The No Chance of Bollywood

Published June 13, 2011

Inspired by the BBC’s latest series of So You Think You Can Dance?, Matthew Amer hoped The Merchants Of Bollywood could teach him a few moves.

I’m not an awful dancer. I understand the theory of moving various parts of my anatomy in time with a beat. In the past, I’ve been known to throw shapes on the many and varied dance floors of Croydon and Bristol.

Recently, though, as I head into my fourth decade, I’m less John Travolta, more Just Revolting; the possibly imagined slickness of my past replaced with Dad dancing of the highest order. It’s so bad that my dance moves now have names. I Feed The Chickens. I push The Lawnmower.

The stars of current crowd-pleasing dance show The Merchants Of Bollywood had no idea of this when they agreed to give me a master class. They can’t have done. Why would they have put themselves through it?

Surprisingly my dance class is fairly easy – for them, I should add. It left me a whisker away from a heart attack – as the night before, they taught a free lesson after the show at the Peacock theatre. “I was expecting five people,” lead performer Carol Furtado tells me. Around 100 showed up.

That, says Furtado, is an indication just how popular Bollywood is at the moment, with interest growing daily in the dance style popularised by the huge Indian film industry.

The Merchants Of Bollywood is the perfect way for anyone intrigued by the elaborate dance routines and incredibly colourful costumes to get a taste of the dancing described by Furtado as “an amalgamation of all dance styles put together, with an Indian-ness to it”. The touring show tells the tale of a young dancer trying to break from her traditional upbringing to make it big in Bollywood.

“It’s an educational trip for people who have no idea about India,” Furtado explains after our brief lesson in which she is patient and I am panting. “It’s great to see our culture, the mix of the traditional India and the modern India, the conflict between generations. But don’t come for the history lesson, just come to be entertained.”

Hundreds already have. The dance extravaganza is beginning the third week of its five-week London engagement, elongated from last year’s three-week run at the Peacock theatre due to its phenomenal popularity.

The capital’s love for the production is reciprocated by the show’s stars: “London is such a metropolitan city,” says Furtado. “It has so much of an Asian influence in it. People get the jokes instantly and there’s this fantastic rapport which we have with the audience which kind of lacks in the other countries that we perform.”

If Furtado’s performance is anything like our lesson, I can understand the audience’s reaction. The star is a bundle of excitement and joy, even when I am struggling with the most basic of moves, clapping and stepping in time with the music.

She has been with the show since 2006, and is driven, she says, by her passion for the production. She would have to be. I am not the fittest would-be Bollywood star in the world – though I’d fancy my chances in a bleep test against the majority of arts journalists – but after ten minutes of learning 30 seconds of a dance routine I’m sweating like Pavarotti in a sauna. At the weekend, the cast performs a pair of two-hour shows each day.

To do her job, Furtado tells me as I subtly try to wipe the sweat from my brow, you have to “do things to your body which others would think is torture, and maintain your self discipline”.

She follows her tale of pain and suffering with the news that, because it takes her just under an hour and a half to have her hair and make-up prepared for the show, she doesn’t warm up or stretch; she simply leaps straight into the performance.

I was very similar before my brief lesson. Stretching is for wimps. Now I have barely enough breath to ask coherent questions, a thigh that believes it is trapped in a vice, and have sweated enough to replenish the Dead Sea. Were it not for the fact that Furtado is so passionate and personable, I would be irritated.

But I’m not. I’m actually delighted to have learned from dancers at the head of their field, an opportunity still available to audiences off to see The Merchants Of Bollywood on Tuesdays.

It’s just a shame that audiences every night can’t have the same experience. They will have to cope with just enjoying an exuberant, colourful Bollywood spectacular and maybe learning a little something from the footage of my lesson… (Probably not to let anyone film you being taught how to dance!)