x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dancing queen: Sharmila Kamte

Ahead of Sharmila's Dance Extravaganza at the weekend, we meet the eponymous dance instructor.

Rehearsing for their performance: men and women from more than 20 countries ranging in age by 25 years prepare for Sharmila's Dance Extravaganza.
Rehearsing for their performance: men and women from more than 20 countries ranging in age by 25 years prepare for Sharmila's Dance Extravaganza.

It's 6.45pm and dance students are filing in to the mirrored studio for their Saturday class, clad in tracksuits and Lycra, bending and stretching to prepare for another gruelling session. The big show is drawing near and a rehearsal for the top dancers is drawing to a close. The rest of the students watch quietly, wondering if they'll ever be as good as the 10 leaping and twirling in a frenzy of fizzing energy, looks of intense concentration on their faces. They are superb.

Yet all eyes are instinctively drawn to the slender figure putting them through their paces. Sharmila Kamte is a millisecond faster and more controlled in her moves, her supple limbs more flexible, her technique more secure and her energy more vibrant. Even in practice she throws herself into the routines, all flashing teeth and tossing hair: this is a dancer. "She's awesome," says one student and others nod in agreement. "It's the reason you want to be in her classes. Most dance teachers just stand up front and tell you what to do. She can do the moves better than anyone."

Kamte's dance classes at the Chaloub Studio in the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) are full and it's usually standing room only at her annual shows. She started teaching dance in Dubai eight years ago and now has 600 students and a semi-professional dance troupe that performs internationally. Her pupils come from more than 20 different countries and range from seven years old to over 30. Most of them are women, but Kamte teaches 25 young men too. Some are better than others but they are all united in a love of movement and rhythm and a determination to dance.

Being a pupil of Kamte is not easy. She has a reputation for being something of a slave-driver and is merciless with the slackers at the back of the class attempting to hide the fact that they're lacking energy. Though it is good-humoured, there is a distinct emphasis on getting the best out of the students. She strides around the class, patting a stomach here, turning a head there, always alert and urging her students on. She has no time for youngsters who aren't interested in dance and are enrolled by mothers anxious to turn their little ducklings into swans.

"Mothers come in with their slightly overweight daughters and I say 'Don't put them in a dance class to lose weight because if that's the reason, they won't want to do it.' They've got to love to dance and if you do love dance, the weight loss will happen naturally because the muscle structure will change," says the 38-year-old from New Delhi. Kamte's love of dancing started early. She was encouraged by her mother who loved show business and popular music and always had the songs of James Brown and Tina Turner playing in their home. Sharmila was named after the Bollywood actress Sharmila Tagore. Kamte's parents divorced when she was seven and she was close to her older brother Ashok, a brilliant athlete who introduced his little sister to the world of athletics.

"I loved to move to the music and was always dancing around the house doing impressions of the stars, but my brother was a great influence on me. He excelled at everything and pushed me to be competitive. One year he just said to me: 'Come on, you are going to run.' So I started to do athletics and took part in the long jump, 100 metres and 200 metres. When I eventually took up dancing I was able to leap higher than everyone else because of this."

Tragically Ashok, a police commissioner in Mumbai, was shot and killed in the terrorists attacks in 2008. Kamte has choreographed a special dance in her brother's memory for this year's show. Although she represented Delhi in national athletics competitions, Kamte's heart was always in dancing. After attending a private boarding school in Kodaikanal, near Chennai and the British School, New Delhi, she was enrolled at the Anna Pavlova Dance school at the Russian Cultural Centre, at the suggestion of a friend of her mother. "I didn't learn very much there, though. Every few months there were new students coming in and we never really progressed. When I went to England I was behind."

Kamte then went to the renowned Legat School of Classical Ballet in England, and it was a revelation for her as she plunged into the intensive training. "To begin with I was the worst student the school had ever seen. I was physically very flexible, musically talented but my training was zero and I was well behind the others. I was very lucky to get in. I really tried hard and so did my teachers. The good thing was that I was a blank canvas and I was naturally able to do it, although I never had the perfect feet. But I was very happy and managed to catch up in two or three years."

She went on to do her teacher training advanced exam in classical ballet, contemporary dance, singing and choreography. Before she could work in London, however, she needed a card from Equity, the performers' union that would enable her to work in musical theatre. In order to get this, she needed performing experience, which didn't always turn out the way she expected. "I did an audition for a show in Greece and was rather surprised I got it so easily. When I arrived in Thessalonika, rehearsals were starting in half an hour and this woman started pulling jewelled G-strings out of a suitcase. Needless to say I was on the next flight back to London," she laughs.

