Sometimes the world just isn’t ready for you. Dancer and actress Reshma Gajjar learned that early on, when she struggled to book gigs because of her ethnicity. But eventually the universe caught up—after a transformative experience working with children in India, Reshma returned stronger than ever to forge a career that has included film, television and touring with Madonna.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Yes, I do. I auditioned for a dance scholarship at the EDGE Performing Arts Center. I was in college in Santa Cruz at the time. I didn't know you could be a dancer; I didn't even know I wanted to be a dancer until the scholarship was presented.
I remember coming to LA and auditioning for this scholarship, getting it, and feeling like my life was literally about to change. It felt like the clouds parted and the sun was shining on my face. It was the first time in my life I had so much clarity about where I was going, and what I was about to do. It’s still one of the best years of my life, being on that scholarship, because I was finally in alignment with my element.
Why did you choose to pursue a dance scholarship?
I started dancing when I was three. My mom put me in dance classes because she thought I had a lot of energy. She wanted to put me in bharatanatyam, which is Indian classical dance, but she couldn't find a studio where we lived. So, she put me in ballet, tap, jazz, tumbling, and Polynesian, which were the first types of dance I learned. I fell in love with it! Nobody nurtured it in me to do it as a profession. It was totally a hobby, an after-school kind of activity.
Then I went to college, because that’s what you do where I’m from. Education is first. So I’m on my way to college, but I don’t know what I want to study, I’m thinking maybe marine biology.
I was at UC Santa Cruz and I started feeling depressed. I felt like my whole body was sad. I decided to take a dance class because it was something familiar, and that was when everything changed. The dance teacher asked what I was doing there. I said, “I'm studying biology. I'm going to be a marine biologist.”
Yeah, obviously. She saw potential in me and introduced me to a world of dance conventions that I didn't know existed. I did not know you could be a professional dancer. I don't know why it never occurred to me before. I would watch movies with dancers in them, but I would never see anyone that looked like me. So, I guess didn't connect the dots that it was something that I could do.
So, that's how it happened. And then I got the scholarship.
What was that conversation like with your parents?
That was the beginning of months of crying, and trying to convince them. I think for them, especially being Indian immigrants, it was such a foreign and scary career path. They want something “safe and stable,” like a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Dancing is not something that is respected as a profession, especially in our culture.
It was the first time in my life that I basically told them that I was going to do it with or without their support. But I really wanted their blessing. This stand made them realize I wasn't joking around. It wasn't like that time I wanted to be a basketball player. It wasn’t fickle or fleeting. I was serious and I was going to do it without them.
They got smart and said, “Well, as long as you go to college and finish your degree, we'll support your decision.” And I was like, “Oh that's it? Sure! I'll do that!” It was the hardest thing ever, but I was willing to do whatever it took to make them feel comfortable.
It took a toll on my dance career, because I couldn't put 100 percent into it—both got 50 percent of my attention. I earned a degree in business law, and as a dancer I didn’t actually end up working until I finally graduated college. I was going to every audition regardless of what typecast the job asked for. The call would be for tall white girls and I would still go to the audition. I was super eager and I knew I’d be practicing auditioning and, if anything, get a free dance class out of it.
From just the process of auditioning?
Yeah, and I had the energy. But in the beginning I wasn’t working. It was so heartbreaking and the struggle was real. I was disheartened and uninspired by the self-obsessed and discriminative nature of show business. In order to salvage whatever love I had for the craft of dance, I decided to stop. I took a break and went to India to serve my motherland. My friend reached out to me and told me about a nonprofit he’d started called IndiCorps. It’s like the Peace Corps for India. It's for people who are of Indian descent to do development work in service to India while getting to know their country. Service for the soul. I started working on a project choreographing a musical for underserved kids in the slums.
Those kids taught me so much. They were incredibly talented, and I realized that they would never have the opportunities I have just by being an American. It really put things into perspective for me. I felt that if I didn't go back to LA and follow my “dreams,” it would be an insult to all of them.
I went back to LA with this feeling of, “It’s not about the work. I just want to do it because I love it.” If I'm dancing every day, then I'm a dancer regardless of whether I make money doing it—money doesn't define me as an artist. That year, I started booking jobs and eventually got my first Madonna tour.
Shut up! It sounds like you had a big mental shift.
Yeah. I also think it was timing. Sometimes the world just isn’t ready. You know what I mean? I wasn't ready, but also the world wasn't ready for me. It was almost like the universe and my soul knew—they just had to go on some journeys, kill time and learn some lessons before the time could be right.
So, Madonna. How was that?
That was a dream come true. Literally, a dream. It was my first big professional dance experience, and I had no idea what to expect. Everybody on that tour was so full of light; the vibe of the group was really, really positive. There was a documentary made called I'm Going to Tell You a Secret about that tour and all of us on it. I think the fact that it was documented added to what a magical experience it was.
Can you describe what the tour was like?
