Saturday, January 11, 2003
A G A I N S T  A L L  O D D S

She can’t shake a leg but teaches dance
Sanjay Austa

Choreographer Ritu Rawal conducting dance classes at her house in Delhi
Choreographer Ritu Rawal conducting dance classes at her house in Delhi — Photo Subhash Bhardwaj

EVER since the age of three when she contracted brain fever and was paralysed from waist down, Ritu Rawal had people deciding for her the things she could do and things she could just about manage. So when she expressed her long-cherished dream of becoming a cop, it was summarily dismissed by all and sundry. She could not pass the physical rigours of the job, it was generally concurred. Next when she applied to study for criminal law, the idea was rejected on the grounds that she was a handicapped person. She pleaded that law did not require legs but brain, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. This made Ritu swear to herself she would not only take up a profession where legs were required but also excel in it.

Today, Ritu Rawal, 31, is well ensconced in a field where shaking a leg means everything. She is one of the best dance choreographers in New Delhi, with over 1500 stage shows to her credit. She even has a trained dance troupe — Thunderballs — which participates in dance programmes like road shows and video-album recordings of singers like Richa Sharma, Daler Mehndi, Jassi, Jaspinder Narula, Mikka and Abhijit.

"Thunderballs is the only dance troupe which can perform a large variety of dances, including fire dance, jungle dance, etc," she says.


So how does she teach dance to others when she can barely step out of her wheelchair herself? There were no short-cuts, of course, she says. The road to success was rough and bumpy. But Ritu had her formidable tools of fortitude, perseverance and grit to see her through. I have been fascinated by dance since childhood. I loved watching movie-stars dancing in movies and would make notes on their dance moves. I have never danced in my life but I like to see other people dance," she says. Ritu would frequent discotheques and enjoy watching others from her wheelchair.

Trained at the Indian Institute of Fashion Design (IIFD), Ritu made friends from the world of glamour and modelling. When these friends would dance she would often suggest dance movements she had remembered from her endless hours of observation. "They danced according to my suggestions and discovered that these dance moves were innovative," she remarks. Soon these friends made a small group of female and male dancers who began to dance to her tune regularly. Encouraged by the response to her dance directions, she formed a full-fledged dance troupe — Thunderballs — in 1996. "Since I could not dance myself, initially, I experienced difficulty teaching the movements. I would make cumbersome diagrams on a piece of paper to explain," she says. However with time the dancers were able to pick up her directions. She has names for each dance step like Mithun-step, Jackie-step, wing-step, etc. With time her dancers were able to pick up her directions. Today Thunderballs comprises about 25 male and female dancers, all personally trained by Ritu herself. Besides teaching dance, she trains models in all the niceties of walking the ramp and choreographs fashion shows. She coordinates for over 1000 models in Delhi. Five days a week, she teaches dance in a hall, which she has named ‘torture chamber,’ in her house in East Delhi. Known to be a hard taskmaster, Ritu makes her dancers practise for over 10 hours at a stretch when they have to be readied for a new dance show or video-recording.Her hands are always full, for she is generally booked to choreograph one dance show or the other. On December 31, 2002, she choreographed six different shows.

Fond of her students, she lovingly addresses them as her children even though some of them are only a few years younger than her. She arranges impromptu picnics for them, treats them to dinners in fancy restaurants, or simply calls them up to ask how they are faring in life.

"She gives lots of love and attention to all of us, and does not chide us like other choreographers," says Manoj, an old member of Thunderballs. According to him, it is much easier for dancers to get work after they have done a course with Ritu Rawal than with the other choreographers.

Singers too are charmed by Ritu’s choreography and dedication. She is not only their favourite choreographer but also a good friend. As for Ritu, it is Richa Sharma she likes to work best with.

Ritu Rawal has also made a television serial which has been shot in her house. She would like to venture into serial-making only if she has time to spare from choreography.

Ritu is the only child of her parents. In the beginning they were devastated by her physical condition but with time they learnt to accept it. Now Ritu’s work engulfs the entire household. Her parents are very proud of their girl and step in to manage her bookings, her dates, and her elaborate file work.

However despite her success in choreography, Ritu still has regrets that she could not become a cop or a criminal lawyer. She, however, feels that people’s attitude towards the disabled is changing. "I used to get a lot of comments from passers-by, especially women, who would say, ‘bechari she is so beautiful but crippled.’ But now I hardly get to hear such comments and people are helpful."

Also glad about Delhi Metro catering to the disabled, she plans to take a joy ride in it with her dance troupe soon.