Bondo Wyszpolski

Through it all he kept dancing

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Nakul Dev Mahajan. Photo by Chehon Wespi-Tschopp

by Bondo Wyszpolski

It’s been 15 years since dancer-choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan opened his NDM Bollywood Dance Studios. Tucked into the far corner of a shopping center just off Pioneer Blvd. in the city of Artesia, the nondescript building represents quite a journey for its founder, who grew up in Rolling Hills Estates and still has tight connections to the South Bay.

“We made history in the U.S. in terms of being the first custom-made Bollywood dance facility,” Nakul says. “There is no other Bollywood school like this on the continent.”

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What he means is that while there are thousands of dance schools, many of which teach Bollywood dancing, all of those schools are open to other genres of dance, as well. The focus of the NDM Studios has always been on Indian-influenced Bollywood dance.

Those unfamiliar with the genre might want to know a little bit about it. If so, you’ve turned to the right page.

“Bollywood dancing,” Nakul explains, “is literally a fusion of every style of dance on the planet. That’s by definition what it is. The form itself is a fusion form of dance.

“When I started my Bollywood journey, which is over 25 years ago, I stuck to that formula. But I added a lot more classical elements of Indian dance. Our classical forms are very rich, and they’re ancient. They’re actually older than ballet.”

These forms or styles include Kathak, Bharatanatyam, and Bhangra. Nakul is formally trained in Kathak. He learned the other forms on his own, starting as a child.

“Just so I can be clear,” Nakul says, “the term ‘Bollywood’ only came about in the last maybe 15 years. When I opened the studio we weren’t called a Bollywood dance studio. The style itself was called Hindi film dancing. Hindi is the language that’s spoken in most Bollywood movies.”

From there to here

His father Mahesh came to the U.S. in 1964 on a scholarship to UC Berkeley. Upon graduating he returned to India and married Renu. The couple moved to States in 1969. Nakul’s parents were overseas visiting his mother’s family when Nakul was born, in the city of Agra. It was 1975. Three months later the Mahajans flew back to California. Seven months later, from their home in Hawthorne, the family moved to Rolling Hills Estates. Nakul also has a sister who is four years older.

Before the 1970s or ‘80s, Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills were mostly populated by Caucasian families. It was only in the latter years of the last century that Japanese and later Chinese and Korean families began to settle there in substantial numbers.

Which is a way of saying that as a boy, Nakul was the only South Asian in his class. “Once I got to Middle School there were probably two or three more, but nothing like what it is now.”

Nakul began his freshman year at Rolling Hills High School, which became Palos Verdes Peninsula High at the start of his sophomore year. After high school, attended El Camino College before transferring to UC Riverside.

But first let’s turn back the clock and step into the Mahajan household. Imagine it’s around 1980, and so…

Photo by Chehon Wespi-Tschopp

Adept at both roles

In part to remain connected to their Indian culture and heritage, Nakul’s parents owned a VHS tape player and at home watched Hindi cinema. While his sister was apparently drawn to the likes of Madonna, Bon Jovi, and Duran Duran, “I’m gravitating more to the (Indian) culture,” Nakul says. “And we have the same parents and (live under) the same roof. It was just innate for me.”

So there he is, four years old, watching his mother’s movie cassettes and mimicking the moves of the dancers: “I was able to do exactly what they were doing, without any kind of training or instruction. I found myself filling in the gaps of anything that wasn’t choreographed with my own movement. Unknowingly, I was choreographing, not even knowing what that word meant.

“My parents were very alarmed,” Nakul recalls. “Boys dancing wasn’t accepted socially and was something that at that time Indian parents really wouldn’t have wanted to push their child towards. It didn’t make any sense to them at all.

“Quite often I was scolded, but I still did it. I’d shut my door and I would just dance. My mother would open up the door to see what I was doing and I think it scared her that I wasn’t just doing the guy choreo, I would do the girl choreo as well.”

As Nakul explains it, the male Bollywood dancer looks and acts macho, while twirling his partner. As for the girl, she’s head-to-toe glamorous and gracefully in motion. “She would be implementing Indian folk forms and classical form and Western style,” Nakul says. “The visual for me was stimulating and I wanted to do both. So I’d play the cassette, and when the guy’s (segment) would kick in I would do the guy and pretend the girl’s there. And then when her part came in I would jump to the side and pretend I’m her. And now I’m taking these dual roles.”

