Guwahati’s Ashweeni Phukan is an emerging star in the world of belly dancing. An ardent lover of dance and music since her childhood, Ashweeni is a trained Sattriya dancer who gradually shifted her focus towards modern dancing.
"I am a trained Sattriya dancer and I wanted to explore more, but I did not know what was next," says Ashweeni.
"I enrolled in Shiamak Winter Funk classes and I enjoyed my first western dance form. Slowly my desire to learn ballet grew and I found a reputed platform to train myself," she recalls.
"I joined Inara School of Performing Arts and began learning belly dancing under Shruti Kulkarni madam. After a few months I realised that my love for belly dance overtook the other dance forms," says Ashweeni.
"Simultaneously, I joined Richard David Tholoor Dance Project for salsa classes," she adds quickly.
"And this made me determined to pursue more and master the dance form to the completeness," she further says.
Right from her childhood, Ashweeni has been a fun-loving person- something that is like a second skin to her.
"Deta (Father) was lenient to me, whereas Maa (Mother) was strict to each one of the siblings so that we learn the survival skills," says Ashweeni recalling her childhood.
"I was the youngest among the three siblings and also the most pampered one," she further says.
When the boredom bug bit her, it was music that relaxed her and brought her out of it.
"I danced to the rhythm whenever I was bored," she says.
"Since childhood, I love music and dance and I feel fortunate that my parents gave me the platform to explore more," she says.
"My parents strongly believed in all work no play makes Jack a dull boy," says Ashweeni while sharing about the beginning of her tryst with formal dancing.
To keep the three children engaged, Ashweeni’s parents enrolled them in various curriculum activity classes like dance, singing and art.
She was in Class III when Ashweeni performed for the first time in school.
"I tapped my feet to the song Kaise Aankh Milao by Falguni Pathak. I was praised for my performance and this, kind of, made me more inclined towards performing arts," recalls Ashweeni.
Even though belly dance is still the least explored dance form in the Northeast, it, however, was not an issue for Ashweeni’s parents when she expressed her desire to learn the dance form.
"There is no harm in learning new things that’s what we believe in," she says.
"Belly dancing is indeed the least explored dance form in the Northeast, but there are YouTubers and Tik Tokers who have been performing incredibly," adds Ashweeni.
"But I am sure people will start learning if they get the opportunity and know that it is beneficial to various women related issues," she further shares.
Ashweeni has not just kept herself confined in learning the dance form and exploring it all by her own as presently she is teaching dance in one of the reputed NGOs that helps underprivileged children to learn various survival skills.
"I call them my little stars. I feel glad that I am teaching what I love and I am happy with the simple things that I am doing," she quickly adds on.
It is often said that belly dance in India is still at its nascent stage, even though it has had an Indian presence of over centuries.
In Bollywood movies, belly dancing has often found a prominent presence, but even so, it has not been a popular dance form that someone learns in a dancing school.
"I guess many people came to know about belly dancing when Shakira’s Whenever Wherever and Hips Don’t Lie released and became popular," says Ashweeni.
She further says that over the years there has been a gradual increase in the number of people practising and learning belly dancing.
Speaking about belly dancing in Bollywood movies, she says, "Belly Dancing in Bollywood movies has always been a form of fusion."
"Earlier you got to see more hip thrust movements in the movies as belly dance in India was gradually evolving. So they fused some of the belly dance moves with the Bollywood style dance moves," she says.
"People fuse belly dance with Kathak and other dance forms. I also did a fusion of it with Sattriya," she says.
Ashweeni further feels that the actual essence of belly dance is 'much different' then what one gets to see in the movies.
"It’s full of grace, feminine and elegant and I just hope to see the pure form in the upcoming Bollywood movies in the future," she adds further.
Speaking about the belly dance scene in the Northeast, Ashweeni says, "There is nothing different between the people from the Northeast and other parts of India."
"Just like people from rest of India have accepted the dance form, people from the Northeast will accept it as well," she further says.
And very rightly she points out that there is nothing wrong in learning or teaching belly dancing.
"I am glad that even males are coming to learn this graceful dance. This dance form not only is beneficial for women but also to man," she further says while asserting that to learn belly dance ‘age is just a number’.
Dance means flexibility and it is very important for a dancer (practising any dance form) has to be flexible. And the same rule applies in belly dancing as well.
"To be flexible, you need to keep practising rigorously," says Ashweeni.
Sharing about the basic posture of belly dancing, she says, "The basics starts with chest movements with lifts and drops, hip movements within and out, and shimmies."
She also informed that while performing, there is one basic posture that needs to hold throughout the performance.
"The feet hip-length must be apart, knees slightly bend, pelvis neutral position, chest lifted and arms open out to the sides, palm and elbow facing down," she adds.
Like any other form of performing arts, in belly dancing as well, conceptualisation plays an important role and belly dancing is performed on the lines of some stories.
