A male Belly Dancer's passionate struggle against all odds
24-year-old Eshan Hilal is a professional belly dancer, or how he is often called as a 'male' belly dancer. A tag he wants to shed Photograph: (WION)
“Is this the way to Eshan Hilal’s house?”, I ask two teenagers perched on a balcony in a narrow street of East Delhi.
“The belly dancer?” comes a reply laced with sarcasm, followed by laughter.
Two other people I stop for directions also snigger at me before I find myself sitting in a small room on the roof of a house, on the hot Thursday afternoon.
24-year-old Eshan Hilal is like any other young Pathan man-- tall, lean and sharp-featured-- but his profession and his gender fluid dressing sets him apart in many ways, to the point of being called “feminine” by some and a “Kafir” by some others.
Eshan is a belly dancer or how people usually put it, a male belly dancer. A tag he doesn’t want for himself.
Adorned in oxidised silver jewellery, a flowy black skirt and a kurta rolled up to expose his belly, Eshan steps out of his room in the sweltering heat to practice for the auditions of an upcoming dance reality show.
He isolates his body movements and sways with the music. Nothing looks “feminine” about his dance. His belly dance, however, seems to be on point.
His turns are sharp and his eyes focussed, deep and expressive.
As we sit to talk, he pulls out a bunch of photos of Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit. Someone who has inspired scores of girls in India to dance. She inspired Eshan too. In fact, one cannot miss the glimpses of her style in Eshan’s belly dance.
“Dance is something which I started doing from my childhood. I started learning Kathak because I was a huge fan of Madhuri Dixit. I was so much into Kathak, travelling, performing and doing events but there was a void space,” he says.
He was talking about freedom of movement, and above all, he was looking for the freedom within to accept his interests.
“In Kathak, you can’t move your hips, it is called Badtamaeezi. I came across a lot of male belly dancer videos on YouTube and fell in love with the dance form,” he says.
But the road to becoming a professional belly dancer was not easy. Eshan comes from an orthodox Muslim family, where dancing is not a fitting profession, especially for a man.
“My parents say dancing is a Taboo in my religion. It is Haram. They never stopped me as a kid thinking I’ll give up dance when I grow up. They thought I would realise how girlish dancing was. But when I told them I wanted to be a choreographer, they asked me to quit.”
For about eight months now his parents and younger siblings--a brother and two sisters--haven’t been talking to him. They live in the same house but Eshan has a separate portion for himself.
“My father says dancing belongs to a category where you entertain people. We don’t entertain, we get entertained.” Eshan says.
When I meet his father, Eshan stands outside on the steps of his part of the house, listening to our conversation.
“Dancing is dirty. Our religion doesn’t allow it. It is Haram. Even a rupee that he earns through dancing is Haram for us. We will never support him.” Mohammad Hilal (50) says.
Back in their village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, family members taunt Eshan’s parents saying his son has become a “nachaniya”, a derogatory term used for female dancers. This doesn’t go down well with Mohammad.
“I have tried telling them that there is nothing feminine about it.Your body is moving to a sort of music. How can you call this feminine? There are no gender roles in art forms. No such published book that says that. Since childhood, I have been listening to these things. Don’t cross your legs and sit because girls do that. Don’t use so much of your hands while talking because girls do that. There was a constant comparison between me and my brother. He was the normal one and I, an abnormal. I never understood that. Belly Dance gave me solace from these things.” Eshan says.
His struggle to separate his gender from his dance is not just limited to family, friends and the society. Even in his world of escape, there are stereotypes he has had to fight.
Belly Dancing in India is still not considered a proper art form. Many call it vulgar. And it is mostly associated only with women.
“People are quite uninformed about belly dance here in India. When women perform belly dance they are labelled by some people as characterless. In the case of a man, people question his sexuality. Just because I am a belly dancer, people call me queer and gay. I don’t understand how the choice of a dance form that I perform defines my sexuality. If I was doing hip hop or some other dance form that is considered masculine. The scenario would be different.” he says.
This was perhaps one of the reasons why dance schools in India were not ready to teach Eshan Belly dance. He says he approached a famous school for five years till they were finally ready to take him in.
“I tracked so many schools in Delhi and Mumbai. So many popular dance schools outrightly refused to take me in. They said they don't teach belly dance to men.” He says.
Many male belly dancers here take to cross-dressing. Eshan says this practice further fuels the gender stereotypes.
“Often people ask me why don't macho and masculine men opt for belly dancing. They do. If you see al these American, Egyptian and Chinese belly dancers they are so masculine and macho. They are married and have kids and they are belly dancers. And they wear those proper male sharky costumes.” he says. “There are so many boys in India who cross-dress. They wear fake wigs and bralettes and they dress up like women and perform in public spaces and call themselves male belly dancers. Which is absolutely wrong and leaves a wrong impression of the art that belly dance is.”
Over the years Eshan has learnt to not let prejudices impact his interests. Fashion designing is one of his hobbies. He likes designing clothes that are gender fluid, a form of dressing he himself has embraced. He started wearing heels designed for men when he was 20, became androgynous in his dressing and belly dancing he says gave him liberty.
“Since childhood, I was a very spineless sort of a guy. Very perplexed. I thought I have some issues in me and that’s why my parents scold me and the society teases me. I always thought I was wrong and they were right but I explored myself through this dance form and realised there is nothing wrong with me. It's just the perception of the people who can’t take different things.” he says.
Eshan now earns a living by teaching kids belly dance and occasionally doing wedding choreography. He now looks forward to making a name in the world of belly dance. He says the only dream that now remains is winning the love and support of his parents.
“My only achievement will be when my family accepts me for who I am publicly and proudly says he is our son. He is a belly dancer.”