How do you heal a community through dance and not feel like an impostor?

Jignal Bhagvandas

May 22, 2021

In 2014, Jignal was a fourth year medical student with a passion for dance and community. She sought to help out others through creating Arogya Mantra - a charitable trust board that would govern Aaja Nachle; a community dance school that also offers up free medical screenings during classes and community events. Initially started as a project with other med students; Jignal drove to Auckland from Hamilton every weekend to devote her time to teaching members of her community to dance and look after their health.

This interview is dear to our heart because Cheerag, Jignal's husband reached out to us saying that we have to interview his wonderful wife because, and I quote "she has MAD imposter syndrome." He thought it would help other young ethnic girls hear from her. And darn, we are so glad he reached out... 😊

What inspired you or called you to becoming a doctor? (They say that there's a 'calling' for people in medicine, did you hear that call?)

I actually wrote in my year 1 portfolio at school that ‘I wanted to be the colour purple when I grow up’ lol. At some point my parents told me this was not possible so I started saying I wanted to be a police officer or a judge.

My parents are curious creatures, while they are fairly progressive, they are pretty brown and talked me out of those options.

I specifically remember being told my life may be in danger if I were to pursue being a cop or involved with the law and criminals lol. At some point I started saying I wanted to be a doctor instead and they leapt onto that and were like YESSS. I don’t think you really understand what any of these jobs entail when you’re a kid, I especially had no context given none of my family members were involved in medicine, law or anything outside of business (I grew up in a dairy!).

I reflected on medicine seriously when I was in university doing the pre-med year. Engineering came up at some point but I didn’t pursue it because my brother wanted to do that and we are fairly competitive.

A lot of people say they knew from the outset and they were destined for medicine, which is great but it certainly was not the case for me - I think I just fell into it, but am so grateful for that!

I think I always wanted to pursue a career where I gave back in some way. I used to get quite upset when we travelled back to India as a child because I hated seeing poverty. I mean who enjoys seeing poverty? I remember feeling such overwhelming emotions when I met a child my own age begging for food and tapping on my car window every day at the same spot when we would go into town. He would get angry because I couldn’t give him more, I didn’t really understand why our uncles and aunties were shooing him away and there was always such obvious resentment in his eyes.

It makes you wonder, really early on in life why some are born with more opportunity than others, what makes some of us numb to this and our place in the world, if we have access to power and/or privilege by winning the ‘cosmic lottery’ of life?

In New Zealand, my parents ran dairy shops and much of my time was spent there playing and helping them. We would see customers from all walks of life. You get to know the families in the area and go to school with the same kids. Some couldn’t afford essentials like milk and bread.

My father is a compassionate human and is an idealist by nature. He ran his dairies because he had to make ends meet but he would always teach my brother and I the importance of showing kindness, giving back and hard work. Despite coming to NZ with little more than his suitcase and no university degree, he has given us a comfortable life while giving back to his community both in Auckland and in India. He encouraged us pretty early on to be visionary and to ignore the haters. My dad has an interesting lineage with cousins in South Africa that were freedom fighters (and recently released with Nelson Mandela). The village he is from is called Dandi beach where Mahatma Gandhi began the salt march that sparked India's independence from the British. I’m sure that all had some impact on me and in part is where I derive my value system from.


Jignal and her dad looking suave in a hat and glasses, both smiling

What do you feel inside of yourself when you dance and when you teach others how to dance?

I love dancing. It makes me so happy. I cannot imagine a world without music and dance. It has played such a big role in my life. I grew up doing ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, jazz, bharatanatyam, contemporary and Bollywood dancing. I would enter competitions every month, perform every weekend and do about 15 hours of classes every week. It was my escape from reality and taught me how to persevere and work hard. 

I had some really interesting experiences as a dancer in the western and brown world that have helped shape me today. I remember I used to do ballet and gymnastics (so would be wearing a leotard and tights a lot of the time at home) and some of the Indian friends by parents knew would make rude remarks, questioning their parenting and would be quite uncomfortable with me sitting there showing my bare legs. I used to wonder why there was so much drama... Now that I am older I can see the inter generational gap, cultural issues and also how much we have progressed as a society over this time. I am really grateful for those experiences, though they were tricky and the support my parents showed me because they built character and taught me resilience early on in life. It would have been very easy for them to say no and pull me out but they didn’t and would always encourage me to keep going!

People often ask me why I don't make dance videos of myself or why I don’t promote my own dancing. I have zero interest in taking the limelight or ‘proving’ myself. That bug died as soon as I began to teach my first class at age of 17 and I was pretty happy with the dance related accolades I had gathered by then. I made it a point to not include myself in the dances I taught students (I only took part if they desperately needed numbers or some strength - I am great at lifting people!). I also stopped personally taking part in competitions. I think I only did one after I began to teach because I was young and pressured into it - but felt really uncomfortable about it and vowed to never again. 

