‘Dance nourishes mind, body and soul’

Shalini Bhalla, the creative director and founder of Just Jhoom! went through a lot of upheaval in life. The recipient of Asian Woman of Achievement in Arts & culture Award 2013, tells Anjana Parikh from Asian Lite, how dance and music helped her to overcome depression and live life with enthusiasm and vigour.

AL: How has dance helped you to overcome depression?

Shalini Bhalla, the creative director and founder of Just Jhoom!
Shalini Bhalla, the creative director and founder of Just Jhoom!

Shalini: I had been hospitalised with depression and having therapy as well as being on anti-depressants. They must have been having an effect, but it was not hugely noticeable.

A few weeks into my stay in the mental hospital, I happened to play an invocation to the Hindu God Krishna on my small sound system. And something just took over and I began to move to the music – I had forgotten just how much I loved to dance but because of the cocktail of medication, lack of sleep and sheer mental exhaustion, my hands were shaky and I was unsteady on my feet. It was not my finest performance but for the first time in ages, I felt alive.

A few weeks after being discharged from the hospital, I had to make some life-changing career decisions. I had to give up a well paid, target-driven job and instead began to work at a local arts centre doing fairly simple tasks. I was surrounded by creativity – actors, musicians, artists and over time, I began to feel the creative juices flow. I was also lucky enough to be able to use the studio space to experiment with movement. Earlier, I would dance and move without much thought, in a carefree manner – this time it was different. Each move, hand gesture and glance felt meaningful – it was mindful. I was mindful of everything I did within the dance, and I felt good to be able to move.

I started to regain my strength and I was able to get off my medication. After a few months, the shaking stopped. I started running Bollywood dance workshops for schools, charities, and community groups. It was inspiring working with so many different people and I wanted to find a way to reach out to more people.

So, I created Just Jhoom! Just Jhoom! means Just Dance in Hindi. We train dance teachers and fitness instructors to run classes in the community, schools, care homes all over the UK and as a result,

I am able to share my love and passion for Bollywood-inspired dance with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

AL: What was the reason for your depression?

Shalini: I had come to the UK to do a degree and decided to stay here when I met my partner Jeremy. But life was tough. I worked hard in hotels – thankless, non-sociable and badly paid work. From there, I moved to hospitality recruitment – and it was here that I experienced bullying in the workplace. At the same time, I was going through a really difficult time with my immediate and extended family – from whom I had become estranged as they did not approve of some of the life choices I had made – especially my decision to live with Jeremy.

Depression is all consuming. I literally felt like I was walking in a fuzzy, grey haze – all the time!

Even the smallest, most basic daily tasks were a huge effort. Brushing my teeth, having a shower, getting dressed – were all exhausting.

I couldn’t eat neither could I sleep, nor concentrate or do anything else. Basically, I had lost the taste for life.

The grey haze got thicker and thicker – until one day as I was leaving for work I found I could not open the door to leave the house. I literally collapsed on the floor, crying, shaking and gasping for breath. I was having what I later realised was a panic attack.

And so, within a few days, I found myself admitted into a mental hospital as an in-patient.

AL: You are the creative director of Just Jhoom! What made you start this dance school?

Shalini: As dance had helped me so much I wanted to share that feeling with other people – and so I created Just Jhoom!

Just Jhoom! means Just Dance in Hindi.

We are not a dance school – but a dance training company.

We train dance teachers and fitness instructors to run classes in the community, schools, care homes all over the UK and as a result I am able to share my love and passion for Bollywood-inspired dance with people of all ages and different walks of life.

Just Jhoom! has so many physical benefits, for example; you get the opportunity to exercise from your eyes right to the tip of your toes.

Dancing on the whole is great as it burns fat and tones muscles. Engaging your core muscles whilst you Jhoom is the key – and with all the isolations and hip movements, and twisting, bending and turning in our routines, you can tone the core and flatten the stomach.

Just Jhoom! also contains yoga-inspired exercises which help in lengthening and strengthening muscles – increasing flexibility.

There are also exercises and steps that help with balance – overtime in classes, people have noticed their balance improving.

A unique aspect of Just Jhoom! is that you get to exercise the all-important but often neglected hand muscles. Exercising the hands helps to stave off arthritis.

And…it is fun – and makes you smile! It releases endorphins. It makes you happy!

But also, it is a workout for the mind too. By being engaged in what you are doing at that present moment, you are able to leave the regrets of the past and the worries of the future at the door. You are focussing on the here and now. It is a form of Mindful Movement – and so working to the same principles as Mindfulness.

Dance is powerful, it gives you vitality and nourishes your body, mind and the spirit. AL: Tell us a bit about your work history?

I’ve done many things – from working in hotels, to running a jewellery stall, working as a freelance Marketing consultant, running an arts centre – and then finally, setting up my own dance companies.

AL: Tell us about yourself outside of work?

Shalini: I love to travel, and enjoy spending time at home reading and listening to music – spending quality time with Jeremy and my cat Tabasco. I do a lot of meditation as well. I also watch a lot of Bollywood films!

AL: You received the Asian Woman of Achievement in Business Award in 2013.  What does such awards mean to you and whom do you attribute your success to?

Shalini: It’s great to get the recognition that all the hard-work I’ve put in the business is paying off. Working for yourself, setting up your own business can be quite isolating – and so you sometimes aren’t sure if you are on the right track or not. This outside endorsement really helps validate what you do. And, it was a boost for the team too.

AL: You’re a trained in Bharatnatyam dancer. Where did you learn?

Shalini: I had always loved dancing. My first memories of childhood in Kenya are of me being on stage when I was three years old – surrounded by older girls – loved being the centre of attention. When I was sixteen, I graduated in the South Indian Classical dance form–Bharata Natyam. The exam was a three-hour long performance in front of an audience of 450 people, which was gruelling, exhilarating – and life-changing. I then went to India to study dance under two world-renowned dance Gurus.

AL: Who inspired you to learn this dance form?

Shalini: My mother did. She always wanted to learn dance as a child – but was unable to – so she made sure I had the opportunities.

AL: These days, Indian dance schools are mushrooming across the UK. How different is your method of teaching compared to others?

Shalini: We are Bollywood-inspired dance-fitness with our inspiration taken from Bharata Natyam, bhangra, aerobics. We are creating a new type of Mindful Movement – that is nourishing for mind, body and spirit. Our moves are unique to Just Jhoom! – they do not stay true to one particular established Indian folk or classical style. Basically, if I like a move, and it feels right for the body then I will adapt it to suit a Just Jhoom! class. We are also not bound by stringent rules found in Indian classical dance styles

AL: Tells us about your meditationand mindfulness project?

Shalini: I practice mindfulness and meditation – and am a mindfulness teacher. I practice a lot of ‘mindful movement’ in my dance classes – which has been beneficial both to me and my class attendees. Just Jhoom! Bollywood Dance, is a form of mindful movement in itself. You can’t think about the children, shopping, cooking, etc – you have to be engaged in the dance style, otherwise you get left behind. So you are very much in the present moment.

Currently, I’m writing a Mindfulness ebook which should be on sale soon.

I’m also creating sessions that involve Just Jhoom! dance, mindful movement and meditation as well. I think this combination will be unique – and a great way to nourish mind, body and spirit.