We rehearsed for months, ten-hour days, full weeks, one day off. We practiced on a soundstage with tape marked on the ground to mark out the stage. We were dressed in practice costumes. Not only were we rehearsing and workshopping the dances, but at the same time there were choreographers auditioning their work to be in the show. We had to learn their pieces, and present them to Madonna and her artistic director. At times we had to learn something like 20 different versions of the same dance—our brains were like scrambled eggs by the end of the day! It was so rigorous.
Then we rehearsed at the Forum for about a month. Everyday just working on the stage, alongside Madonna, learning the cues and lights. It’s all very calculated. There was very little room for improvisation.
I enjoyed every time I got a cue with Madonna, because that meant I got to connect with her onstage. When you’re dancing with someone as opposed to next to them, it really changes the dynamics. I always really cherished those moments.
Did you have a relationship with her outside of dancing?
We did cultivate a connection on that tour but I knew she was still my boss. I didn’t ever get that twisted. Its was very important to me to be professional first, and do my job. She hired me to do that. She didn't hire me to be her friend.
That being said, my experience was that she loved her dancers and musicians. She wanted us around and at all of her parties.
How do you get paid for something like this?
There's no union when it comes to touring rates for dancers. So it's totally a negotiation. I've danced for many artists on many tours, and my rates have always been different. If you work in television and film, you have to join the union SAG/ AFTRA, which have set rates. For music videos, there's not really a specific rate, which is why people try to do the Dancers Alliance rate. A bunch of dancers finally got together and created an organization called Dancers Alliance, which is an agreement to abide by a certain rate. Obviously, there are a lot of dancers out there who'll do things for free because they want to, but it sets the bar really low if people think they can just get dancers for free. Most dancers have agents who help with rates, deal with contracts and make sure we get paid.
What kind of things are you doing right now?
Right now I’m cultivating the artist in me as a whole and focusing on acting. Back in the day, I was in dance class every day, going to auditions all the time, but now I finally don’t have to hustle as a dancer anymore. I've been lucky—I'm riding the momentum and still work consistently. I'm going to be a dancer forever, there's no question about that. We already know that if I stop, I get depressed, right? [Laughs]
Acting must be a similar process to dancing. Have you learned to deal with the rejection?
You’re rejected on a regular basis. In the beginning, I think I was taking it personally because I knew I wasn't getting gigs because of how I looked. I was good enough as a dancer to make it to the end of every audition, but then I wouldn’t get the gig. I would see that they wanted a white girl, a black girl, a Latin girl, but I was too exotic, too ethnic. That really got to me. That's when I was like, "You know what? Is this too much about the self?" I started feeling a little crazy, which is why I left and went to India.
I don't ever take it personally anymore. You just aren’t right for the project. Being a dancer really trained me to not let it bother me for the rejection that comes with acting.
I always tell people who want to be dancers that you have to love it. There’s a lot of rejection, it’s not a money-making profession, and you're at the bottom of the chain with few perks. So, dance because you love it—otherwise there really is no point. I think that’s why dancers are such resilient, special people. We really love our lives and what we do. And that is the best life to live.
Do your parents still hope you'll be a lawyer?
They're both my number-one fans. I think they definitely accepted the fact that I am an artist. As soon as I started working, they saw that I could do this. There was one point in college when they could see that I was struggling and they said, "You know what? If you don't want to finish college, it's okay.” They literally let me off the hook! And I was like, "Oh, hell no! I did not come this far to not finish." They're very proud.
How do you define your identity as an Indian American?
I see myself as a first-generation American, with immigrant parents that came from India. I very much identify with that. A big part of my childhood was being an immigrant's daughter. We were also very frugal growing up. We got things because we needed them, not because we wanted them. My American friends couldn’t relate to my experience of having to think about it for a week before I could buy something I wanted at the mall. They were very protective of me and I wasn't allowed to hang out with friends for no reason. I didn't have a curfew because I was not allowed to go out at night. Little things like that made me feel different.
I was brought up in a very conservative home where two cultures clashed. Trying to be an American, but hold onto the values that my parents brought from India. My parents really wanted to instill those values in me, while be “American” enough to succeed in this country.
How do you feel when you go to India?
I love India so much. I'm very connected to it. Part of me wishes I could just live in India and live that life. I lived in Bombay, which is a very unique global city. But it is nothing like the rest of India, where there are beautiful villages and it's lush and lovely. I do fantasize about what it would have been like to grow up there. What would my life look like?
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Somebody told me something once that really stuck with me. In the entertainment industry, whether you're a dancer or an actor, it's a “last man standing” game. It's not about how talented you are—yes, you must be talented, but talented people don't always make it. It's not about how beautiful you are—yes, beauty helps but a lot of beautiful people don't make it. It's not about how many connections you have—even if you have the connections, it doesn't mean you’ll make it. To make it, you have to be the last man standing.
That’s why I say, “Love what you do.” Because if you love what you do, it doesn't matter if you “make it.” What defines success is up to you, right? If you go with that, then you'll always be happy because you're doing what you love. Eventually the timing will align, and if it works in your favor, you'll end up having the career that you want. But you must have perseverance.
Interested in listening to Reshma's interview? Check it out here.