Though I do not teach dancing any more, I really enjoy it! It is incredibly fulfilling to empower someone else with your knowledge and let them then pass that love and passion onto others.

You get to explore concepts through your choreography like equality and cultural identity. It might even just be about hard work or having fun but there are many opportunities to relate their work back to life and create beautiful ‘life lessons’ out of your dance lessons (does life imitate art or art imitate life? I love that old philosophical question...).

Current dance school teachers - doing their "now let's do a fun one" camera pose :) 

Tell us about the dance school! So how's it all going now?

The dance school has grown and continues to grow every year. It’s a social enterprise and is governed by the charity Arogya Mantra. It blows my mind that we are finally at a stage where it runs itself. I used to hope and dream that it would one day stand on its own two feet like this, providing opportunities for employment, empowerment and of course culture and art - we are finally here!

We have a model in which we can use dance as a tool to foster health, culture, and our kiwi migrant perspective in a manner which is sustainable and community led. I think when you put this much hard work and soul into something, it's bound to succeed.

The two organisations have grown beyond myself and anything that we have achieved is a direct result of the hard work our dedicated team of teachers, students, managers and well wishers put into the school, the charity and their community.

Let’s talk about impostor syndrome - almost everyone we’ve interviewed felt like they were not good enough or didn’t fit in some way. It’s quite a shocking reality that all of you amazing people can feel that way - yet it’s reassuring that we are all having a very human experience! What’s your relationship with impostor syndrome?

Yes for sure. I used to feel anxious or out of place and still do from time to time. Medicine is cool but it feels like a club sometimes, one that I don’t belong to. A lot of people have family members in the field or parents that at least have a university degree. I used to have nightmares that I’d get to work and they’d be like ‘why are you here’ or ‘this doctor made the biggest mistake!’

I have an amazing role model and mentor in Veena Joshi (she is the chairwoman of our school and charity). She’s pretty tough, gutsy and I have utmost respect for her. I have said some incredibly stupid things around her like ‘We should get a guy to say that, because they won’t listen to girls’ and she's just like ‘excuse me’... I love that. She always tells us to dream big and ask for everything we are entitled to. I learn so much just by being around her.

She has achieved so much and embraces the colour of her skin, her femininity, motherhood and her culture. If she managed to do that and achieve a position of power as a first generation migrant in her time, it’s surely more than possible for a second generation migrant such as myself in this day and age. 

Outside of that, I have a few other role models: a fierce cousin and my own parents that always tell me I can do whatever I put my mind to. My husband is pretty amazing too <3 (shout out to Cheerag!). I think you need to recognise you have imposter syndrome, dive into your support network and talk about it and then try and work through it. I try to use acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to move past it. There are patterns that I have learnt to recognise. For example, when I feel myself getting stressed or anxious, I ask myself why I feel this way rather than spiralling down a rabbit hole. I try to reflect on it and see if it aligns with my value system. If it doesn’t, talk myself out of it.

The space I occupy at dance is really therapeutic too as our dancers work on performances to explore feminism, patriarchy & self confidence.  I always make a point of telling the management at our school, students, teachers, volunteers (that are often migrants, Asian, young, generally female) that they are more than enough and to also recognise imposter syndrome! I think if our school didn’t have a strong value system like this, I probably would have lost interest in it. 

Jignal in a beautiful pink dress with her husband Cheerag who is giving his wife the "I love you" look

Do you have any recent ponderings on the things you want to see in this world?

So many ponderings! My top 5 would be:

  • Dance is just as important as math and science. Why do we underestimate dancers and dance education? Truly appreciating and mastering dance requires just as much intelligence as you must exercise for conventional subjects like math, science and english. 
  • People need to stop underestimating youth. Stop making barriers for them and being a hater. Young people are our future and should be encouraged. I am so optimistic about the future because we have a generation of absolute superstars in the making! 
  • Governments, businesses and PEOPLE need to invest in community led, grass roots initiatives. Appreciate the stuff that works and the models that are sustainable and celebrate them! We know so many awesome groups in the wider Asian, Pacifica, Māori and migrant circles sharing the same kaupapa as us, but unfortunately they have limited resources and cannot continue their awesome mahi as you can only keep volunteers engaged for so long. 
  • Global citizenship is an important concept that needs to be taught in schools. I find it fascinating that many don’t see beyond themselves or understand this notion of the ‘cosmic lottery in life’!
  • Women are amazing. I am so proud to be one and love my network of fierce friends, family and supporters. It's a double edge sword but the tide is changing and - well, what a time to be alive!
Goofy dance students. One of the kiddos is still with us today (Harsha) and was one of Jignal's first students!

So, how was the read? Share Jignal's wonderful story with anyone who might resonate with the whole impostor syndrome situation and needs some reassurance that we are all in it together ❤️

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