India’s first male professional belly dancer fights all odds to become a star

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Eshan Hilal, is India’s first professional male belly dancer. An accomplished performer, choreographer and fashion model, the 27-year-old is a rare male exponent of a dance form that is traditionally performed by women and has undertones of seductive femininity.

Wearing a short blouse that reveals a toned midriff, a long flowing skirt and a sequinned belt tied low across the waist, the dancer takes centre stage. Adorned with an exquisite silver necklace, chunky bangles and a nose ring, his short hair is swept back and he sports stylish stubble.

The music starts to play and the dancer’s hips sway, gently at first and then more vigorously, as he gracefully keeps time with the catchy tune. His fluid, sinuous movements seem effortless as he pirouettes, shimmies and spins, his arms and legs accentuating the movements of his belly and hips.

Hilal’s successful career as a belly dancer has been forged despite ferocious opposition from his orthodox Muslim family, which makes his journey even more remarkable. Driven by a conviction that dance is divine, Hilal is challenging social norms and smashing gender stereotypes.

The dancer shot to popularity in 2017 with performances on reality television shows that left celebrity judges and viewers enthralled. A sought-after professional today, Hilal performs at corporate events and conducts workshops at top dance schools throughout the country.

He has spoken at several TEDx events and walked the fashion catwalk wearing garments by designers from the National Institute of Fashion Design, India’s premier fashion design school. India Today, a leading English news magazine, voted him one of the top 10 modern icons of the country in 2017.

“Ever since I can remember, I loved to dance,” says the young performer from New Delhi. “My mother tells me that as a five-year-old I would be mesmerised by Bollywood songs on television, and would emulate the way the actors danced, impersonating every facial expression and gesture they made.”

“I was an effeminate child,” says Hilal. “I would play with dolls and had no interest in sports. My father hated it. He would beat me when enraged by my feminine mannerisms.” His father mocked him and called him a bhand or hijara, derogatory names for someone who is neither strictly male nor strictly female.

“The insults from my family made me think that there was something wrong with me, but I could not understand what that was,” adds Hilal, who was desperate to be accepted by his family and found refuge in dance.

He asked his mother if he could learn Kathak, an Indian classical dance, performed by both men and women with small bells called ghungroos tied on their feet. His mother answered him with a slap.

Undeterred, Hilal approached a few Kathak teachers for lessons, but he was turned down because he had no way to pay for the classes. He eventually taught himself the basics from a book he found. “Fortunately, I then met Pulkit Mishra, my first guru, who agreed to teach me for free,” says Hilal, who dropped science classes to learn Kathak and studied the dance for six years.

“Kathak truly allowed me to explore my feminine side,” he adds.

Hilal’s parents found out about his pursuit when they saw him perform Kathak at his school. His father threw out the ghungroos and gave him a thrashing that left a hairline fracture on his ankle.

Unable to bear the taunts and beatings, Hilal, then 14, ran away from home. “I took a bus to Nainital, [300km from Delhi] to participate in an audition for a reality television dance show,” he recalls. He ended up working as a hotel cleaner for six months before the police found him and took him home to another beating from his father.

“Hilal is my first born. I love him, but he should not be doing this,” says his mother, 48-year-old Chaman Hilal, who was married at 14 and has little formal education. She believes dance is forbidden, or haram, according to Islam. “I am disappointed in him,” she adds.

Hilal’s father, Mohammad Hilal, 50, has barely spoken to him in years. They live in the same house but Eshan lives on a separate floor by himself. “Dance is wrong,” Mohammad says. “Hilal has brought us shame. He is not more important than the respect of the community.”

To appease his parents, Hilal tried to stop dancing when he was 18. “I tried to change. I even attempted to play cricket even though I was terrible at it. I tried really hard to force myself to become a person that I was not.”

Ironically, it was a conversation with his mother that led him back to his true passion. “She said I was accountable to no one but Allah,” Hilal says. “Hearing that allayed my doubts and fears. I believe that no religion can deem dance to be wrong. It is our interpretation of religion that is wrong.”

While learning Kathak, Hilal met two internationally renowned male belly dancers, Illan Riviere from France and Jamil Halaby from Australia. “I was fascinated by the exquisiteness of their dance and how they embraced their femininity,” he says.

Completely captivated, Hilal decided to learn the art form and enrolled in the Banjara School of Dance in Delhi, run by Meher Malik, a well-known Indian belly dancer.

“Initially the school turned me down, saying they did not teach men, but they eventually came around,” he says. “Learning belly dancing is hard work. One needs to have a sense of rhythm and master the skill of isolating even small bodily movements. There are more than 50 rhythms that one can dance to, with several different rhythms within the same song.

“The movements look simple but are tough to master, from fluid movements that are like waves to percussive moves that are sharp, exact and strong.”

Hilal performed with Malik’s group in China and was the second runner-up in an international oriental dance competition held in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in 2016.

Social media was instrumental in Hilal gaining recognition, and his performances on Bollywood hit song videos went viral, but his fame spurred another volley of disparaging comments about his sexuality.

“People assume that I am a homosexual, or a bisexual or a transgender, just because I am a male dancer. Dance is not about gender or sexuality, it is an expression of emotions,” he says, adding that he does not feel the need to discuss his sexuality.

Hilal has also worked as a gender-fluid model dressed in skirts, dresses and high heels. “Belly dancing taught me that there is no perfect body, size or colour. It taught me to accept myself and it has taught me that I am beautiful the way I am.”

Aayushi Bhatnagar, an engineer, was inspired to learn belly dancing after watching Hilal perform, and he is now one of the performer’s students.

“Eshan is sensational when he dances,” the 24-year-old says. “His uniqueness is his ability to fuse the graceful movements of Kathak with belly dancing. As a teacher, his speciality is that he breaks down the techniques and the movements and makes them look like one smooth, fluid movement.”

Hilal is often sent messages by parents who have seen him perform or read his story, saying his journey has inspired them to accept the unconventional choices that their children are making more readily.

“To know that I have played a small role in changing the mindset of people is extremely gratifying,” Hilal says.

Despite his fame, Hilal’s parents have yet to accept his choice of profession. “They have never said with pride that I am their son,” he says, adding that he hopes they will come around one day.

In the meantime, he continues on his path as a trailblazer driven by the conviction that dance is divine.

“Dance is the love of my life, my worship and my prayer,” he says. “When I dance, I feel connected to Allah and to my being.”