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25 years of dance

Solomoni Biumaiono
Monday, January 07, 2013

Starting with her passion for dance and coupled with the sweat of her brow, Shobna Chanel is in charge of one of the oldest dance groups in the country right now, the Shobna Chanel Dance Group.

Chanel and her dance group celebrated the 25th year of their existence last year but just like how it started, it wasn't marked with much fanfare.

Her achievement which began with a journey way back in 1972 has been a long one but looking back, Chanel thinks she will never give up the cultural value and impact her dance group has made over anything else.

"We are a drop in the ocean, a group with very humble beginnings and no financial back-up, despite this we have managed to make a mark in Fiji and abroad. We have touched peoples' hearts and continue to make a difference in people's lives whatever their age, race and gender.

"Our mission statement is 'promoting national harmony through dance and music' we will continue to achieve this as we continue with our journey," she said.

Now a mother to two sons, Chanel first started off in Toorak where she was encouraged by her mum to take up dancing from the tender age of three.

By 1987 she was one of the senior dance students at the Indian Cultural Centre where she was learning the North Indian classical dance form called kathak.

She first started learning the kathak dance form from 1972 as a young girl but by 1987, it became a calling for her as she continued with her passion even after circumstances dealt the centre a cruel blow.

"When the group started around November 1987, the main purpose was to prepare for the World Expo and Festival of Pacific Arts in Australia. Initially in 1987, the primary aim was to prepare a four-member group of Indian dancers to be part of the Fiji contingent to the World Expo and Pacific Festival of Arts both of which were to be held in Australia.

"However, a few years later when the ICC closed down due to the political situation here, the goal was to fill in the vacuum created by their closure and I guess that was my motivation," Chanel said.

She said that when the group first started it was supported mainly by dancers' parents but as they became recognised through the innovative ways she introduced into their performance, the public followed suit.

Chanel took it a step further and decided to fuse the traditional iTaukei meke with the Indian classical dance form and to her surprise it was met with a lot of positive reaction from her audience at large and she credits local media personality Loretta Jackson for promoting the group's brand of fusion dance.

"We have had very positive reactions from everyone in Fiji and abroad, this includes all races, religion, age groups and gender. I believe it was a sigh of relief for a lot of parents and young people when our group emerged. The introduction of the fusion dance with a blend of Fijian and Indian touched many hearts and was like a breath of fresh air," Chanel said.

Through the years all her dances are all trained or are being trained in the North Indian classical dance form of kathak which is their base.

Over the years the group has gone on to produce dance dramas based on the Ramayan and Gita and in 2003 they introduced traditional Fijian music to the people of India for the first time at the inaugural Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, which is a gathering for all people with Indian ancestry from all over the world.

They have also featured on Television New Zealand and Zee TV India apart from participating in events like the (South) Pacific Games, the Pacific Festival of Arts, World Expo, World Music Festival, the Heilala Festival in Tonga and the Pasifika Festival in New Zealand.

The group has also been part of an Ethnomusicology doctoral thesis by a student of the University of California and they have also been interviewed by academic Katerina Teaiwa about popular Indo-Fijian culture and Pacific Islander relation.

Chanel said dance forms were part of a culture since culture evolved and changed over time so dance forms too must change. She said these changes could be manifest in the traditional and contemporary forms.

"I see them both as equally important and that both complement each other. I choose to give both traditional and contemporary dance forms equal importance and embrace the beauty of both.

"It is up to us if we want to preserve our traditional dances and we need to ask ourselves what we are doing about it individually, pointing fingers at emerging groups and new dance forms will not help, as the saying goes, 'charity begins at home'," she said.

When asked if she will stop after doing it for 25 years, Chanel says she will continue dancing and is still actively involved with the Indian Cultural Centre where she is teaching dance to students.

"Dance to me is like pooja (prayer) and you don't stop praying even on your deathbed, having said that, I have at least two very senior and capable students who with a little bit more guidance would be able to head the group well.

"Heading the group has a lot of responsibility and not just to be a good dancer or choreographer.

"The difficulty with students here is that many leave as soon as they reach university level of studies but I try my best to groom my students not just to be a good performer but also to be a good leader and a good human being. Performing art requires a lot of self-discipline, commitment, respect and hard work and not everyone is able to combine all these," she said.