He doesn’t blame his mother for seeing a red flag or two in her son’s unconventional behavior.

“She used it as leverage for a while,” Nakul resumes: “‘If you don’t clean your room I’m going to tell your friends what you’re doing.’ So now I was trained to think that what I’m doing is wrong; and that stuck around for a long time and yet I still did it. It didn’t stop me.”

One imagines that by this point many young adults would have figuratively thrown in the towel. Fortunately, a turning point arrived when Nakul was in high school.

“We had a large peer group of family friends that we grew up with, and they noticed that I would dance socially at birthday parties and weddings, and I was really good at it.” Eventually, “that triggered a conversation that my mom had with one of her friends who was putting on a charity event, an Indian cultural function. They were looking for local acts, amateur people, and they had an open spot. My mom’s friend told her, ‘Why don’t you ask Nakul to do this? He does a good job at the parties.’”

His mother must have passed on the suggestion because soon afterwards Nakul contacted a childhood friend, Sonia Singh, to ask if she’d do a dance routine with him.

“We came up with a dance, we did it, and it was the hit of the night,” Nakul says. That evening his father said to him, “I didn’t know if you were talented. I didn’t know that you can dance so well. You made me proud, and what would you like us to do to support you now?”

“This is me at 16-years-old,” Nakul says. “From that day forward my parents were 110 percent behind me. And that’s when I started my classical dance journey.”

Mahajan in a recent photo and (below)as a child in Palos Verdes.

Bucking the system

Nakul graduated from high school in 1994, and right after that, he says, “I started working for the Palos Verdes Unified School District in day care.” He would continue doing this for 10 years. The programs were in conjunction with the local YMCA when Nakul began, but afterwards the school district began its own program, and they called it Kids’ Corner.

Meanwhile, our young dancer was attending El Camino College, making a name for himself, but his parents were concerned about his future livelihood. They told their son that he needed a degree because no matter how well he danced they felt that socially Nakul wouldn’t be fully accepted.

“They’re looking at their friends whose children are all in four-year colleges or they’re in medical school, or they’re becoming lawyers,” Nakul says. “In Palos Verdes especially all South Asians, all Indians, are high achievers, and they all do really well for themselves. That’s what’s told: it’s lawyer, doctor, engineer, and that’s it. You have no other choice.

“So, for an artist to emerge during that time, from that community, was unheard of. I was considered the black sheep. My parents were like, ‘We love that you dance, we like that you teach, but get a degree… Just so you can give us that (satisfaction), that reassurance that if this (the career in dance) doesn’t go through, you have that degree.’”

During these years, Nakul had his job with the school district, was teaching dance, and taking classes at El Camino. “I stood out like a sore thumb in the community,” he says.

Then he made a leap, attended the University of California at Riverside, and graduated in 2002 with a major in sociology and a minor in dance.

Nakul’s ambitions were not high, but neither were they unrealistic. He figured he’d get his teaching credentials and perhaps find employment at a high school.

“And then on weekends I would teach dance. That was what the plan was.”

His reputation as a dancer seems to have helped in that “I’m the local Indian guy you go to learn dance from. I’m the guy you go to for anything dance-related: bride and groom’s first dances, local Indian pageants, training…”

But it also hindered: “I was already kicked out of the competition dance circuit that we have here,” Nakul says. “We have several large Bollywood dance competitions that I was told I couldn’t take part in anymore because people weren’t applying when they (learned I was) competing, ‘because you win every year.’ So I was given the boot very quickly.”

Risky business

Several years earlier, Nakul had made a “deal” with his parents, and the bill, as they say, was coming due. And the agreement? “If you get an education and a degree,” his parents said, “we’ll help you.”

“I got it, there you go; I want your help now,” Nakul told them. When asked what it was he wanted to do, he replied that he wanted to open a Bollywood dance school. He understood, and presumably they understood as well, that it would be a huge risk. But they agreed.

“And I said it had to be in Artesia because this entire strip (all along Pioneer Blvd.) is literally considered Little India. I knew that the success of the studio would be here because people come from miles to get a taste of their homeland, whether it’s food, clothes, jewelry, or just seeing people that look like them.”

The dance studio opened in 2003.

