How Dubai-based NRI Ancy Alexander dances disability away… and normalises life



Dubai-based Ancy Alexander was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was all of four-and-a-half. She’s now in her late 30s, and has led a life less ordinary — turning her disability into a triumph: she’s a trained Kathak and Bharatanatyam dancer, still evolving, still learning, and sharing her performative skills with her catchment of students with disabilities, for who she’s a mentor, a teacher, and a trail-blazer in the sphere of “inclusive dance workshops”. Dance, for Ancy, has been the road to normalising her life — as an expat in a country that has actually done away with the ‘tag’ of disability and replaced it with the rousing sobriquet of ‘People of Determination’.

She’s also a qualified PR professional, a writer, a part-time lecturer at Middlesex University (teaching professional communications for creative careers), and a businesswoman (she helps her father run a “male-dominated” automobile maintenance — “fixing cars, washing giant truck and trailers”). But dance remains closest to her heart. “Because dance constitutes my defining personal journey — having faced all sorts of challenges and criticisms, where every remark used to sting a little more, and every scar ran a little deeper.”

At the time of her initial diagnosis, the doctor suggested movement-based activities like dance and swimming, alongside physiotherapy, for her. “Swimming is something I — unfortunately — didn’t really get to dive into,” she laughs, “But with dance, I got super lucky, because the late Guru S Natarajan, who conducted his Bharatanatyam classes out of his apartment in Karama back then, sowed the seeds in me when I was a young child. He never made me feel I was ‘different’.” So much so, that she was able to tide over the feeling of exclusion she experienced in school, where she could never take part in talent competitions or dance shows — “from Grade 1 to Grade 12”.

The turning point in her dance saga came when she was in her 20s, and she watched a Kathak performance by Dr Guru Pali Chandra, which “mesmerised” her. “I remember thinking, there’s no way I am getting accepted into a Kathak class: I have cerebral palsy, and my nerves are so tender, if I tried to spin, I’d probably pass out from the dizziness! Plus, my ankles were not strong enough to handle that kind of movement. But I decided to take a chance, and spoke to Dr Pali about my condition, and said I wanted to attend a class. ‘What do you think?’ I asked her. And she was like, ‘What do I think about what?’ And I said, ‘What do you think about me studying Kathak?’ She simply asked me, ‘Why can’t you study Kathak?’, and added, ‘I’ll see you in class’. It was as straightforward as that.”

Ancy trained under Dr Pali for five years. “But she had to move to Europe to join her husband, and that’s when I landed on able-bodied reality with a thud… I realised, wow, the discrimination is very real… people were looking down on me by treating me like I was a five year old.” She realized it would not be easy for her to find a dance class where she didn’t have to explain her condition, and be apologetic about it and hope for some crumbs of pity. Which made her want to become a trainer to help out those who were in a similar situation. Later, in 2019, she went to the US for an intensive training on teaching and choreographing adaptive dance, just to understand the dynamics of it and how it works. “I was blown away.”

Since she returned, she’s been conducting inclusive dance workshops in different locations all over the UAE, other than “volunteering time to teach adaptive dance to students at Mawaheb” (Mawaheb is a creative space in Dubai ‘for adults with special needs to hone their artistic expression and develop essential life skills’).

It’s important for her, she says, because only when “you work with these people over a period of time, and specifically in creative movement, you see what they have to contribute”. She’s clear she’s not “doing some charity service, or that I am on a mission”. Mostly importantly, “They are no longer just disabled people.”

As an offshoot, Ancy’s has been actively voicing concerns over “inspiration porn”: special needs people being made to “look” inspiring without any sense of inclusion, or any attempt to normalise disability. She speaks about her own challenges: “Being a South Indian girl with a disability in the work ecosystem, I have heard comments like, ‘You are way too confident for a brown girl with a disability’. I’ve even been told my overconfidence is going to get in the way of my disability. I’m supposed to be this submissive, very-not-confident, people-pleasing individual. So I usually keep saying ‘If you’re going to judge me on the basis of how I walk when it comes to work, you’re going to be disappointed… Why am I supposed to put on this act of being helpless? If I need help, I will ask for help… and that’s it.”

She also says she wants to contest this whole idea of reality shows across India, where “the talent of people with disabilities is turned into a massive pity party situation… you know, this ridiculous violin music that plays every time somebody with a disability is introduced to a panel of judges.”

A sense of maximum inclusion in mainstream schools is very important. “Because someone grows up and looks at somebody with a disability dancing or singing, they don’t see the craft first — they see the disability.” It’s like when you listen to a piece by Beethoven, “you don’t have to compulsively think he was deaf”.

Ancy conducting an adaptive dance class

Take 5 with Ancy

Being an Indian expat in the UAE

“I’ve not grown up feeling like an expat. This [the UAE] has been home. Of course, the only thing that I do feel sometimes is maybe I’ve maybe I’ve grown up in a particular kind of shell… you know, one is so comfortable here. When I go back home to my mom’s place in Kerala, or any other place in India, it’s almost like I do not know how to operate there.”

Her idea of ‘settling down’

“I want to be in both India and Dubai. I have these visuals of this massive space filled with people with different disabilities all dancing together — and these are spaces both in Dubai and in India.”

Her biggest inspiration

“My father. He’s seen some ridiculous kind of hardships in his life. But he persevered with a lot of grace… almost regally. There’s something about him, like you look at him and it’s like looking at the rising sun. And I’m not being partial… I’ve had so people tell me this!”

Best compliment she’s ever received

“It was not a spoken compliment… I felt it. There was an event at the Indian consulate where I was invited to speak. My father was in the audience, and when I got off the stage and walked up to him, he had tears in his eyes… he just held me and gave me a kiss on my forehead. I put my hand in the grip of his arm, and he just sat there holding me tight. I think that was the biggest compliment — he spoke from his heart.”

Her definition of life

“The wise people who created dance and drama and the arts coined the word ‘Navarasa’: the nine emotions/expressions — love, humour, wonder, courage, calmness, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust — pretty much comprise the experience life packs in… it’s like a thali, it balances everything out.” – The writer is Consulting Editor of


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.