Moonwalking The Plank: The Lifecycle Of A Background Dancer

During the many dance sequences in commercial Tamil cinema, when the camera takes a break from the star, it pans to those dancing around him, backing his steps… creating a ‘movement’ that might rock dance floors that year. The dancers are all smiles even when they know the camera will rest on them for just a microsecond. Besides the stars, we know the names of the lyricists, the music directors and even the choreographers of our favourite songs, but not the name of even one dancer who forms a part of these songs we might have watched a thousand times.

Today, it has become commonplace to go back to older songs, only to pause to see how a group dancer has grown to become an actor or a choreographer.

But, this rags-to-riches narrative is hardly a reality.  “No one becomes a background dancer out of their passion for dance,” says Mukesh, a second generation Chennai-based background dancer for over 20 years, who requested anonymity. “In the case of women, this is even worse. They come into the field only because of extreme financial hardship,” he adds.

He emphasises on the hardship, because that’s the sort of social stigma that’s associated with background dancers. Apart from how difficult the job itself is, the decision to become a female background dancer also involves sacrificing many things, the first of which is ‘reputation’.

But that’s only if one can even get a membership card at the Cine and TV Dancers and Dance Directors’ Association (popularly known as Dancers’ Union). At present, the annual intake into the Union is limited to just five new members. There have been periods when it did not absorb new members for years together. The selection process is based on a series of auditions to test the dancer’s versatility in various dance forms. “But, more than that, it’s to see how quickly one can pick up new steps, because that’s the nature of the song shoot,” he adds.

Five might seem like a small number, but even these new entrants find it hard to get work, given that only 10 percent of the members are actively employed. And the main reason why a dancer finds it so hard to make this a full-time profession is the dwindling number of ‘choreographed songs’ in films. “Nowadays, directors prefer montages. Most younger directors look at songs as mere compromises, and focus only on the film’s content. So, if a new member gets a chance in a song now, it’s only because youngsters are preferred; the older ones get edged out in the process.”

Dirty Dancing 

The challenges, though, only really begin once dancers make it to the sets of a song shoot. “The crowds that come to see the shoots are often notorious for the way they heckle, tease and harass female dancers. They become easy targets, especially when shoots are arranged in remote locations.”

Unlike stars, background dancers are not given trailers or vanity vans to change into costumes. Fearing this, most background dancers prefer conservative clothing. “This is the main reason why they lose opportunities to dancers from Mumbai, who are more comfortable with the costumes they are given. You might end up paying these dancers three times as much, including their travel and stay, but producers don’t mind this because you can see it on screen.”

This heckling and shaming has now seeped into the online space too. “Earlier, these women, including some from my family, accepted this profession because it still provided a certain level of anonymity. With films now being available on phones and social media, we’ve seen cases where a dancer’s screenshots are taken from a film and used to shame them online.”

On certain sets, a dancer’s complexion and age matter more than talent. Fairer, younger dancers are made to stand closest to the stars. The average song shoot can also be extremely tiring, with 8 to 12 hours of continuous dancing. “But the nature of the job is such that you have to make the most when you’re getting films. Which means ignoring seemingly minor physical injuries, only for them to develop into chronic conditions,” says Mukesh, citing his own worn-out knee.

The Union-decided wages for background dancers are set at Rs. 7,000 for three days. However, active dancers often get work for less than 10 days a month. “All this means that it’s impossible to survive just through dancing,” adds Mukesh. These circumstances make it even harder for them to find prospective brides and grooms, who are already unwilling to come forward, given the stigma. It is also difficult for them to get houses on rent, given the odd and seasonal nature of their work. “The best thing for us is to marry a fellow-dancer, because we understand our profession well. This is why such marriages are common.”

Step Up

So, how does one really plan for the future in such a fragile environment? The ideal scenario is to work long enough,  graduate into choreographers, and try to land their own films. “But, in reality, that is seldom the case. The second a dancer choreographs for a film, even if it’s an insignificant one, they will not be allowed to continue as background dancers. Few people can afford to take this risk, because there’s a cooling off period before you can become a dancer again. For women, this makes it even more risky to take the plunge,” says Mukesh.

To top it all, there’s always the spectre of exploitation that’s still prevalent in certain sections of the industry. “It might have gotten better now, but aspiring female choreographers too face a form of ‘casting couch’ if they are to be given the opportunity to work on films independently.”

Save The Last Dance

A safer option, then, is to start a dance school. Dancers use pictures clicked with stars during song shoots to build credibility to attract students to their dance schools. That is, if one can afford to invest in a school in the first place. “Most people prefer to supplement their dance income by doing odd jobs. For men, this has now become jobs at Swiggy or Uber. Women mostly work as assistants in shops, or take up jobs where the timings are flexible.”

Even so, unless they manage to transition into full-fledged choreographers, a career as a background dancer is viable only until artistes hit their early thirties. “With songs such as ‘Verithanam’ requiring people of all ages, men can somehow manage to find work till their 40s. But women can work as dancers for just 8 to 10 years. Yet, the damage, both physical and emotional, caused in this short period, lasts their entire lifetime.”

(With inputs by Ashutosh Mohan)

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