Colors of Courage: Arun Bhardwaj battles the odds to become a successful Belly Dancer and come out as gay

Arun Bhardwaj had always excelled at Bhangra in school. As a pre-teen boy in Pathankot, he’d have a head full of dreams and Rs. 10 tucked away in his pocket that often earned him entry to the cybercafé around the corner. He says that back then, the internet had felt like a Pandora’s box that introduced him to the world of dance with intriguing styles that always seemed just out of reach.

Updated on Feb 03, 2022 07:57 PM IST  |  574.1K
Arun Bhardwaj battles the odds to become a successful Belly Dancer and come out as gay
Arun Bhardwaj battles the odds to become a successful Belly Dancer and come out as gay
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A Punjabi munda at heart with a penchant for dance, Arun Bhardwaj had always excelled at Bhangra in school. As a pre-teen boy in Pathankot, he’d have a head full of dreams and Rs. 10 tucked away in his pocket that often earned him entry to the cybercafé around the corner. He says that back then, the internet had felt like a Pandora’s box that introduced him to the world of dance with intriguing styles that always seemed just out of reach.

Though he spent his teens mastering Bhangra, it was Belly dance that charmed his heart. “At first, it merely amused me. But I was intrigued and soon realised that I could connect with Belly dance in a way that I never had with other art forms. It felt effortless and instantly clicked for me."

Turning his passion into his profession was easier said than done, as the small-town boy from Pathankot dreamt of a career in American tribal Belly dance. After all, it was the early 2000’s and a lot of communities in the area frowned upon men choosing dance as a profession. “My dreams of becoming an accomplished belly dancer were considered nothing short of scandalous,” he admits.

But battling the odds to forge his path was a lesson he’d learnt early on from his father. “It was my dad who showed me how to work hard. It was the 1990’s, I was barely 7. My father worked in a textile factory at the time. He’d be working away all day for a meagre salary of a few thousand rupees on which he supported my mother and us three kids,” he smiles nostalgically.

“We were a middle-class family and got by with very little. My dad went on to start a small food shack that dished up tea and snacks, but my brother soon sought to help him in supporting the family. It was right after 10th standard that he felt responsible for the rest of us and worked hard to contribute to the family’s income. I have great respect for them and can never compare my efforts or struggle to what they went through,” he confesses.

Nonetheless, their zeal certainly seems to have shaped his ability to chase his dreams as there was no stopping, Arun. “I initially studied at a school for belly dance in Gurgaon and went on to teach by taking Skype lessons for students,” he grins. And though his career began at the age of 16, there was an intensely personal journey he’d embarked upon much earlier.

“I suppose my parents always knew of my sexual orientation,” Arun thoughtfully interjects. “Parents always know their child inside out. It’s just that sometimes they hesitate to accept it,” he admits, and goes on to reveal the emotional moment when he eventually came out to his family.

“I remember the time I called up my mom and told her I’m gay. As a typical Punjabi mom who is all heart, she started crying. She then abruptly hung up on me, which left me in a bundle of nerves! She later revealed that she’d actually taken off to share the news with my father.” Arun explains that when she called him back, there was only love and acceptance in her voice. “’Tu khush toh hain na?’ she asked, adding that if I am happy, that’s all that matters,” he smiles. And that was that. The love of his family became the wind beneath his wings, and Bhardwaj moved to Pune in November 2013 to further his career in Belly dance.

“When I first came to Pune, I approached a lot of dance companies. But it was a long series of rejections. As I was a male belly dancer who wished to teach, logo ne mera mazak udaya. It was a female-dominated industry and even professional dance companies wouldn’t take me seriously. “It was a rough period because I had no work and lacked money to eat 3 square meals a day. I used to wake up later in the day just so I could miss breakfast and make do with 1 vada pav for lunch.

“There was a tiffin I’d get every evening at 7 and that was my first full meal each day. I slept early to avoid hunger pangs,” he reveals. “Looking back, those are the moments that help you never give up in life because you have seen worse.” Arun refused to call it quits or head home and started his own Belly dance academy in 2014. But success seemed elusive as no students enrolled for the entire first year.

Perhaps it was his mother’s faith in him, when she said trusted him no matter what, or his father’s industriousness that trickled down to him, but Arun’s passion persevered. His fame gradually grew as his undying love for the art form charmed others. And now, the boy from Pathankot with a pocketful of hope has come a long way. Not only does he teach American tribal style belly dance to batches chock-full of students, but he has mastered other forms of dancing like Egyptian classical, modern ballet and Odissi.

Yet, with fame being a double-edged sword, renown also brought him hate comments and trolling online. “In my experience, people who hate you the most tend to fuel your drive. They don’t see the hard-work I’ve put in and often say negative things from body-shaming me to homophobic slurs. The mildest of them are things like ‘You are so fat. Reduce your tummy and you'll look better.’ Then there are hate comments,” he discloses.

“But I respond by saying, ‘Yes, thanks I’ll work on it.’ I guess it makes people more curious about why I’m not getting perturbed. They also feel more comfortable reaching out to know more about me.” Reiterating the importance of self-love, Arun addresses the insecurity people feel while contemplating baring their belly for this art form. “You needn’t have toned abs or a six-pack to enjoy Belly dancing. Men and women of all ages and sizes learn Belly dance. All you must remember is to give it a hundred percent if you truly wish to master something,” he affirms.

Speaking of matters of the heart, Arun says relationships for him are more about companionship and making that emotional connection. “In gay relationships, people tend to stay together, feel responsible for our partner and take care of each other.” He admits that staunch support from his parents helped him sail many a stormy sea. Bhardwaj elucidates, “LGBT individuals seek no assistance or charity from society. But parents supporting their child is the only thing important. They must do so no matter whether their child identifies as gay, straight or bisexual because strong support from parents is necessary, so that the child doesn’t fall into bad habits. For a minor who is cast out, things can be rough.”

Arun’s message for teens who are struggling to come out is- “Believe in yourself, and work on yourself to become someone accomplished in your chosen profession. Once you’ve made something of yourself, society will cherish you no matter who you are,” he signs off.

Also Read: Colors of Courage: Himanshu Gupta’s journey from running a tea stall with his dad to becoming an IAS officer

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