"Sometimes our dances are thematic and based on some stories. Like last year we depicted the story of fire in which we narrated about the destruction that a fire can cause," shares Ashweeni.
"And then we also did on a story where society judges a dancer and how the society tries to bring a dancer down. There we showed as to how a dancer has no other choice but to move away," she further adds.
She is of the view that belly dance teaches one to love oneself and also can help in building one’s self-confidence.
She suggests that everyone should try and learn the dance form.
And if one wishes to learn belly dancing, then there are quite a few numbers of institutes across India.
Inara School of Performing Arts in Banglore, Nrityakosh- House of Classical and Contemporary Belly Dance in Bangalore and Banjara School of Dance in Delhi are some of the popular institutes to learn belly dancing in India.
"Moreover, one can also check out Bindu Bolar, Eshan Hilal classes," quickly adds Ashwinee.
She further informs that there are various courses available like on belly dancing like Egyptian belly dance, tribal fusion belly dance, contemporary belly dance etc.
"Ability to understand the move is what necessary. If a 10 to 12-year-old can understand then she/he can enrol in the classes. After all, kids these days are way smarter than us," she adds quickly.
Apart from being a student herself, Ashweeni has been a part of Inara School of Performing Arts ad has been learning the basics of the art since 2017.
"The team is Ohana to me. Ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten," she says quoting Lilo & Stitch.
"We have the same feelings, emotions, and perspective towards dance. We give each other time to express. We don’t judge. We just keep moving and supporting each other and we grow stronger together," adds Ashwinee.
“I have performed at Chennai Art Theatre Fringe Festival with the team very recently,” reveals Ashweeni while speaking about her performances so far.
Moreover, she has also performed in a programme organised by Nrityakoch in Bangalore.
She has also performed twice in a programme organised by her mentor in Bangalore
Sharing about her memorable performances, Ashwinee says, "I have had several memorable performances but out of all two remain special for me."
"First was my Sattriya recital in an international seminar held at University Of Science and Technology in Meghalaya," she says, adding, "It was a proud moment for me to showcase our culture in front of the delegates who came from different places- both from and outside India."
Her second most memorable performance was her first fusion of Belly Dance and Sattriya, which was also her first solo performance outside Assam.
However, not every performance is satisfactory and sometimes it happens that an ‘itch’ stays on, long after a performance was over, which keeps us reminding that ‘it could have been a little better’.
For Ashweeni, one such performance was her last solo performance on the song Naino Wale Ne from the movie Padmaavat.
"It was a fusion of Bollywood dance moves and belly dance moves and I feel, it could have been better," she says.
Speaking about her achievements, Ashwinee says that her moment of "biggest achievement" will be that when she will be able to give something back to society.
And as of now, whatever she has achieved till date and where she stands today, has been all an achievement and she rejoices every bit of it.
Sudha Chandran, a popular Indian film and television actor and an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, is one of Ashwinee’s biggest inspirations.
Chandran’s story of hurting her leg in 1981 and then going on to become one of the finest Bharatnatyam exponents of India has motivated and inspired Ashweeni in a big way.
She is also inspired by her teacher Shruti Kulkarni.
"I get motivated by looking at her posts," adds Ashweeni.
Moreover, she also follows Rukmini Vijaya, Karishma Chavan, Eshan Hilal and Rahul Goswami and their posts on Instagram motivate and inspire her immensely.
Speaking about her favourite belly dancers, Ashweeni said, "My teacher Shruti Kulkarni is my favourite. Apart from her, I also admire Eshan Hilal, Nivetha Shree, Bindu Bolar and Meher Malik."
Ashweeni is a person who believes in individualism and she doesn’t like to judge people based on their outfits and looks.
"I care less what people think about me as I believe my job is work on constantly to improve myself into a better individual. I have a dream to see myself as an art director in the future and if I keep caring to everything that people say, then I don’t think I will evolve," says Ashweeni.
Presently, Ashweeni is working on formulating a few plans and one of these is to conduct a workshop soon in Guwahati.
"Very soon I want to conduct a workshop in Guwahati to spread the beauty of belly dancing," she says.
Ashweeni feels that the curriculum in schools must change and courses on dance, art, music, pottery, photography etc. must be included in the school and college curriculums.
She feels this way a student will be able to mould his or her career the way he or she wants to and not regret later on of not doing the things they have always loved doing or regret of starting doing it late.
To the aspiring belly dancers from the region, Ashwinee just has one piece of advice- “If dance is everything to you then you should never stop practising.”
"Always love yourself first. Join yoga classes because both dance and yoga go hand-in-hand," says the rising belly dance exponent from Assam.
The entire team of The Mug Story wishes Ashweeni Phukan a very bright future and a wonderful career ahead.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashweeni Phukan)
Partha Prawal (Goswami) is a Guwahati-based journalist who loves to write about entertainment, sports, and social and civic issues among others. He is also a published author.