Let me introduce you to Ali Shabbir- spirited and down to earth entrepreneur from Dubai, who runs a dance school called ‘Off the Hook’.
From being an aeronautical engineer and working with Emirates Airlines to starting his own stationery supply business and juggling between roles of being an Assistant Choreographer, he has done it all.
Ali is well known for his groovy dance moves in Indian Wedding Sangeet (music). He makes sangeet very special by his fun filled and happy dance sequences. He can turn non-dancer family members into stars of the event with his unique dancing style. Bollywood, Salsa, Hip-hop, Belly dancing, Waltz and Rumba - he has got it all covered at his Dubai based dance school "Off The Hook"
Interview with Ali Shabbir
How did you (Ali) decide to become a choreographer?
“Actually I had never decided it as my career. I was always into science and engineering. I got my degree in aeronautical engineering and joined Emirates. But I was always passionate about dance. I never missed an opportunity to dance be it in college events or unwinding after work. I was also part of a dance troupe. Dance was always side- by-side with my studies and work.Gradually I realised my heart lies in dance. Engineering is just something that I am attracted to as a career path. After that I decided to quit my job at Emirates Airlines and I pursued my dream by becoming a dance choreographer.”
What led you to your decision of getting into dance and choreography full time?
“To realise that I could choreograph. The fact that I have the potential in me actually struck as an opportunity. In one of the college events when the choreographer backed off and we didn't have anyone else, I had stepped up and decided to choreograph, unsure of the outcome. But it turned out to be good and I was offered to be an Assistant Choreographer in one of the professional troupe in Dubai. Then one thing led to another and I was getting offers from other clients to choreograph and that’s when I decided to continue it full time."
How was the transition to dance?
“Initially when I was in the Emirates Airlines and I decided to take the leap, I was aware of the financial crunches that I will face.So I had chalked out a business plan in office supplies and stationery which I believed in a lot. So when I had my office supplies business and my dance choreography to a level where I could easily quit my job that’s when I took the decision all by myself because I really believed it would work.”
Did your family and friends support you?
"My parents and family members were unhappy initially because they were very worried that I was leaving aeronautical engineering and getting into choreography and this field is very competitive.Then gradually they got used to it and now they don’t even say, "See I told you, you should have stuck with aeronautical engineering."
"My friends were very supportive. When they heard that I quit my job to pursue office supply business and dance choreography they went out of their way to help me out, trying to get contacts and dance assignments. They offered to be my assistants so that they can help me out through my tough phase. I really thank my friends and family who supported me when I was in the early phase of my life when I had issues with my finances.”
Did you take any formal training to become a choreographer?
“To be very honest I have not taken any formal training when it comes to choreography, but I am a Certified Zumba instructor. When it comes to be training in choreography I have learned a lot on the job as an Assistant Choreographer. Learning tricks on how the choreographer syncs dance moves to music was something I picked up from those experiences. Now choreography is effortless to me and it comes as a flow."
What kind of music do you like to choreograph on?
“My forte has always been Bollywood because I just love Bollywood dances. I love choreographing on songs that have lot of Dhol beats (drums). I love Bhangra. I love Salman Khan Songs as they have lots of beats. I also like to choreograph on party numbers because when the beat drops I just love the effect of that. So Bhangra and Bollywood numbers with lots of beats”
What inspires you to choreograph?
“One thing that I always think about when I am choreographing is what will be the audience’s perspective. What will they like to see, how they will like to enjoy every beat, every rhythm of the music and how they will like to see the rhythm developed in to a dance form. So my idea is to get the audience glued to the dance.”
Do you create choreography based on the dancers or you expect them to fit the choreography?
“I really like this question. I always choreograph based on the skill level of the dancers. I cannot even think of making them do a back flip if they can’t. So every time when I start choreographing I first see the skill level of the dancers. Giving moves according to their skill level is more important if they do it more confidently then it will show in their expressions. I wouldn’t like the dancers to be nervous and struggling on the stage just because I choreographed something and expected them to do whatever I created.”
Who is your favourite choreographer and how much has he/she influenced your work?
“It has to be the one who taught me how to choreograph and who I saw choreographing when I was an assistant choreographer. His name is Channi. He is based in Dubai. He is the one who gave me tips and tricks on how to choreograph and how to come up with new ideas. I really look up to him.
He is still a choreographer, but the funny thing is now that I have branched out we are competitors. On a positive note we are doing choreographies but we never clash and that’s the best part.”
When did you launch Off The Hook?
"November 2010 is the year when I started it."
What are the styles of dancing that you teach?
"I personally teach Bollywood, Hip Hop, Street Jazz and Salsa. We have instructors who teach Belly Dancing and also traditional dances like Garba (Gujarati folk dance), Bhangra (Punjabi folk dance) and Lavani (Maharashtrian folk dance). Among western dances we teach Waltz and Rumba. We try to cater to everyone’s need."
You seem to be kids' favourite dance teacher. How do you manage to do that?
"The only reason why kids enjoy my classes is because I am not strict. I am a very friendly person who becomes a child with them. So they just find a friend in me. And they just don’t mind talking whatever comes to their mind. They are free they are not nervous. They feel happy with me."
"My dance classes have a lot of games and children enjoy those games, and while I am at it I also teach them dance steps."
Any special experience that you want to share while you were training kids
"There are many such moments. But one of them is when children write thank you notes in their own writings and they draw stuff and express their love it becomes very special. While I am teaching they just come and give a tight hug. It feels really special. I really cherish it"
How do you manage to make different age groups dance on the same dance floor at wedding events?
"The main thing is when I step in for a wedding choreography I very well know that all the dancers out there are doing it probably for the first time or they have had bad experience before or probably some are just confident but there are all kinds of people. I am a very patient person by nature. So I never lose it I try to make them as comfortable as I can."
"I try to make the steps very easy and when they do it a couple of times their confidence level rises.Then as my relationship progresses with students and family members who are learning to dance they are more relaxed and they feel, that 'if Ali is giving us a step, we definitely can pull it off !' "
"All of that new confidence just shows on the dance floor and even if I have 40 to 50 people who are 50 year olds who are dancing, they know that if they go on stage and if I am there right in front of them helping them out with their steps, they are going to do an amazing job."
How was the experience to shoot for a Bollywood number?
"It was a great experience having so many professional dancers picking up steps so quickly. They just had a day and they prepared the entire number, even the actor quickly learned it in a day. There are time constraints so everything happens very swiftly.”
It was great working with Virdas on the sets of "Amit Sahani Ki List"
Any message for the aspiring dancers and choreographers
“Don’t listen to everyone. Listen to your heart. People will tell you things; what not to do, what to do. But at the end of the day only you know what you want and especially when it comes to being a dancer or a choreographer friends and family will not be accepting it, because it is a difficult field! It is a creative field and people don’t accept it so quick. But you got to listen to your heart. You got to do what you feel like!”
Interview By: Mitali Rajadithya
Image source: Off The Hook