There were other more successful auditions, including one for the prestigious West End show Cats, the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot. "I auditioned three times for Cats and got in on the third attempt, but by then I had decided that being in a long-running show wasn't what I wanted to do." So she went back to Delhi and worked as a model earning "easy money". She did some television advertisements including one for the well-known soft drink Thums Up! She then met and married an investment banker and moved to the Gulf, first to Bahrain and later to Dubai, but the marriage ended in divorce after seven years.

When she arrived in Dubai, Kamte joined a dance class. "The teacher was good, but she said they didn't do new routines because nobody ever comes back. "Eventually, the dance teacher got pregnant and returned to the UK and two days later I started my own class at the Jumeirah Beach Club. Two or three of the women from the previous class joined up. They told friends and soon we had a full class. The studio had a huge window and people would walk by and look in and word soon spread."

She also started a class for children at the Ballet Centre and was soon asked to choreograph some dances for the Dubai Shopping Festival. Kamte teaches the Russian system of ballet in an open class. She doesn't believe in putting her students through exams because she thinks they give an unrealistic picture of a child's potential. She explains: "I'm not keen on exams because they give false hopes to a child. They might dream of becoming a dancer because they get good marks, rather than dreaming of becoming a dance teacher, which would be more appropriate. Parents like their children to do exams and hence the schools push it. And, of course, it brings in extra revenue."

Kamte also teaches a combination of street jazz, hip-hop and contemporary dance - "throwing in the occasional crazy Bollywood number". You don't have to be a dancer to join the classes, but a basic sense of rhythm and fitness is wise. Each class starts with stretches, corner works and the last 20 minutes are spent learning a routine that changes every few weeks. Even sitting at the edge of the room watching the dancers is exhausting, but Kamte is insistent that she needs to build up the students' muscle tone before she can turn them into dancers.

She is straightforward and honest with her students and sometimes has to tell them that they are unlikely ever to perform in public. "Some people make wonderful teachers but you know they will never be performers," she says. Occasionally she has to use her considerable tact to tell a besotted mother why her child isn't doing as many dances as another child. "I have to find a way of telling them that the child just isn't good enough."

The dance school moved to Ductac at the Mall of the Emirates when the centre opened four years ago. "One advantage of moving there at the start was that I could say what we needed for a proper dance studio. I was able to tell them where to put the mirrors. What I love about it is that it's open to everyone and not just wealthy, middle-class people." Kamte, helped by her Scottish assistant Emma Hayes, teaches 12 hours a week, plus rehearsals for the show and summer workshops.

The idea for Sharmila's Dance Company came about three years ago when Kamte realised she had a handful of excellent students who wanted to take their dancing to another level. "Now we have 15 of them who are good enough to perform in public and I draw on a few men from outside to help with performances. I really believe in showmanship and think that all dance teachers should do a show so that people can see what they are capable of. Some of my teenagers really got it so I started including them in the shows. We have travelled to Morocco and France."

Kamte is protective of her young students, and they often turn to her for support. One of them said: "I've been with her for eight years. It's a bit like a big family and you can ask her anything." She is careful to avoid a repeat of her Greek experience and turns down many requests for her dancers. "The other day my assistant Emma picked up the phone and it was someone asking if we have dancers who would dance in a cage at a private party. She said 'Absolutely not.'"

When she first put on shows, Kamte would choreograph her top dancers separately but now she makes sure that several of them are in every dance number in order to help the less experienced dancers. This year's shows are already almost sold out. They will feature 190 amateur and professional students from Sharmila's Dance Academy, plus several guest artists. Although at 38 years of age Sharmila herself does not often perform, she takes centre stage for the finale in front of 2,000 people.

She has choreographed 24 dances including a cowboy number, a bit of Bollywood, some hip-hop and a routine symbolising nations in harmony. Some of the performing dancers have only been with Kamte for six months, others for years. All of them share her incredible enthusiasm and energy and if the rehearsal was anything to go by, the show will be dynamic. "Dance has always been such a big part of my life. It's something that I really love and maybe that's what makes me slightly different from some other teachers. When you are so passionate about something, it feeds through to your pupils. I teach because I know it makes me feel good at a time when I wouldn't normally feel good. You get into the studio and you forget everything, all your problems are gone."

Sharmila's Dance Extravaganza performances are on Friday at 7.30pm and Saturday at 2.30pm and 7.30pm at Centrepoint Theatre in Ductac, Mall of the Emirates. For more information visit www.ductac.org