“I had 60 students that I was already teaching from different places that I would drive to,” he says, “and they all followed me; they all came here. Within a year I tripled my numbers. Parents would drop off their kids for an hour, do whatever they needed to do, and then come back and pick up their children. Today we have over 550 kids enrolled in our program (plus drop-ins). Any other city would not have worked.

“I never went back to complete my teaching credentials to become a teacher because my so-called weekend job ended up being a full-time job.”

His bread and butter

And then, “through the blessing of the internet,” people began finding out about Nakul. His timing, whether planned, fortuitous, or both, was perfect.

“As soon as I opened up the studio the Bollywood phenomenon began in Hollywood,” Nakul says. “This is before (the movie) ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008). By 2002 or 2003 you were starting to see this Bollywood influence in the American media. And,” he adds, “they took notice of the fact that my name popped up whenever someone was searching ‘Bollywood school’ or ‘Bollywood choreographer.’ Because, at the time, I was still the only one doing this, at least on the West Coast. So we got a lot of coverage, from ‘Nightline’ and ‘Time’ and the ‘L.A. Times.’ It was great, and that’s what led to me being discovered by Fox and the television show I’m most known for, which is ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’”

One of the fans of the show was Michelle Obama, at that time First Lady of the United States. In connection with the Diwali festival “she wanted to do a master class and bring some schools in and some children to the White House.” That’s how Nakul came to be contacted. “To her, Bollywood was something that I was associated with. I was honored, and she’s a lovely, lovely lady.”

In the hallway of the studio there’s a photo of Nakul with Michelle Obama.

But even though Nakul has worked with celebrities from Paula Abdul and Steve Carell to Natalie Portman, as well as having choreographed for other TV programs (such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Best Dance Crew”), fame is fleeting.

“So my bread and butter is really the dance studio,” Nakul says. “This is how I make my living. There is not enough work in Hollywood for me to survive.”

Those jobs, he says, as glamorous as the rest of us envision them, are “fluctuating and unpredictable.” It’s a misconception people have that the opportunities Nakul has for work in television are endless. They’re not. “If I did not have the studio, I probably would have another job to survive.”

Using your degree in sociology, of course?

“Yeah. I don’t know how bored I’d be, but something with that.”

Let me point out, though, that NDM Bollywood Dance Studios also has  five other locations throughout L.A. and Orange Counties, including one in the South Bay.

A dark shadow

Nakul’s professional success and personal life were both on the upswing. He’d just come out to his parents, introduced them to his then-boyfriend, now-husband, and had purchased a house. He’d gotten past the early stigma (and the bullying) of being gay, especially in the South Asian community at the end of the last century, and as he points out now, “everything was perfect.”

Then he learned he had cancer.

“It was like having the rug pulled out underneath you kind of moment,” he says. “It was the curveball of all curveballs thrown at me and it definitely shook me up. I was diagnosed with testicular phase two cancer. It’s a very curable cancer, but nonetheless any kind of cancer can make your life topsy-turvy.”

“It came at a time when I felt I’m now complete, spiritually and complete as a person. It was really through the grace of God and my community, my family, and of course the medical staff at Torrance Memorial Hospital, that led to my recovery; I’m five years cancer-free.”

Although Nakul has been able to resume his journey, he says “I feel that cancer survivors have a duty to bring awareness to the matter.

“And that awareness is where people are more open to talking about their illness (rather) than hiding behind it. When you share your story, people can maybe empathize and feel compassion to where they might dig into their wallets and contribute to the many charities out there.”

Today his life is on track and the journey continues.

“When the studio began it was a one-man show, and now we’re like a team of 10 people,” he says. “We’ve grown. I couldn’t clone myself so I had no choice but to ask trained dancers who have been with me to teach and pass the torch on.” Even his parents help run his studios, a sign of their continued faith in their son and his endeavors.

Each year, Nakul’s dance studio presents two recitals at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. There’s one in November, another in April.

“Even though I’ve left the South Bay, I’m still very connected to it, because I grew up on the South Bay stage as an amateur dancer. I’m literally a South Bay boy who now lives away, but everything’s in the South Bay.”

Including one of his dance studios, Boogiezone Utopia, at 1951 W. Carson St., Torrance. Anyone who desires to learn more about it can phone the main office at (562) 402-7761 or visit ndmdance.com.

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