How dance entrepreneur Jaya Karan took on the pandemic

By Indira Laisram
Jaya Karan's Sapphire & Studio J in Melbourne

One of the absurdities of teaching dance is giving classes online and embracing technology, reflects Jaya Karan, a dancer, and founder of Sapphire and Studio J in Melbourne. Karan now believes this new mode might outlast the pandemic.

Karan had started Sapphire, primarily a professional performing company, 11 years ago. Studio J was founded six years later when she got the opportunity to take over a lease that had a studio space.

Before March last year, her companies enjoyed exponential growth. Sapphire had many performances lined up and Studio J had about 200 enrolments. But as time and the virus wore on, people were dropping off.  “I don’t blame them for a second. Students are used to face to face classes and meeting other adult dancers. They were really coming in for more than one reason,” says Karan.

But the pandemic not only stalled classes, all performances and events also came to a virtual halt.

And going online seemed to epitomise one of the worst elements of the crisis. “At the start, it was stressful figuring things out, trialling different technologies and, on top of that, dealing with the financial aspects. It was tough,” says Karan.

However, Karan soon realised this was her opportunity. Although there were a few virtual gigs, she focussed on running dance classes online and had a decent retention rate.

“The silver lining was that we were getting students from interstate, and people who couldn’t come to Richmond. They all signed up.”

Jaya Karan

Online, as painful as it was at the start, has been the only reason she has been able to keep going and offering a dedicated space for classes and allowing teachers to come in to create choreography and stream online. “It has kept us active and employed and rent just covered. It also gave students flexibility and if they missed classes, they could watch a recording.”

Karan devised her hybrid dance studio—combining inhouse dance classes along with online classes—last November when things opened up. “We went from being in-studio to now being able to have an extra source of avenue for people who can’t come to our studio.”

She is hoping that when things do open up again this November, both studio and online classes will resume. “I hope online continues to grow for us because we have invested so much in it that it would be a shame if that drops off. It is an amazing tool and gives students the flexibility. Especially right now if you have a sniffle, you are supposed to stay at home so even if you miss a class you can watch the class recording.”

If there’s one thing that most people seem to be agree about, it is the impact of dance upon mental, physical and social wellbeing. Which is why Karan, a physiotherapist-turned-dancer, calls her dance companies a passion enterprise.

Karan was born in Canada but is of Fiji-Indian descent. Her parents moved back to Fiji when she was still a baby and then the family migrated to Australia when she was ten.

Jaya Karan

The childhood love for Bollywood and watching Amitabh Bachchan films on video tapes stayed intact. “I loved dancing from a young age and Hindi music did something to me,” she says.

Growing up in Australia, Karan says the focus was on academics and attending high school in rural Gippsland, which was a bit of a struggle. She knew she was always drawn to dancing and it was only when she attended university in Melbourne that her eyes opened.

“Suddenly I saw there were Indian clubs putting their dance productions. I was blown away by the fact that there were now options open for me to explore. So that’s when I started Bollywood dancing, joining some groups, says Karan, adding, “I have a deep-seated love and passion for Bollywood dance but never took it seriously.” She would go on to complete her physiotherapy degree as dance, she was told, could not be a career option.

At the same time, Karan thought it was too late to take up dance training, so she was  enjoying the gigs on the side. She was still very much on that mindset till she got into her early 30s and had kids. “Something shifted. Having a child does make you review your goals and your life. Also, I had an encouraging husband who said, ‘follow your heart’.

So, at the age of 32, Karan signed up for Bharatnatyam dance classes. Things just grew from there. She realised dancing gave her the confidence to run her own Bollywood dance troupe. Today, Sapphire and Studio J are the products of her passion. It also shows age is no barrier to following one’s life calling.

2019 was an insane year, recalls Karan. Studio J had 200 students and as Sapphire, the team travelled to Darwin for the India@Mindil Beach Festival in June. They were also flown to a little island called Guam, three hours south of Philippines, to perform for a Diwali event. They also went to Karachi to perform at the National Academy of Performing Arts. And Sapphire packed in 40 gigs locally in Melbourne for the two weeks of Diwali.

Jaya Karan’s Sapphire & Studio J in Melbourne

Artistic mentorship and dance have a certain level of passion and devotion. And Karan has plenty of that. Her penchant is fusion and she teaches Bollynatyam drawing on her love for Bollywood and Bharatnatyam training to adapt a semiclassical style to Bollywood music.

Asked if the distinction between Bollywood and other classical dances are starting to be clear for the wider audience, Karan says, “Bollywood dance draws heavily on folk, classical styles, it’s a melting pot. There is a lot of that happening. I can see why the lines are blurred and people are confused. Whether it’s becoming clearer I don’t know, to be honest.”

Karan isn’t troubled by classical purists who constantly go ‘that’s mine’. “At the end of the day, dance should be entertaining. It should bring an emotion. Fighting over ownership will stifle creativity. That’s my belief.”

With Melbourne coming out of lockdown, Karan is building on her professional goals of seeing organically what the work or the demand is in terms of her dance and styles. She is definitely adding to her courses ‘Garba’, a dance form which originates from the Indian state of Gujarat and also the Sri Lankan dance of Kandyan.

“I just want to offer styles that have not been out in the mainstream to flourish,” she sums up. And embracing, of course, the online model as an effective tool to accomplish that.

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