Jeeno Joseph remembers his father blasting old Bollywood film songs and classical Indian music from his car’s speakers when Joseph was a young boy. Even today, the 25-year-old Indian American dancer says that whenever he hears the rich, lilting beat of the mridangam, a hand drum traditionally used in south Indian music, his feet start tapping along of their own accord.
“Something about it, I don’t know what it is, it makes me want to dance,” Joseph told HuffPost.
But years ago, stereotypes about what boys should and shouldn’t do pushed Joseph precariously close to quitting Indian classical dance altogether.
Joseph is a Bharatanatyam dancer, practicing a style of dance that originated in India’s Tamil Nadu region centuries ago. Bharatanatyam dancers use their entire bodies to tell stories that are predominantly drawn from Hindu religious texts.
Bharatanatyam was originally practiced exclusively by female temple dancers as a form of worship. During performances, dancers dress like traditional Indian brides, wearing vibrant sari silks, pinning flowers to their hair and applying heavy layers of makeup. They’ll paint a red dye, called alta, on their hands and feet to accentuate their movements. They use their feet to tap out complex rhythms while their hand gestures and precise facial expressions convey a wide range of emotions.
Today, the dance is understood by Hindu communities to be an act of prayer and devotion to the gods ― a fact that drives Joseph, who was raised Catholic, to approach it with the solemnity and respect it demands.
As Indian immigrants migrated to the U.S., many brought along with them the idea that Bharatanatyam is a primarily feminine activity. It’s common for Indian American parents to send their daughters to Indian classical dance classes as a way to help the girls connect with their culture.
But it’s much rarer for Indian American boys to participate in the art form.
Male Bharatanatyam dancers, who have become more common in India in recent years, are also expected to don silks and makeup during performances. They wear gold jewelry, tie silk garments around their waists and wrap strings of bells around their ankles. They often use lipstick, blush, eyeliner, eye shadow, and eyebrow pencils to help emphasize their facial expressions.
There are no restrictions in Bharatanatyam about the roles that male or female dancers can take on, Joseph said. Each performer is essentially a blank canvas on which any character or story can be painted. That means that male dancers can be tasked with playing Devi, the sum of all manifestations of the mother goddess, while female dancers may portray the valiant and heroic Lord Rama.
“A dancer must do whatever is required of them to captivate their audience and help them see beyond the dancer and beyond the physical realm,” Joseph said. “Many times, a male dancer is responsible for portraying female characters and female dancers are responsible for portraying male characters, and only a skilled dancer is able to do it convincingly. It has nothing to do with gender or appearance.”
While the dance allows for this fluidity, social expectations about gender can be much more rigid. Bharatanatyam requires performers to be in touch with both their feminine and masculine sides, Joseph said ― which he suspects contributes to misunderstandings and makes it challenging for men who want to participate in the art form. He compared it to the challenges sometimes faced by male ballet dancers.
“There is a stigma regarding male Bharatanatyam dancers or male Indian classical dancers in general, because it is a very graceful art form,” Joseph said. “It requires a sense of subtlety.”
Joseph said that his parents had no hesitations about signing him up to study Bharatanatyam as a child. His father enrolled him in dance classes in New York before he turned five years old. Joseph’s training continued when he temporarily moved from the United States to his family’s home state of Kerala in India for five years.
Joseph said he doesn’t think he had a sense of what masculine and feminine gender norms were back then.
“Does any five or eight-year-old kid know? They just do what they want to do,” he said. “I just knew I liked it and that people enjoyed me doing it, so I did.”
But by the time his parents decided to move him back to the U.S. when he was 10 years old, Joseph said that his relationship to Bharatanatyam was starting to change. He had started to actually listen to snide comments people were making around him ― things like “isn’t this a girls’ dance?” or “Why is a boy doing this?”
And then there were parents who said they loved Bharatanatyam but were afraid to send their own sons to dance class “because it would make them gay” ― as if practicing a dance could alter a person’s sexuality.
Joseph said he knows now that these comments are “completely, obviously inaccurate.” But as a preteen, these words stung ― and he had a feeling the comments would be “10 times worse” in America.
So when his parents asked him if he wanted to continue studying Bharatanatyam when he moved back to the U.S., Joseph refused.
“I knew that my friends that I left behind here in America, they would see it as like feminine, girly, they would say all these things that as a preteen you don’t want to be called as a typical guy,” Joseph said. “So I told my parents I don’t want to do it, I want a fresh start and I want to let it go. I want to come here and just be that basic brown boy.”
“There is a stigma regarding male Bharatanatyam dancers or male Indian classical dancers in general, because it is a very graceful art form. It requires a sense of subtlety.”
For five years, Joseph said he threw himself into a kind of physical activity that was deemed socially appropriate for boys ― basketball. The sport is a popular and treasured pastime for Indian American youth in New York, complete with its own community-based leagues and tournaments. His two older brothers played the sport well, he said, and he thought he could follow in their footsteps.
One day, while practicing for a tournament, he said he remembers one of his friends remarking that he wasn’t as good as his brothers. Joseph said that’s when it hit him ― “Why am I trying to live up to anyone else but myself?” he remembers asking himself.
Around the same time, Joseph said he would see his friends who were girls go up on the stage at cultural events and competitions to perform Bharatanatyam. As he watched from the sidelines, he realized his love for the art form hadn’t faded away.
“Clearly, that’s where I want to be. I don’t want to be on the court playing basketball, I want to be on stage performing,” he said. “I want to wear the bells, I want to wear the makeup, I want to convey the stories that these girls are conveying, that my friends are conveying, and I want to be on stage with them.”
Joseph was 15 years old when he decided to study Bharatanatyam seriously again. He is proud of his art, performing regularly, organizing meetups in New York with other dancers, and sharing his passion with his followers on Instagram.
“If society thinks that wearing ankle bells, heavy stage makeup, and portraying female characters is feminine, then the act of male dancers making a conscious effort to ignore that nonsense and follow their passion should be appreciated and respected,” Joseph said.
However, there are still moments when a critical inner voice nags at him ― when he’s traveling to a photoshoot on the subway, for example, wearing heavy eyeliner, jewelry and carrying bells in hands.
But with the help of his supportive girlfriend, Joseph said he’s learned to push back against that inner critic. And once he is on stage, all those anxieties tend to slip away.
“Throughout my life, whether it’s living up to my parents’ expectations, doing well in school, pleasing those around me and just like making sure I get places on time, it’s just like life is full of obstacles and things you got to do,” Joseph said.
“Those few minute moments before going on stage, you’ll have the music starting to play. And I just feel all the doubts, all the concerns, everything is dissolved away, one by one, and all that matters is just being there,” he said. “[It’s] one of the few times in life where I’m actually present.”
Watch more of Jeeno Joseph’s story in the video above.