totally awestruck, and turned his captivating story into a Netflix original film in 2020. “I am grateful to her for bringing alive my story but I wouldn’t have given her my story if it wasn’t for my brother Nizamuddin acting in the film,” says the boy, who admits he still hasn’t watched the film as he doesn’t connect with his past anymore.
It was also Shah’s way of giving back to his brother who had exchanged places with him a long time ago.
Amiruddin is busy in the midst of arabesques, pliers, sauters and more for Alexei Ratmansky’s Swan Lake (February 11 to 27) in Miami now. A member of the Miami City Ballet, he was a soloist lead in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC in November 2021. “It was a profound moment,” gushes the Indian ballet star.
From Mumbai to Miami, the Indian ballet dancer has come a long way because he believed in himself. Sharing some wisdom, he says, “Have more faith in yourself than anyone else has in you. Talent can be missed twice, but not thrice.”
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