With pained flamboyance, a performer with Down syndrome walks on to the stage and mimes the monologue of a song with frantic hand gestures and vivid expressions. He didn't always feel at home in the spotlight, though. To the contrary, he was terrified of it. His co-performers wheel themselves onto the stage to join him, grace and urgency galore, as they make beautiful formations with the resilience of their upper bodies. These dancers have come a long way from underestimating the might of their bodies to now exploring their real limits.
This was possible because one man truly believed that dance isn't just entertainment, it is expression; that it isn't simply therapeutic, it is healing. Here's a side of Shiamak Davar's life few know.
When he started teaching dance 30 years ago, his students would span all age groups and walks of life, but the number of children with special needs who would sign up was conspicuously low. The ones who did, though, definitely underwent a transformation over a period of time. Recalls Shiamak,
“A girl with polio actually felt slight movement through dance. Many parents actually started feeling a considerable change in personality of their kids. This is when I realised that dance has the power to heal, that it is therapeutic.”
In November 2001, Shiamak's dance academy along with the Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT) entered into a partnership to implement Dancing Feat (DF) funded by FHI (Family Health International) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). With one goal — to enhance the ability of vulnerable children to respond effectively to situations that place them at risk of HIV/AIDS — Dancing Feat adopted a unique child-friendly strategy. "We combined popular dance forms along with group counselling and life skills education," explains Shiamak.
As this project found its feet and bore results, the Victory Arts Foundation was established in March 2004 to share the joy of dance with not only children at risk but also with individuals from other disadvantaged backgrounds.
Under this programme, Shiamak's instructors visit various NGOs and institutions across the country, unleashing the power of dance as therapy upon students who need a boost in their confidence and a beautiful form of self-expression.
Victory’s dance classes takes the power of dance therapy to NGOs working with a wide section of underprivileged groups across India, while the Dance for Good (D4G) programme involves volunteer dancers putting on inspiring and entertaining performances for people in old age homes, NGOs, hospitals, and other institutions that could use a little cheer.
Finally, their Victory Dance Team trains and assembles a team of the most sublime dancers, who may otherwise face various psycho-social, physical, logistical, and financial barriers to their goals in dance. Members of the Victory Dance Team, talented individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, are provided with the training, performance platforms, and opportunities to make a career out of dancing to support their ongoing livelihood.
These teams are of two categories. One consists of physically able individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, and some hearing-impaired patrons. The Victory on Wheels (VOW) team, on the other hand, is a mixed group of individuals with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and those affected with polio, on crutches/calipers, and those who are wheelchair bound.
Shiamak's goals were noble and powerful, but gathering this army was no mean feat. "Dance is looked down upon because the power of dance to heal, empower, and support is not understood by all," he recalls. However, Shiamak's passion for the medium found its way, and gradually, his grand intentions spoke for him. The Victory Team grew from strength to strength, and their shows unmistakably bore the Shiamak mark of excellence.
“Every time I taught them is a memory,” he says, adding, “To see them on stage, you forget they are in wheelchairs or with crutches; you literally see their spirit fly!”
Organisations like Tata Memorial Hospital and the Dignity Foundation have approached them to put up performances.
Victory has touched the lives of over 20,000 individuals across 350 NGOs in 13 cities in India since it started, and they're covering more and more ground as they grow older. “There have been so many success stories — in fact, some students from my dance company now support their family with a full-time career in dance, and some have been parts of big musical productions as well. Watching the students from Victory makes you feel so grateful, and yet, so humbled,” he says.
The support, Shiamak says, has been overwhelming, and has acted as the biggest driving force when the going got tough.
“Love and encouragement have been flowing from family and friends, rickshaw drivers, commercial sex workers, the biggest corporate names, and especially from my students, people who experience watching Victory Dance Teams in action.”
One of their most jaw-dropping performances came at the International Customs Day Show recently, and they are now gearing up for a special showcase of the Victory Dance Teams and NGOs/institutes in Mumbai, called the Victory Presentation.