Raj Kumar – StartUp FoCo Podcast

Raj Kumar is a dancer, an engineer, and a technology developer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. He’s a dance instructor for the Kalapriya School of Dance in Fort Collins teaching Bharatanatyam and Bollywood styles. His story is a fascinating one and you can hear it in person at the ARTup Week Panel: Sharing Your Personal Culture: Where Dance and Music Intersect on Wednesday, February 27th, 5:00pm-6:30pm @ The Music District Living Room.

Raj, tell us about yourself!

My name is Raj Kumar. I am originally from Bangalore, India, where I was born and I grew up there doing my degree in dance. I lived there until I was 22 years old. Apart from doing dance, I also completed a degree in engineering and I also had a dance class of my own where I taught students after obtaining a degree in dance.

Then I moved to United States in 2008 to Indiana and the University of Pennsylvania for a cultural exchange program. Then I decided to move to University of Wyoming to pursue a master’s in engineering as well. For a semester or two I taught dance at the University of Wyoming Fine Arts as an extra credit course, but then the recession kicked in and then I had to stop teaching there.

I also work as a technology developer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

Between engineering and dance, which is the thing that takes up most of your time?

When I was 16, my decision was that I would choose dance as a career, but as I started to grow in that domain, I realized that even though there were not a lot of male dancers.

I did get a lot of attention from several different dance groups all over the country, but I saw that in order to keep myself unique I had to learn skills that most commonly the dancers wouldn’t have.

I looked at people who were performing abroad and realized that their knowledge about technology was what they used in their dance which made them a lot more consistent and better performers. That’s when actually I decided to go into engineering. I had my degree in dancing when I was 17 or 18 but after that I decided to take up engineering. My original goal was to support dance.

When I came to the United States through cultural exchange program, I spoke to quite a lot of dancers and engineers and I realized that there’s a small part of me that also wanted to do engineering. That’s how I decided to pursue my masters. I’m trying to at least spend an equal amount of time for both dance as well as the engineering.

Do you find that the two skills complement each other?

The dance keeps my focus. There’s a lot of stress in engineering. Being a technology developer isn’t a stress-free job. It comes with its own huge amount of stress. Dance helps me de-stress quite a bit. It allows me to remain calm even under the most stressful situations.

The engineering appears most of the time in my choreography, I try to use a lot of different patterns and the logic that comes from having a strong engineering background. It does help me think outside the box.

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to being a professional dancer?

I came from very poor family. We were not even middle class when I was a kid and started learning dance. The fundamental barrier right there was paying my fee while I was learning dance, but as years flew by we were better off financially, we moved from a lower class to a middle-class family.

I could still learn, but now the problem was I couldn’t get better-performing stages, meaning to say for example, every song that you learn typically in India is priced, and it’s not easy for a middle-class person to actually buy all of these songs or buy the teachers time to do individual or a personalized choreography.

I had to learn mostly from common choreographies where the teacher choreographs for a general class, not specifically for your strengths or effectiveness. This taught me how to actually look into myself and see how I can modify some of the movements to suit myself at an earlier age than most people would.

I couldn’t use live music because of the fees as well, so, I mostly went with recorded music, which again cuts down the amount of creativity you can express or the amount of individuality you can express in a dance.

It’s more relaxed now, but back in the 90s and early 2000s, I had a lot of advice from very different people not to pursue dancing as a career because they sincerely believed that dance is not something that a male would actually pursue as a profession.

It was kind of down looked upon. Even when I entered engineering and I used to perform, the first thing that the cultural coordinator mentioned was that I’m going to get booed off the stage and it’s going to be very embarrassing.

There’s a lot of stigma that comes from society trying to push you away from this particular barrier.

It also has advantages since there are a limited number of males, you’ll always have a chance and you’ll always have opportunities, you’ll always have people asking you to come down to perform new roles, new characters that allow you to grow as a dancer. The downside of it is, there’s a lot more pressure for you to quit this particular dream.

At some point, even my parents felt that the dance was not something that they would like their son to pursue. I had to overcome. Finding a strength to keep up with the stigma and also find innovative ways to personalize and have better teaching experience despite having shortcomings in finance.

Do you see those shortcomings happening here too for your local students?

Financially, I’ve not seen somebody come to me and say they’re not in a position to pay for the class, because the classes at this point are not as expensive as one would expect. I believe it’s affordable to the communities at least in Laramie and Fort Collins.

As to the stigma, I actually haven’t taught a male dancer at all either in Wyoming or in Fort Collins, so, I guess that’s the other side of it. People here, instead of a stigma, the default assumption is that male students probably do not learn classical Indian dance here. I’m not sure I understand the psychology behind it, but I haven’t had the opportunity to train any male dancers in the United States yet.

Have you seen an uptick in interest in dance as pop culture dance shows take hold?

The amount of students that you see in a cultural dance class is relatively fewer. Most importantly, the amount of floating population, people who come try it out and then don’t continue in this particular art form is higher.

The kind of dance we do is very methodic, very penalizing on the body, especially for beginners. You often see a lot of people who come in not stick for multiple years, because it takes a lot of commitment from you, it builds a kind of muscle memory and some of the students who come in also go to other classes. The muscles that we train don’t often complement their other extracurricular activities that they love to do so the students have to prioritize which they really want to do and sometimes they quit for that as well.

Pop culture and the other extracurricular activities that happen inside Fort Collins do have an effect on us. It plays a significant role keeping the number of students in these classes low and not as high as one would expect.

Tell us about your Startup Week panel.

I want to present on how challenging it is to actually keep a startup company going from a classical dance point of view, how hard is it to actually keep this class open, how much a company has to modify teaching so that it actually fits the modern era students who actually use technology and who like to keep things simple, and also how to actually keep your muscle memory trained despite the fact that most of these kids don’t have enough time to actually come in three or four times a week to develop the muscle memory.

I’m trying to present those challenges that would help any other startup company coming up for teaching this class to be better prepared when they open the class so that they can continue sustaining students and sustaining their business.

In terms of your business what is the biggest challenge? It sounds like turnover.

Yeah, that is correct. One of the things Ranjani and I have been trying to do is find a balance between what the students need to learn the dance versus what the students expect out of this dance.

We have had students come back and tell us that cultural dances don’t enjoy typically the amount of enthusiasm from the crowd that you would get from let’s say, a K-pop song.

There are a lot of claps, a lot of sharing that goes on when you look at a very beat-full song. We really have to make these dances more attractive to the crowd, a more applause-gathering kind of dance that one would expect. That’s kind of hard to make, we have to maybe deviate from the general rules of dance in order to gain the additional beats. For example, we sometimes add in modern music equipment that cultural dance does not actually allow you to have.

The other challenge here is keeping up with the expectations of the parents and the kids with respect to the current age.

Most people want something fast paced with fast learning curves, so, it’s very hard to build muscle memory in a very short period of time, especially when the number of classes are pretty low.

If you could tell a startup business that is similar to your dance company, what would you tell them?

Mingle well. In order to move this art form to non-Indian communities, we need to modernize dance to be more catchy for people from other countries to come in and learn.

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