Zenia Malegamwala didn’t let severe disability get in her way. Reechan Mirza, the son of a sex worker who was too embarrassed to talk about her profession with her son, was sent away to a government boarding school as a child. Shahnawaz Shaikh is wheelchair bound. The love of dancing forms the binding link between a group extraordinary people who refused to remain underdogs and embraced dance as a viable form of livelihood, exercise and fulfilment.
Over time, these five dance lovers have challenged every possible excuse to dance, and eventually convert it into a full-fledged career. Malegamwala, Mirza, Shaikh and two others are part of the Victory Arts Foundation, an initiative started by dancer Shiamak Davar in 2004, to take performance art beyond the ballroom and make it available to anyone who loved to dance, irrespective of his socio-economic background.
“The idea was to make dance available across age, gender, caste, class and ability without prejudice,” says Davar about the project. “It provides a platform to address social causes and concerns, and makes dance a viable and respected career option,” he said.
Today, the programme has expanded to over 10,000 individuals in over 200 NGOs across 12 cities in India.
Here are the five people, who along with a multitude of other dance lovers (pictures below) associate themselves proudly as professional dancers and teachers today:
27-year-old Zenia Malegamwala has loved music and dance as long as she can remember. Born with Arthrogryphosis Congenital Multiple Complex, Malegamwala remembers seeing her twin sister dance on stage, not dreaming that she too could be part of a dance team. However, her life changed when dance classes for people with disabilities were introduced in her school ADAPT (formerly known as The Spastics Society Of India in 2006. Since then, she has performed several times for shows like Dance India Dance, and India’s Got Talent, and is an integral part of the Victory On Wheels Team. “Dance has changed my life in several ways,” she says. “I used to be a very timid child with no direction in life.”
She claims that dancing helped her realise that even differently-abled people can show their talents through expressions, performance, and movements. Malemgamwala, who even choreographs dances today says that dancing removes the stiffness from her limbs and helps her keep fit. In 2012, she was awarded Dr. Batra’s Positive Health Award 2012 for her inspirational attitude on life.
Delhi-based Kamal Morya was involuntarily cast into the role of the breadwinner for his family (his mother, and two sisters) at the age of 15 when his father, an electrician by profession died an untimely death. This came as a big blow to Morya who has loved dancing for as long, and did not think he could pursue his dreams.
Morya used to attend free dance classes at an NGO called Chetna. He was spotted by a well-wisher who had started a scholarship programme to help underprivileged children cultivate their passion for dance as a profession.
Today, after having performed 25 shows in six years, Morya is himself an instructor. He is putting himself through graduation, and claims that dancing has not only helped him support his family, but groomed his personality overall. A lot of his classes and senior instructors have helped refine his English speaking. “Teaching classes has instilled a strong confidence, and motivation to teach positive. “I am a better person when I dance. Learning and teaching give me great freedom from every negative feeling, be it anger, stress, sadness, misery or fear,” he says.
Reechan Mirza was initially sent to a government boarding school in Pune after his mother, a sex worker, who could not admit her field of work to her growing son. She eventually died in 2006, leaving (then) 17-year-old Mirza to fend for himself. To survive, Mirza started working at a phone company where he initial salary was Rs 1,700 per month. At 18, he graduated to working in a courier company for Rs 2,300 per month.
Mirza continued this till 2008, which is when he decided to join dance classes that were being held at Prerana, an NGO for underprivileged kids who wanted to dance. He climbed the rungs quickly, after his talent was discovered, and got selected as a victory assistant instructor. Now at the age of 26, he holds a full-time job as an instructor with the Victory team, as well as an administrative job with Prerana, both of which he claims pay him decently. “Share what you have received with your community to spread happiness, because there is nothing better than making people happy. I love to dance because it helps me put smiles on people’s faces no matter where they’re from or how they are,” says Mirza.
Shahnawaz Shaikh challenges the commonplace excuse, “I have two left feet for dancing every single day.” An assistant dance instructor, he teaches dance through therapy. What makes his story extraordinary is that he has been dependent on calipers or a wheelchair since he was seven years old.
Mumbai-based Shaikh who is 21 years old, has performed several shows with the Victory On Wheels Dance Team. Known for his daredevil stunts – he does wheelies on his wheelchair and handstands – he can dance for 8-10 hours at a time. “I like challenging myself with different dance styles including stunts. I enjoy teaching other people with special needs,” he says. An avid painter, he also earns well through his oeuvres in addition to his dancing career. “Dance has changed my life a lot. Not only has it given me a career but also made me fitter. Shiamak taught me that I must never look at myself as someone who is handicapped. He told me I’m capable of doing anything anyone else can."
Vishwanath Mokashi lost his father at the tender age of 10. While he was able to continue studying thanks to the efforts of his mother, times were not easy. “I come from a very poor family, and I don’t even remember what it’s like to have a father,” he says. “My struggle in life has been to survive and help my mother in sustaining our basic requirements – it’s hard to describe emotionally, but I thank God we’ve always pulled through.”
Mokashi worked three jobs: a paper delivery boy, delivering milk, and at a caterers, while studying. “I would wake up every morning to do my job, and then head to school, then would go to the catering place afterwards.” He chose to quit school temporarily after his 11th standard to work and contribute to the house – he washed cars, and distributed pamphlets, as well as other odd jobs.
In 2009, Mokashi who claims to have always loved the free-spiritedness of dancing, gathered his confidence to participate in a dance competition held in an NGO. “The prize was a one-year scholarship programme to be trained professionally at The Victory Arts Foundation,” he says. Inspite of no training, Mokashi got through, and has never looked back. “I have been provided with financial support at every turn: for clothing, for travel,” he says. “Dancing not only turned my family’s life around for the better, it taught me discipline, and gave me emotional strength, as well as the ability to express.”
Here's a look at the Victory Arts Teams that comprise of and helps kids with disabilities and underprivileged children in India and around the world.