Telu Sravan Kumar, a 25-year-old Hyderabad man, is trying hard to blur the gender lines in a profession that has few takers among men from around the world. Sravan, with every move, is attempting to crush stereotypes associated with the magnificent art of belly dancing.
It wasn’t a cakewalk for Sravan to prove his mettle and match the nimble steps of his female counterparts with elegance and grace. From being jeered at as "hijra" and ridiculed for his female-dominated choice of art, Sravan has come a long way. He is now a member of Payal’s Dance Academy, one of the most well-known contemporary dance institutes in India today. He is a popular face among art circles in Hyderabad, and works extensively for the LGBTQI+ community in the city, apart from being an IT professional.
A native of Vijayawada, Sravan is also a folk dancer and has been passionate about the art since his childhood. He first came across belly dancing when he watched a video of famous belly dancer Meher Malik on YouTube.
“She was so graceful and I was totally in love with the dance form. I thought, “If she could do it, why can’t I?” I slowly started learning the dance by myself through her videos on YouTube. It was 2011 and I was then in college. It took me a while to realise that I wasn’t able to get proper body posture simply by learning through YouTube videos. That’s when I decided that I should join a proper institute, but to get admitted into one wasn’t an easy task,” Sravan recounts.
‘People don’t judge classical dancers’
“Belly dancing is a woman’s forte, after all why should a man bare his torso and dance before an audience?”
Though Sravan’s parents, friends and colleagues were proud of his choice, the dancer says that the first time he performed before an audience in Vijayawada, it was too difficult for the crowd to digest the fact that a man can sway his hips and move his belly just like a woman.
“People asked, why couldn’t I do something classical, or why not just stick to folk dance. But I was adamant,” says Sravan, adding, “If men performing classical dance could elicit respect, why can a belly dancer not receive the same?”
After performances in college, he would be ridiculed, called gay by other men on campus and touched inappropriately, he recalls.
“They would ask me not to dress up like a woman and advise me to ‘man up’. People used to taunt me for playing female characters in dance performances and suggest sex reassignment surgeries. And I really struggled to rise above all the negativity and mockery. It was difficult to explain my choice of art initially to my mother, but she slowly understood as she was also a folk dancer. We sat together and started watching belly dance videos. She made sure criticisms never came in the way of my passion. She encouraged and supported me, and after a point of time even I realised that belly dance is an art. It was up to the people to accept me as a dancer or ridicule me for my choice of profession,” Sravan narrates.
Acceptance from the LGBTQI+ community
It was during a workshop conducted by dancer Meher Malik in Hyderabad that Sravan met another male belly dancer, Shivang from Pune.
“I was really relived and happy to have met Shivang. We were the only men among a batch of 50 during the workshop. And Meher was more surprised to see a south Indian man performing belly dance. Though she considered it very normal for males to perform belly dance, I struggled hard for three months to get accepted into the Payal Dance Academy, where I am presently the only male belly dancer training in the institute,” Sravan says.
It was during Sravan’s tireless toil to find acceptance that he began performing for the LGBTQI+ community. “I could dance my heart out in front of them. They never judged me nor made fun of my choice. It was like I had found a whole new universe where I wasn’t ridiculed for my passion. I am deeply connected with the community today, people who are subjected to much more obnoxious stereotypes in society than I ever was,” he says.
Blurring gender divide
Sravan says that belly dance breaks many stereotypes, the first being that fat people cannot be good dancers.
“It lets you accept your body as it is, and more importantly, belly dancing doesn’t require you to have a flat belly or a perfect body. The dance isn’t about shaking your hips, but more about expressing yourself and flaunting your skills,” he says, adding, “For many, male belly dancers aren’t considered sensuous enough. But after a point of time, the dance brings sensuality irrespective of gender. And that’s the beauty of any art form that lets you perform without bringing your gender in between.”