A year or so ago I received a phone call and email from a woman who wanted me to teach her bollywood dance. She wanted to show me some of her favourite bollywood movies and asked if I could then teach her the moves she wanted to learn.  It was an interesting question, and I probably could have done it. I could have studied some bollywood moves on TV and broken them down using my knowledge of movement, kinetics, and the bits & pieces of Indian dance I’ve done. Maybe I would do that, fooling around in the living room by myself or with a friend. But I wouldn’t be accurate. I would be imitating a 2-dimensional image. I wouldn’t know that a movement was led from wrist and not the elbow. I wouldn’t know that the weight should be on the heel and not the instep. I wouldn’t know how much weight to put in the free foot, and whether the pelvis should be tucked or relaxed. I wouldn’t know the meaning of the hand mudras, nor the story behind certain facial expressions. And therefore, I could NEVER take that imitation and teach it to anybody, nor could I perform it. That would be unprofessional and irresponsible. Irresponsible? Yes – to the student and audience who assumes that I, as a professional have obtained a level of mastery in what I am presenting, to the people of India to whom the dance form belongs and to the dance form itself (which has inherent integrity).

Nothing picks my butt more than someone imitating ethnic moves from this or that culture and then teaching or performing it with no thought or respect to executing the move correctly, nor to its origins. So no way would I pretend to teach an ethnic dance form whose movements I did not deeply understand and master.

But I thought it was cool that she called me. It gave me pause to think about my own ethics and feelings around cultural dance forms. Anyway, here is my response to her. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you learn something!

Dear –

In my dance travels I have taken one bollywood dance class, one Kathak dance workshop and one Bharatanatyam workshop where I learned some of the hand mudras. So my experience is very limited. Because of my limited experience, I have spent a couple of days doing some research to learn more about it to help me answer your question around why I (as a bellydance teacher) cannot teach you bollywood dance.

I study and teach bellydance, which is Egyptian cultural dance. Bellydance has its own specific movement vocabulary. It involves isolations and undulations of torso, hips and arms. There are no large movements of the arms and legs. Movements are very centered and core-intensive. There is a lot of isolated use of the hips. There is very little travel, footwork is very simple, and there is no jumping or leaping. Arms are quiet or move slowly, are never percussive and are used mainly to frame the movements of the hips & torso. Hands are graceful but do not tell a story.

Like bellydance, most people do not know what exactly bollywood dance is. Bollywood dance is a modern Indian fusion of two cultures: Western dance styles (mainly Hip Hop, Jazz & Salsa) fused with East Indian Classical, Folk, and Bhangra dancing. Foot patterns are complicated and precise. There is a lot of aerobic jumping, bouncing, knee lift and leg action. Arms can be either percussive or soft, with percussive and large arm movements being more common. There are very specific hand gestures in bollywood dance that originate from classical Indian dance such as Bharatanayuam and Kathak and have actual story-telling (translatable) meanings. Watching bollywood dancers, it is easy to see the hip-hop and jazz influences in the style.

None of these bollywood dance elements are found in Egyptian bellydance. There are times when a bollywood dancer may appear to be doing something similar to bellydance on the surface (such as a hip lift, torso or arm undulation), but at the same time she will be holding her body in a certain way or using her hands in a way that is very different from bellydance, and the movement may be produced differently (i.e. generated from the foot rather than out of the hip.)  

Given the extreme differences in the dance styles, my lack of experience with bollywood dance and my firm believe in respecting and honoring the dance forms of other cultures, it would be unprofessional of me to attempt to teach it to you. I am a professional instructor who is dedicated to sharing my love of Egyptian dance with anyone who wants to learn, and I would be very happy to have you in my beginner bellydance class in this capacity (bellydance student). Since you are anxious to work with the bollywood movies you have for the choreography styling, I recommend that you also take adult hip hop and jazz dance classes. This way you would learn isolations, torso, hip & soft arm movements from Egyptian bellydance, percussive arm & leg movements from hip-hop, and some floor patterns & footwork from jazz dance. If you are travelling outside for a business or holiday you could take a private bollywood lesson in a bollywood dance studio while away to help you put it all together.


  1. It’s so interesting learning about bellydance through your blog, Nita, even if I’m not (yet!) taking any classes to actually learn the movements. I think I’ve mostly thought of dance as a form of entertainment and art, either to participate in or to watch, but have not considered it from a cultural or storytelling perspective. I had no idea of the subtleties, such as having your weight on your instep vs. your heel. I can see and appreciate the beauty of the form, but like any art, the more you learn, the more you can see and the more you can appreciate. Thank you!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!